Here are some suggestions to help you establish God-honoring Family Worship in your homes. We trust this avoids two extremes: an idealistic approach that is beyond the reach of even the most God-fearing home, and a minimalist1 approach that abandons daily Family Worship because the ideal seems so out of reach.
Prepare for Family Worship
Even before Family Worship begins, we should privately pray for God’s blessing upon that worship. Then we should plan for the what, where, and when of Family Worship.
1. What. Generally speaking, this includes instruction in the Word of God, prayer before the throne of God, and singing to the glory of God. But we need to determine more of the specifics of Family Worship.
First, have Bibles and copies of The Psalter2 and song sheets for all the children who can read. For children who are too young to read, read a few verses from Scripture and select one text to memorize as a family. Say it aloud together several times as a family, then reinforce that with a short Bible story to illustrate the text. Take time to teach a stanza or two of a Psalter selection to such children, and encourage them to sing with you.
For young children, try using Truths of God’s Word, which has a guide for teachers and parents that illustrates each doctrine. For children in grade four and up, try James W. Beeke’s Bible Doctrine series with accompanying teachers’ guides. In any case; explain what you have read to your children, and ask them a question or two.
Then sing one or two psalms and a sound hymn or a good chorus like “Dare to be a Daniel.” Close with prayer. For older children, read a passage from Scripture, memorize it together, then apply a proverb. Ask questions about how to apply those verses to daily life, or perhaps read a portion from the gospels and its corresponding section in J.C. Ryle’s Expository Thoughts on the Gospels. Ryle is simple yet profound. His clear points help generate discussion. Perhaps you’d like to read parts of an inspirational biography. However, don’t let the reading of edifying literature replace Bible-reading or its application.
John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress or Holy War, or daily meditations by Charles Spurgeon [such as Morning and Evening or Faith’s Checkbook] are appropriate for more spiritually-minded children. Older children will also benefit from William Jay’s Morning and Evening Exercises, William Mason’s Spiritual Treasury, and Robert Hawker’s Poor Man’s Morning and Evening Portions. After those readings, sing a few familiar psalms and perhaps learn a new one before closing with prayer.
You should also use the creeds and confessions of your church. Young children should be taught to say the Lord’s Prayer. If you adhere to the Westminster standards, have your children memorize the Shorter Catechism over time. [If your church uses the Second London Baptist Confession,3 you can use Spurgeon’s or Keach’s Catechism.4] If the Heidelberg Catechism is used in your congregation, read on Sabbath mornings the Lord’s Day of the Catechism from which the minister will be preaching at church. If you have The Psalter, occasional use can be made of the Forms of Devotion found in Christian Prayers. Using these forms at home will afford opportunity for you and your children to learn to use such forms in an edifying and profitable manner, a skill which will stand you all in good stead when the liturgical5 forms are used as part of public worship.
2. Where. Family worship may be held around the supper table. However, it might be better to move to the living room, where there are fewer distractions. Whatever room you select, make sure it contains all of your devotional materials. Before you start, take the phone off the hook, or plan to let your answering machine or voice mail take messages. Your children must understand that Family Worship is the most important activity of the day and should not be interrupted by anything.
3. When. Ideally, Family Worship should be conducted twice a day, in the morning and in the evening. That fits best with Scriptural directions for worship in the Old Testament economy in which the beginning and close of each day were sanctified by the offering of morning and evening sacrifices as well as morning and evening prayers, and [in] the New Testament church which apparently followed the pattern of morning and evening prayers. The Westminster Directory of Worship states, “Family worship, which ought to be performed by every family, ordinarily morning and evening, consists in prayer, reading the Scriptures, and singing praises.”
For some, Family Worship is scarcely possible more than once a day, after the evening meal. Either way, heads of households must be sensitive to the family schedule and keep everyone involved. Practice the principle of Matthew 6:33 (“Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness”) in establishing a family schedule.
Carefully guard this time of Family Worship. If you know ahead of time that the normal time will not be suitable on a certain day, reschedule worship time. Don’t skip it, however; that can become habitual. When you can keep to your appointed times, plan carefully and prepare beforehand to make every minute count. Fight every enemy of Family Worship.
During Family Worship, aim for the following:
1. Brevity. As Richard Cecil said, “Let Family Worship be short, savory, simple, tender, heavenly.” Family worship that is too long makes children restless and may provoke them to wrath.
If you worship twice a day, try ten minutes in the morning and a little longer in the evening. A twenty-five minute period of Family Worship might be divided as follows: ten minutes for Scripture reading and instruction; five minutes for reading a daily portion or an edifying book or discussing some concern in a Biblical light; five minutes for singing; and five minutes for prayer.
2. Consistency. 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. Family worship provides us “the manna which falls every day at the door of the tent, that our souls are kept alive,” wrote James W. Alexander in his excellent book on Family Worship.
Don’t indulge excuses to avoid Family Worship: If you lost your temper at a child a half-hour before Family Worship time, don’t say, “It’s hypocritical for me to lead Family Worship, so we’ll skip it tonight.” You don’t need to run from God at such times. Rather, you must return to God like the penitent6 publican. Begin worship time by asking everyone who witnessed your loss of temper to forgive you, then pray to God for forgiveness. Children will respect you for that. They will tolerate weaknesses and even sins in their parents so long as the parents confess their wrongdoings and earnestly seek to follow the Lord. They and you know that the Old Testament high priest was not disqualified for being a sinner but had first to offer sacrifice for himself before he could offer sacrifices for the people’s sins. Neither are you and I disqualified today for confessed sin, for our sufficiency lies in Christ, not in ourselves. 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: Even when you’re bone-weary after a day’s work, pray for strength to carry out your fatherly duty. Remember that Christ Jesus went to the cross for you bone-weary and exhausted but never shrunk from His mission. As you deny yourself, you will see how He strengthens you during Family Worship, so that by the time you finish, your exhaustion is overcome.
3. Hopeful solemnity. “Rejoice with trembling before the Lord,” Psalm 2 tells us. We need to show this balance of hope and awe, fear and faith, repentance and confidence in Family Worship. Speak 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.
Let’s get more specific:
1. For the reading of Scripture
Have a 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 biographical 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.”
Account for special occasions: On Sunday mornings, you might want to read Psalm 48, 63, 84, or John 20. On the Sabbath when the Lord ‘s Supper is to be administered, read Psalm 22, Isaiah 53, Matthew 26, or part of John 6. Before you leave home for family vacations, gather your family in the living room and read Psalm 91 or Psalm 121. 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.
Encourage private Bible reading and study: Be sure that you and your children close the day with the Word of God. You might follow Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s Calendar for Bible Readings7 so that your children read the Bible on their own once each year. Help each child build a personal library of Biblebased books.
2. For Biblical instruction
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 provides counsel here:
“The Holy Scriptures should be read ordinarily to the family; and it is commendable, that thereafter they confer, and by way of conference, make some good use of what hath been read and heard. As, for example, if any sin be reproved in the word read, use may be made thereof to make all the family circumspect8 and watchful against the same; or if any judgment be threatened that portion of scripture which is read, use may be made to make all the family fear lest the same or a worse judgment befall them, unless they beware of the sin that procured it: and finally, if any duty be required, or comfort held forth in a promise, use may be made to stir up themselves to employ Christ for strength to enable them for doing the commanded duty, and to apply the offered comfort in all which the master of the family is to have the chief hand; and any member of the family may propose a question or doubt for resolution” (par. III).
Encourage family dialogue around God’s Word in line with the Hebraic procedure of household question and answer (cf. Exo 12; Deu 6; Psa 78). 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.
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.
Be relevant in application: Don’t be afraid to share your experiences when appropriate, but do that simply. Use concrete illustrations. Ideally, tie together Biblical instruction with what you recently heard in sermons.
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 father-friend 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.”
Require attention: Proverbs 4:1 says, “Hear, ye children, the instruction 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.
3. For praying
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.
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.
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.
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 or slow.
Be varied: Don’t pray the same thing every day; that becomes monotonous. Develop more variety in prayer by remembering and stressing the various ingredients of true prayer, such as: Invocation,9 adoration,10 and dependence. Begin by mentioning one or two titles or attributes of God, such as, “Gracious and holy Lord . . .” To that add a declaration of your desire to worship God and your dependence upon Him for His assistance in prayer. For example, say: “We bow humbly in Thy presence. Thou who art worthy to be worshiped, praying that our souls may be lifted up to Thee. Assist us by Thy Spirit. Help us to call upon Thy Name by Jesus Christ, in whom alone we can approach to Thee.”
Confession for family sins: Confess the depravity of our nature, then actual sins—especially daily sins and family sins. Recognize the punishment we deserve at the hands of a holy God, and ask God to forgive all your sins for Christ’s sake.
Petition for family mercies: Ask God to deliver us from sin and evil. You might say, “O Lord, forgive our sins through Thy Son. Subdue our iniquities by thy Spirit. Deliver us from the natural darkness of our own minds and the corruption of our own hearts. Free us from the temptations to which we were exposed today.”
Ask God for temporal and spiritual good. Pray for His provision for every need in daily life. Pray for spiritual blessings. Pray that your souls are prepared for eternity.
Remember family needs, and intercede for family friends. Remember to pray in all these petitions that God’s will be done. But don’t allow that subjection to God’s will stop you from pleading with God. Plead with Him to hear your petitions. Plead for everyone in your family as they travel to eternity. Plead for them on the basis of God’s mercy, His covenant relation with you, and upon the sacrifice of Christ.
Thanksgiving as a family: Thank the Lord for food and drink, providential mercies, spiritual opportunities, answered prayers, returned health, and deliverance from evil. Confess, “It is of Thy mercies that we are not consumed as family.” Remember Question 116 of the Heidelberg Catechism, which says, “God will give His grace and Holy Spirit to those only, who with sincere desires continually ask them of Him, and are thankful for them.”
Bless God for who He is and for what He has done. Ask that His kingdom, power, and glory be forever displayed. Then conclude with “Amen,” which means “certainly it shall be so.”
Matthew Henry said that the morning Family Worship is especially a time of praise and of petition for strength for the day and for divine benediction on its activities. The evening worship should focus on thankfulness, penitent reflections, and humble supplications for the night.
4. For singing
Sing doctrinally pure songs: There is no excuse for singing doctrinal error, no matter how attractive the tune might be. [Hence the need for doctrinally sound hymnals such as the Trinity Hymnal.]
Sing psalms first and foremost without neglecting sound hymns: Remember that the Psalms, called by Calvin “an anatomy of all parts of soul,” are the richest gold mine of deep, living, experiential scriptural piety available to us still today.
Sing simple psalms, if you have young children: In choosing Psalms to sing, look for songs that children can easily master and songs of particular importance for them to know. Choose songs that express the spiritual needs of your children for repentance, faith, and renewal of heart and life; songs that reveal God’s love for His people, and the love of Christ for the lambs of His flock. Words such as righteousness, goodness, and mercy should be pointed out and explained beforehand.
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 word s you are singing. On occasion, discuss a phrase that is sung.
After Family Worship
As you retire for the night, pray for God’s blessing on Family Worship: “Lord, use the instruction to save our children and to cause them to grow in grace that they might put their hope in Thee. Use our praise of Thy name in song to endear Thy name, Thy Son, and Thy Spirit to their never-dying souls. Use our stammering prayers to bring our children to repentance. Lord Jesus Christ, breathe upon our family during this time of worship with Thy Word and Spirit. Make these life-giving times.”
1 minimalist – one who provides the minimum amount.
2 The Psalter – a book containing psalms, or the Book of Psalms, used for singing in worship.
3 This Confession of Faith is the doctrinal standard of many Baptist churches. First published in 1677 and adopted in1689, it is known by many simply as the “1689.” This and Spurgeon’s Catechism are both available from Chapel Library.
4 As foreign as it may sound to modern Baptists, historically Baptists faithfully used confessions and catechisms for training their families and worshiping in their homes.
5 liturgical – means “of or relating to liturgy,” which comes from the Greek word leitourgia. Liturgy means public worship according to set forms and rites (such as read texts and prayers, i.e., the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer), often with reference to the Lord’s Supper. This is in contrast to worship which does not follow a formal structure.
6 penitent – repentant; remorseful; regretting one’s sins.
7 Available from Chapel Library.
8 circumspect – cautious; careful to consider all circumstances and possible consequence.
9 invocation – calling upon God for help.
10 adoration – perhaps the highest kind of worship, involving reverent contemplation of God’s perfections and acknowledging them in words of praise and postures of reverence, i.e., Rev 4:8, 10, 11: “ . . . and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come . . . the four and twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying, Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.”