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The Lost Art and Practice of Family Devotions

Brad Winsted

In this environment, the idea of family devotions seems to be an anachronism from the "little house on the prairie" era of fireside family discussions. However, if one goes back to Bible-believing pastors who were concerned about the lack of "family worship" in their congregations in the mid-nineteenth century, here is what you would hear:

Along with Sabbath observance and the catechizing of children, family worship has lost ground. There are many heads of families, communicants in our churches, and according to a scarcely credible report, some ruling elders and deacons, who maintain no stated daily service of God in their dwellings. (Thoughts on Family Worship, by James W. Alexander, 1847)

Pastor Alexander saw in a day much simpler than our own the need for family devotions, yet lamented that fewer and fewer households were taking it seriously. In his classic book quoted above, Alexander wrote lovingly of the benefits of family devotions on the individual preparing the devotions, the parents, the children, the church, relatives, the commonwealth (state or nation), and even posterity. I would commend this quick read, especially to anyone who needs to be persuaded that family worship is as needed today as it has ever been in the history of the church.

The reasons we don't and won't do family devotions are as long and full as each day we have filled with lesser things. The Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 21, "Of Religious Worship, and the Sabbath Day," section 6, states, "But God is to be worshiped everywhere, in spirit and truth; as, in private families daily, and in secret, each one by himself." The Book of Church Order in our sister denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, in chapter 63, "The Christian Life in the Home," states:

In addition to public worship, it is the duty of each person in secret, and of every family in private, to worship God.... Family worship, which should be observed by every family, consists in prayer, reading the Scriptures, and singing praises; or in some briefer form of outspoken recognition of God. Parents should instruct their children in the Word of God, and in the principles of our holy religion. The reading of devotional literature should be encouraged and every proper opportunity should be embraced for religious instruction.

Our church's fathers of the faith have recognized for years the necessity to build the family around devotions or family worship time. The great preacher of the eighteenth century, Jonathan Edwards, called each Christian home a "little church," as each father is a pastor to that small congregation within the greater church. To ensure that our children see living examples of vibrant faith from their parents, they must see it more than once a week on Sunday. As a part of elder visits to homes, one of the most probing (and embarrassing) questions to help determine if a family is growing in faith and in knowledge of Christ is to ask the parents about their private (quiet time) and family devotions. If there is nothing from Monday morning to Saturday night, the church is left with precious little time in Sunday school and worship to fill the spiritual void of a week of confrontation with the fallen world and our fallen natures.

So how does one become motivated to have (as Charles Spurgeon would say) "the want to, to want to"? I remember, as a younger ruling elder in an OP church in California, telling people on my elder shepherding list that they should make family devotions a "real priority" in their families. If a member had the courage and perception to ask me how I did it for my young and growing family, they would hear a convoluted, "Do what I say, rather than what I do." Yes, it was a high priority in my family that never got done. Of course, I could jog, read mountains of magazines (those were pre-Internet days), and have lots of other mediocre excuses for not doing what I was trying to tell them was foundational to Christian living in the home.

Priorities Are What We Do

If we have time to check the weather report off Madagascar (or other important news) every day on the Internet, don't we have time to take our families before the throne of grace? Don't say something is a priority in your life and yet let the lesser things crowd it out. Maybe for most of us a five-minute time of family prayer is all we have, but that is a start to something great.

Think about how quickly our covenant children come and go out of our lives. My children are now getting married, and one by one they are leaving the home. It seems like only yesterday that I was changing their diapers! Yet, if for about forty weeks of the year (taking time off for summer, vacations, and other unforeseen events) we have a brief family devotion, then in the twenty-odd years that God places them in our home and charge, we would have approximately 4,000 opportunities to open the Word of God, to sing God's praises, and pray for their and other's needs. But most important of all, our children would have an inheritance of daily communion with God and all the benefits that flow from it. They would have a family tradition that would come much easier than it did to me, who had no family tradition of growing up daily in the Scriptures and prayer.

A goal for family worship would be prayer, reading the Word of God, and a song of praise or thanksgiving. Depending upon the age of the children, the materials can go deeper or be quite simplistic.

Now we come to the difficult question, "How can this be done?" Fathers, you must take the lead. As in most spiritual leadership matters, your wife is hoping you will become motivated to take the lead. When you give up and give it to her to accomplish, it will be much less profitable and your children will get the message, loud and clear, that family devotions are a low and expendable priority.

As I said above, start with something achievable. Decide if morning or evening would be better—before or after breakfast or supper. There are lots of helps available to guide us. Children's Ministry International (CMI, www.childministry.com), of which I am the director, has published comprehensive devotional guides to take busy parents through the Westminster Shorter Catechism with prayers, hymns/songs, Bible lessons, practical suggestions, and other helps to allow one to go through the basics of the faith at one's own pace. There are three small booklets that easily fit into the Bible.

Of course, there are lots of other guides to family devotions, and maybe you would want to start by reading a proverb or psalm daily. God has given us thirty-one chapters in Proverbs, so you can read a chapter a day and never get lost. If it's the twenty-first of the month, then read the twenty-first chapter of Proverbs (or Psalm 21). See how God meets your efforts with real insights and practical advice for the day ahead. Listen as your wife and children share prayer requests. Write them down so you have a testimony of answered prayer. The big issue is whether this is really going to be a priority or is going to be crowded out by lesser things.

As Pastor James Alexander said in his Thoughts on Family Worship, "Let other heirlooms perish, but let us not deny to our offspring the worship of that God who has been our dwelling-place in all generations."

Brad Winsted is a ruling elder at Redeemer OPC in Atlanta, Ga. Reprinted from New Horizons, March 2007.

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