By Pastor Chip Hammond
"God is to be worshipped everywhere in spirit and truth; as, in private families daily, and in secret, each one by himself; so more solemnly in the public assemblies, which are not carelessly or willfully to be neglected or forsaken, when God, by His Word or providence, calleth thereunto. (Westminster Confession of Faith 21:6)."
I think that most people reading this will know that God is to be worshiped in the public assembly (the gathered church), and that the careless or willful neglect of that worship indicates a serious spiritual problem.
I suspect that most people reading this are familiar with the concept of a “quiet time” – a time of private Bible reading, meditation, reflection, and prayer, and most of you probably do it or make a valiant attempt each day.
The practice that was common to our Christian forebears but is largely lacking in evidence today is worship by private families daily, or what has been called “family devotions.” Family devotions have fallen into disuse these days for a variety of reason, not the least of which is that American Christianity tends to make the faith “private affair.” It fails to give due weight to the covenantal, collective, and corporate structure of the people of God, and His concern for families.
Unless a man and woman were brought up in families that regularly had family devotions, it can feel uncomfortable in our individualistic age to pray and read the Bible together, even if they are accustomed to doing those very things alone.
When children come along, parents will often sense a need for family devotions, but are not sure what do to. The things they try seem to fail (“Are be just bad parents?” “Are our kids the devil’s spawn rather than children of the covenant?”). I’d like to share with you the model my family uses, and give you some encouragement from experience. Actually, there is no model. What we’ve done has changed over the years as our children have, but those times have borne fruit by God’s good grace.
The Little Years. I’ve talked to parents of little children who are distressed because their four-year-old can’t seem to sit through the reading of five chapters of Leviticus. Mom and Dad, this is a pretty unreasonable expectation of your little children. When our kids were little (say up to seven), our devotions mostly looked like this: We (usually) I would pray before dinner. During or after dinner we would ask them what blessings they were aware of that day (Donna and I would be sure to share as well). After dinner, we would work on the children’s catechism (Q. What is God? A. God is a spirit. He doesn’t have a body like men). That might be the end of it. Or we might talk about it. The children might have questions about it. We might ask the children about what the answer means. And we might work on one question and answer for a week. Total lapsed time after dinner spend often was not more than ten minutes. That was all their little brains and attention spans could take. But they were learning foundational truths, and learning to expect family devotions.
The Middle Years. From about the age of eight of our youngest we started reading a chapter or so of the Bible after dinner (prayer was a constant, counting blessings more or less so). At the earlier ages, reading was enough. They couldn’t comprehend a lot of what they were hearing, but they picked up certain things, and they were learning to expect the reading of the Bible after dinner. As our children matured, discussion came naturally. We encouraged them to ask questions. We never white-washed things or asked them to deny their feelings (eg. “It doesn’t seem fair that God did that.” “It doesn’t, does it? Where does your idea of what is fair come from?” “I guess it comes from God.” “I think you are right.” “So if God is by nature fair, and created the idea of fairness, do you think he violates his own nature?” “No, that doesn’t make sense.” “No, I don’t think so either. So what else might explain this apparent lack of fairness?” Some of their conclusions were foolish or immature. That was OK, they were learning to think through the Bible, and learning to think biblically.
The Edge-of-the-Nest Years. My oldest is soon to be 19. His sister is right beyond him on the cusp of 18. Nathan will be 15. Family devotions are really fun and interesting now. We do many different things. Sometimes we read a book of the Bible. Sometimes we read a devotional book or “practical theology” book, and discuss the principles there. Now I learn from my children, and marvel at their insights! Sometimes we read a book written by someone from a tradition very different from our own. This gives my children the opportunity to see that Christian of all stripes have more in common than not, gives us a chance to think about and through other perspectives, and gives us a change to evaluate how theological sound some views are. This is an “iron-sharpening-iron” exercise. Often I’ll ask my children, “Why do you think the author says that? What is eager to safeguard, or that for us to know? What would be a more biblical approach to achieving his goal?”
The most important thing about family devotions is just to do them. They don’t have to be done for a certain length of time, nor does there have to be a certain depth of discussion – that is all by-product of simply doing the devotions.
Dads, if you’ve not been leading family devotions, can I encourage you to start? You and your family will grow in the Lord, grow closer together, and you will likely set a trajectory or family worship that will last for generations.