An Introduction to Family Worship

Lowell Ivey

In the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, when parents bring their children before the Lord for baptism, they promise to teach them the Scriptures, pray regularly for and with them, and bring them up in “the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” I can think of no better means of fulfilling those vows than through the regular practice of family worship. It was this concern for helping families impart the faith to the next generation that led the 1647 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland to approve, in addition to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Shorter and Larger Catechisms, a Directory for Family Worship. (A version of the Directory may be accessed at thewestminsterstandard.org/directory-for-family-worship.)

Directory for Family Worship

It was of great concern to the ministers and elders of that general assembly who drafted the Directory that family worship not be neglected. In fact, it was of such great importance that, in their preface, they wrote that if any family did not practice regular family worship, the head of that family was to be “gravely and sadly reproved by the session” if he willfully neglected his duty to provide spiritual leadership to his family, and if he did not repent, he was “for his obstinacy in such an offense [to be] suspended and debarred from the Lord’s Supper, as being justly esteemed unworthy to communicate therein, till he amend.”

The Directory for Family Worship was written for the purpose of “mutual edification, for cherishing piety, for maintaining unity, and avoiding schism and division.” In other words, the goal was much broader than encouraging spiritual growth in individual families. The goal was the unity and maturity of the whole body of Christ (see Eph. 4:11–16). The ministers and elders of the Church of Scotland wisely recognized that the ministry of the Word must begin in the church, flow out of the church into the home, and flow out of the home back into the church. The home, as the Puritans liked to say, was to be “a little church.”

Practical Principles

So, what can we learn from the Directory for Family Worship? The Directory gives several very practical principles that can help us think about what family worship should look like today, nearly four hundred years after it was written. Here are just a few:

1. The foundation of family worship is private, or “secret,” worship. The Directory begins with private worship, noting that private communion with God is the wellspring of all other duties in the Christian life. It encourages the regular practice of private worship every morning and evening by every member of the household, and emphasizes that heads of households have a particular responsibility to set an example of daily private worship, and to instruct, encourage, and admonish all within their care to be diligent, and grow in, regular private communion with God.

2. Family worship ordinarily consists of three main parts: prayer and praise, reading the Scriptures, and edifying conversation. First, families should pray and sing praises to God together. In particular, families should pray for the church, for the nation in which they live, and for the needs of their particular household. Second, families should read the Scriptures together, using the catechism as a help, with the goal that each member of the family should be better prepared to profit from public worship on the Lord’s Day. Third, together with prayer, praises, and Scripture-reading, families should engage in “godly conferences.” In other words, they should talk openly and earnestly together about the things of God.

3. Heads of households should lead their families in understanding the Scriptures. While only ministers have the calling to preach and teach God’s Word officially in the church, heads of households have a particular calling to read the Word to their families, explain its meaning, and apply it to the particular needs and circumstances of each individual member of the home. This requires constant, diligent, prayerful study of the Scriptures on the part of those entrusted with such great responsibility over the souls of others.

4. Heads of households have a special duty to direct their families in public and private worship on the Lord’s Day. Not only should heads of households ensure that every member of their household attends public worship on the Lord’s Day, but also that the whole day is used rightly as a day of holy rest and worship, and that only the works of necessity and mercy be performed by any member of the family on that day. Fathers (or heads of households) should follow up on the preaching of the Word by reviewing the sermon with the family. The day is also best used in catechizing the family, taking time to talk about spiritual things, and “reading, meditation, and secret prayer, that they may confirm and increase their communion with God: that so the profit which they found in the public ordinances may be cherished and [promoted], and they more edified unto eternal life.”

5. Family worship ought to take precedence over all worldly business and activities. How often we give ourselves the excuse that we are “too busy” for family worship! But why are we so busy? Because we have other plans and priorities. The Directory helps us to see that God has better priorities for us and our families than we do. On this point, the Directory is very emphatic. It argues that family worship “ought to be performed in great sincerity, without delay, laying aside all exercises of worldly business or hindrances, notwithstanding the mocking of atheists and profane men.” We are to remember how merciful God has been to us, to our families, and to our nation, in making such a thing as family worship possible, and in giving us a desire for it. Furthermore, anyone with any influence at all has a responsibility by word and example to encourage and admonish others to this basic Christian duty of family worship. (An excellent resource for further study on family worship is J.&nbrp;W. Alexander’s Thoughts on Family Worship, available from Reformation Heritage Books.)

The author is pastor of Reformation Presbyterian in Virginia Beach, Virginia.