How to Do Family Worship
Family worship has fallen on hard times. Parents often say they are too busy to do it. Or else they don’t know how to do it because their parents never did it.
When my parents commemorated their fiftieth anniversary, all five of us children decided to express thanks to our father and mother for one thing without consulting each other. Remarkably, all five of us thanked our mother for her prayers, and all five us thanked our father for his leadership of our special Sunday evening family worship. My brother said, “Dad, the oldest memory I have is of tears streaming down your face as you taught us from Pilgrim’s Progress on Sunday evenings how the Holy Spirit leads believers. At the age of three God used you in family worship to convict me that Christianity was real. No matter how far I went astray in later years, I could never seriously question the reality of Christianity, and I want to thank you for that.”
Christians have long recognized that God often uses family worship to bring reformation and revival to the church. For example, the 1677 church covenant of the Puritan congregation in Dorchester, Massachusetts, included the commitment “to reform our families, engaging ourselves to a conscientious care to set before us and to maintain the worship of God in them; and to walk in our houses with perfect hearts in a faithful discharge of all domestic duties, educating, instructing, and charging our children and households to keep the ways of the Lord.”
Given the importance of family worship as a potent force in winning untold millions to gospel truth throughout the ages, we ought not be surprised that God requires heads of households do all they can to lead their families in worshiping the living God. As Joshua declared, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:15). This word serve is translated as “worship” many times in Scripture.
Family worship will require some preparation. You should pray for God’s blessing upon that worship. Have your Bibles ready and a Scripture passage selected. Catechisms and books of questions and answers for children are very helpful. Sometimes you might read through a book like John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress or Holy War and discuss it together. Choose some psalms and hymns that are easy to sing. Pick a place to gather, such as the supper table or living room. Set the times for family worship, ordinarily at breakfast and supper but as it fits your family’s needs. Whatever times you set, carefully guard those times like a precious jewel.
During family worship, aim for brevity. Don’t provoke your children. If you worship twice a day, try ten minutes in the morning and twenty-five in the evening. Be consistent. It is better to have twenty minutes of family worship every day than to try for extended periods on fewer days—say, forty-five minutes on Monday, then skipping Tuesday.
Don’t indulge excuses to avoid family worship. If you are tired, deny yourself out of love for God and your family. Even if you lost your temper a half-hour before family worship time, don’t neglect it out of false humility. Instead, begin family worship by confessing your sins to your family and seeking their forgiveness in the presence of God. As A. W. Pink said, “It is not the sins of a Christian, but his unconfessed sins, which choke the channel of blessing and cause so many to miss God’s best.”
Lead family worship with a firm, fatherly hand and a soft, penitent heart. Speak with hopeful solemnity. Talk naturally yet reverently during this time, using the tone you would use when speaking to a deeply respected friend about a serious matter. Expect great things from a great covenant-keeping God.
According to Scripture, God should be served in special acts of worship in families today in the following three ways.
Daily Instruction in the Word of God
God should be worshiped by daily reading and instruction from his Word. Through questions, answers, and instructions, parents and children are to interact daily with each other about sacred truth. As Deuteronomy 6:6–7 says, “And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.”
When those words were first written, most believers did not have access to a precious scroll of Holy Scripture. They had to teach their children from passages of Scripture which they heard and memorized. In this age most believers have the tremendous privilege of having the Bible in their own native language. Let’s take full advantage of this privilege by reading the Bible together. When reading and teaching the Bible as a family, consider these suggestions.
1. Have a reading plan. Read ten or twenty verses from the Old Testament in the morning and ten to twenty from the New Testament in the evening. Or read a series of parables, miracles, or historical portions. Just be sure to read the entire Bible over a period of time. As J. C. Ryle said, “Fill their minds with Scripture. Let the Word dwell in them richly. Give them the Bible, the whole Bible, even while they are young.”
2. Involve the family. Every family member who can read should have a Bible to follow along. Set the tone by reading Scripture with expression, as the living, breathing book it is. Assign various portions to be read by your wife and your children. Teach your children how to read articulately and with expression. Don’t let them mumble or speed ahead. Teach them to read with reverence. Provide a brief word of explanation throughout the reading, according to the needs of the younger children.
3. Be plain in meaning. Ask your children if they understand what you are reading. Be plain in applying scriptural texts. The 1647 Church of Scotland Directory for Family Worship wisely teaches us that if a sin is rebuked in the Word, then call the family to keep watch against it; if a judgment is threatened, warn them of it; if a duty is commanded, press it upon them; if a promise is offered, then urge them to trust it and receive its comfort.
4. Encourage family dialogue around God’s Word in line with the Hebraic procedure of household question and answer (see Exod. 12:26–27; 13:14–15). That’s where the Family Worship Bible Guide can help you. Read aloud with your family the thoughts for each Bible chapter each day. Talk about the thoughts expressed. Answer the questions asked. Especially encourage teenagers to ask questions; draw them out. If you don’t know the answers, tell them so, and encourage them to search for answers. Have one or more good commentaries on hand, such as those by John Calvin, Matthew Poole, and Matthew Henry. Remember, if you don’t provide answers for your children, they will get them elsewhere—and often those will be wrong answers.
5. Be pure in doctrine. Titus 2:7 says, “In all things showing thyself a pattern of good works: in doctrine showing uncorruptness, gravity, sincerity.” Don’t abandon doctrinal precision when teaching young children; aim for simplicity and soundness.
6. Be relevant in application. Don’t be afraid to share your experiences when appropriate, but do that simply and concisely. Use concrete illustrations. Ideally, tie together biblical instruction with what you recently heard in sermons.
7. Be affectionate in manner. Proverbs continually uses the phrase “my son,” showing the warmth, love, and urgency in the teachings of a God-fearing father. When you must administer the wounds of a friendly father to your children, do that with heartfelt love. Tell them you must convey the whole counsel of God because you can’t bear the thought of spending eternity apart from them. My father often said to us, with tears: “Children, I cannot miss any of you in heaven.” Tell your children, “We will allow you every privilege an open Bible will allow us to give you—but if we say no to you, you must know that flows out of our love.” As Ryle said, “Love is one grand secret of successful training. Soul love is the soul of all love.”
8. Require attention. Proverbs 4:1 says, “Hear, ye children, the instruction of a father, and attend to know understanding.” Fathers and mothers have important truths to convey. You must demand a hearing for God’s truths in your home. That may involve repeated statements at the beginning like these: “Sit up, son, and look at me when I’m talking. We’re talking about God’s Word, and God deserves to be heard.” Don’t allow children to leave their seats during family worship.
Daily Prayer Before the Throne of God
Does not the command to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17) include when we are with our families? Families eat and drink the daily provision of a gracious God at their tables. To do that in Christian way, a family must follow 1 Timothy 4:4–5, “For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.”
Again, let me offer some specific guidelines for leading the family in prayer.
1. Be short. With few exceptions, don’t pray for more than five minutes. Tedious prayers do more harm than good. Don’t teach in your prayer; God doesn’t need the instruction. Teach with your eyes open; pray with your eyes shut.
2. Be simple without being shallow. Pray for things that your children know something about, but don’t allow your prayers to become trivial. Don’t reduce your prayers to self-centered, shallow petitions.
3. Be direct. Spread your needs before God, plead your case, and ask for mercy. Name your teenagers and children and their needs one by one on a daily basis. That holds tremendous weight with them.
4. Be natural yet solemn. Speak clearly and reverently. Don’t use an unnatural, high-pitched voice or a monotone. Don’t pray too loudly or softly, too fast to be understood or too slow to hold attention.
5. Be varied. Don’t pray the same thing every day; that becomes tedious. Develop more variety in prayer by remembering and stressing the various ingredients of true prayer, such as calling upon God to hear your prayers, adoring God for his titles and attributes, declaring your humble dependence and need, confessing family sins, asking for family mercies (both material and spiritual), interceding for friends, churches, and the nations, giving thanks for God’s blessings, and blessing God for his kingdom, glory, and power. Use a prayer list to remember different persons and organizations on different days. Mix these ingredients with different proportion to get variety in your prayers.
Daily Singing the Praise of God
Psalm 118:15 says, “The voice of rejoicing and salvation is in the tabernacles [or tents] of the righteous: the right hand of the Lord doeth valiantly.” That is a clear reference to singing. Every Christian family should own a few copies of a good psalter (psalms set to meter and music) and hymnal from which to sing. If one of you can play the piano, all the better. But even recorded music is helpful. Use whatever means you can to assist your family to sing God’s praises together.
1. Sing doctrinally pure songs. There is no excuse for singing doctrinal error no matter how attractive the tune might be.
2. Sing psalms first and foremost without neglecting sound hymns. Remember that the Psalms, called by Calvin “an anatomy of all parts of the soul,” are the richest gold mine of deep, living, experiential scriptural piety available to us still today.
3. Sing heartily and with feeling. As Colossians 3:23 says, “And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men.” Meditate on the words you are singing. On occasion discuss a phrase that is sung.
Believers in Christ follow in the footsteps of Abraham’s faith, and we must also follow in the footsteps of Abraham’s obedient leadership of his family. “For I know him,” God said, “that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment; that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him” (Gen. 18:19).
John Paton served as a missionary over a century ago to a cannibalistic people in the islands of the south Pacific Ocean. Those people killed and ate the missionaries who had preceded Paton within minutes of their arrival. Paton faced enormous difficulties and sorrows. But he persevered in the name of Christ. One earthly means by which God prepared him for his labors was his father in Scotland. In later years Paton looked back upon his father with great gratitude.
Paton’s father worked out of a shop in their house. Their family had a small room in their home which was their prayer closet. John was deeply affected by his father’s regular devotion to prayer in that room. He remembered, “Thither daily, and oftentimes a day, generally after each meal, we saw our father retire, and ‘shut the door’; and we children got to understand . . . that prayers were being poured out there for us, as of old by the High Priest within the veil in the Most High Place.” The Paton children could sometimes hear their father’s voice full of emotion, pleading for them before the throne of grace.
Paton also remembered, “When, on his knees and all of us kneeling around him in family worship, he poured out his whole soul with tears for the conversion of the heathen world to the service of Jesus, and for every personal and domestic need, we all felt as if in the presence of the living Savior, and learned to know and love Him as our Divine Friend.”
When John Paton left his home to go to Glasgow to study theology and do urban evangelism, he had to walk forty miles before coming to a train station. His father walked the first six miles with him. They spoke about the Lord, and his father gave him counsel. Then for the last half-mile they walked in silence. His father’s lips still moved, but now in silent prayer for his son, while tears streamed down his face. When they came to the place of their parting, father grasped son by the hand, and said, “God bless you, my son! Your father’s God prosper you, and keep you from all evil.” Overcome by emotion, he could say no more, but his lips continued to move in silent prayer. John Paton later wrote, while reflecting on this experience, “I vowed deeply and oft, by the help of God, to live and act so as never to grieve or dishonor such a father and mother as He had given me.”
Dr. Joel R. Beeke is president and professor of systematic theology and homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, a pastor of the Heritage Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, MI, and a prolific author and frequent conference speaker.