There has been a recent miniboom of interest in the renewal of family religion and family worship in the evangelical community. Perhaps fueled by (a) the sense of cultural assault upon the family, (b) the strong current emphasis on parental involvement in childhood education, and (c) in some quarters a recapturing of a covenantal vision of church and family life, many are open to and desirous of learning what the family as a unit ought to be doing together in the way of daily worshiping of God in the reading, singing and praying of Scripture. And not only is there a new impetus, but many helpful resources are now available that were nonexistent just a few years ago.2
None too soon. The family itself is an endangered species in our culture, and the Christian family is under the severest of strains: the pace of life, the worldliness and materialism of church and society, the self-destructive freedoms in which we love to indulge, the capacity for temptations to access us even in the safety of our own homes through satellite television and the internet, mens loss of the sense of responsibility to take up the duty for spiritual leadership as fathers in the home, the culture of divorce, the culture of day care, and more. Furthermore, there are those who so undervalue the traditional family that they are seeking to redefine it, while at the same time some suggest that a day will come when biotechnology, community, and government programs will pave the way for the obsolescence of the traditional family.
God has never underestimated the importance of the family. After all, like marriage, he invented it. The family is the original society from which every other society emerges. This is seen in creation itself as unfolded in the early chapters of Genesis. Redemptive history and the covenant of grace both indicate the essential role of family in Gods program. Founded by a divine directive and regulated by divine ordinances, it is the normal school in which faith in God and obedience to his law are taught. Its suitability for this function is seen in its unique features: (1) it is small and close: no bureaucratic barriers impede the recognition of need and the application of discipline, no administrative distance prevents the identification of patterns or allows for idealistic assessments and solutions; (2) authority is displayed, but its harshness is tempered with parental affection; (3) ideally two parents, two parties, complement one another and are vested with joint authority; (4) mutual accountability and divine, transcendent authority are illustrated in every relationship.
In the family, God illustrates the fundamental principles of his universal moral government, but family life also reflects the principles of grace. The principle of representation is manifest in paternal spiritual headship, the principle of mediation in suffering and toil is seen in maternal child-birthing and child-rearing, and the mighty power of love is ideally manifest not only in the parental relations but in their wise and firm, but warm and gracious parenting.
So, the family is a special kind of household, ideally consisting of husband and wife, and desirably children. It is the oldest and most basic of God’s institutions for mankind. It is designed by God to be a spiritual entity and to provide for the training up of children into mature adult character. Moses spoke of the very process of its perpetuation in Gen 2:23-24:
“The man said, ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’ For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.” The reference to leaving and cleaving points to the formation of a new family unit out of the union of husband and wife. This does not mean that singleness, single-parenthood, or childlessness must always bear reproach, but it does mean that single-parent families and childless marriages are the exception to the rule.
The family has a built-in, divinely given authority structure. The husband is spiritual head of the home, and the parents are leaders to the children. This headship and leadership is to express itself in ministry, not tyranny, and thus must be loving and selfless. In the wake of the fall, this basic creational order was reaffirmed (Gen 3:16). One of Abraham’s fundamental responsibilities in the covenant was to “command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice” (Gen 18:19). Even pagan cultures have an appreciation of the divine, natural family order (Esther 1:20, 22). The family order of creation and the role distinctions that flow from it were confirmed in the new covenant, and Paul called Christians to live deliberately in their light:
“But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ” (1 Cor 11:3).“Man . . . is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man” (1 Cor 11:7).“Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (Eph 5:22).“Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord” (Col 3:18).“An overseer [or elder] must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?)” (1 Tim 3:4-5).
Peter joined Paul in these affirmations and directives: “In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands. . . . Just as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear (1 Pet 3:1, 6). Egalitarianism of all sorts (whether it involves the abdication of husbandly, paternal, or parental responsibility and authority) undermines family religion and the cultivation of godliness in the home, and only the biblical view (often today called “complementarian”) can sustain a truly Christian discipleship.
Just how seriously God takes the family can be seen by looking at his law. Four of the ten commandments are directly related to the family. The fourth commandment requires the head of the household to lead the family in Sabbath-keeping. The fifth commandment requires children to respect and submit to their parents. The seventh commandment protects the family from sexual infidelity (whether it is expressed in a spouse being unfaithful to the family itself or someone else’s endangering the family core by intrusion). The tenth commandment protects the family from those who would, in virtue of their coveting, take its necessary property or disrupt its relations. God is clearly concerned to throw around the family every moral/legal protection he can find.
Why? Because the family is Gods divinely appointed “small group” discipleship program. The family is the first place that God has appointed for teaching and learning about God and godliness. Children are to be instructed (Gen 18:18-19, Deut 4:9, 6:6-8, 11:18-21, Prov 22:6, Eph 6:4), guided in the way of life (Prov 1:8, 6:20), and disciplined both directively and correctively (Prov 13:24, 19:18, 22:15, 23:13-14, 29:15, 17). Family worship is important (Ex 12:3, Josh 24:15) and in the New Testament the household was the basic unit of Christian commitment (Acts 11:14, 16:15, 31-33, 1 Cor 1:16). Indeed, a man’s performance as spiritual head of his family was a major factor in assessing his fitness for church office (1 Tim 3:4-5, 12, Titus 1:6). Nothing can replace or substitute for the family’s failings in these functions.
Our goal in evangelical churches ought to be (1) for every family unit to become a discipleship group; (2) for every husband and father to become an active, self-denying, spiritual leader in his home; (3) for our congregations to have as many families functioning as “family-based growth groups” as there are families; and (4) for family religion to be the fountain of healthy, robust, corporate worship, as well as worship in all of life.
Covenantal Responsibilities of Parents
As Christian parents we can do significant things to promote the spiritual health and growth of our covenant children. In Deut 6:4-9, Moses said:
Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
These words remind us of two things. First, though salvation is of God and though the Spirit works when and how and with whom he wishes, Christian parents have covenantal responsibilities toward their children that God is pleased to use as means of those covenant children’s spiritual birth and growth. Second, it is in the natural rhythm and activity of life that parents teach most and best. It is not primarily through church or paraministry youth programs but rather through parental life infused with Christ, grace and Scripture-and normal opportunities looked for and taken-that we principally edify our children.
Among those means and opportunities are the following: First, we ought to give serious consideration to the spiritual condition and spiritual needs of our children. Do we care more for their bodies than their souls? Do we think about how they look, whether they are physically healthy, what their career ought to be, whether they are running with the “first and best,” how popular they are-and neglect a concern to see Christ formed in them, to see them denying themselves and taking up the cross?
Second, we ought to use baptisms as an occasion to call our children to faith. Whether we are credobaptist or paedobaptist, baptisms provide us with a unique opportunity to talk with our own children about what it means to be united to Christ. The Westminster Larger Catechism says:
“Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, wherein Christ has ordained the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, to be a sign and seal of ingrafting into himself, of remission of sins by his blood, and regeneration by his Spirit; of adoption, and resurrection unto everlasting life; and whereby the parties baptized are solemnly admitted into the visible church, and enter into an open and professed engagement to be wholly and only the Lords” (Q. 165).
I cannot see anything in that statement that credobaptists and paedobaptists would not agree on, but what a rich spiritual discussion could start in a conversation with our children back home after the administration of baptism during a church service!
Third, we ought to instruct our children in the great issues of salvation. We should talk with them about the content of sermons. We should ask them about Scriptures that they have memorized in Sunday School. We should aim to see how far they understand and to know and learn their souls.
Fourth, we ought to correct and restrain our children from that which is prejudicial to their spiritual vitality. There should be a sweet but firm display parental authority in the home. We ought not to indulge them or to allow them to trample us. They should “fear you with delight.” Challenge straying teenagers. Do not be cute with them about their sin.
Fifth, we ought to challenge our children to embrace the promises of God, and to embrace Christ by faith. We should exhort them in the things of the Lord (1 Chron 28:9; 1 John 3:23). Plunder the Scriptures for charges and challenges, exhortations and spiritual commands for your children. A godly mother, just a week away from her death, asked her spiritually straying son to read to her Jesus’ words from John 14:2 “I go to prepare a place for you.” She afterward assured her son of her firm hope that Jesus had indeed prepared her a place and then said to him: “I want to ask you a question: Will you meet me there?” What a powerful way to bring home the truth of the ultimate, life and death matters of trust in Christ and our eternal destiny.
Sixth, we ought to be disciples ourselves. We must love God if we want our children to love God. We must be disciples if we want our children to be disciples (Ps 34:1, 4, 11). Along with this, we must remember that we are examples (for good or ill) in our life, priorities, and choices. Our children will see what is important to us. Is God important to us? his worship? the Lords Day? the Bible? the Christian life? Or is our life taken up with trivialities, focused only secular labor without a distinctively Christian worldview and the pursuit of pleasure or just escape from pain? Our children will see what is really important to us, and it will either contradict or confirm our words about Christ and Christianity to them.
Seventh, we ought to pray for our children. We should pray for their salvation, for their spiritual growth, for their future spouses-and pray with them, as well as for them.
Promoting Family Religion
When all is said and done though, some of the profoundest things we can repeatedly do to promote a heart for God in our children are also the simplest things.
First, sit together at church. Go to church every week (even on vacation), fifty-two weeks a year, year after year, and sit together. That is it. I guarantee it will have a profoundly beneficial spiritual impact. The family ought to be in corporate worship faithfully and in it together. Children can get with their friends after the services, but in church, the family ought to be prime. Do not underestimate the power of the ordinary means of grace in the life of the family.
Second, work to have a Lord’s Day. Live as if Sunday is the Lords, not yours. View it as the “market day of the soul.” Don’t let the day become cluttered up. Avoid unnecessary labor and travel. Anticipate it with enthusiasm rather than bemoaning it. Make going to church the high point of the week. Let your children know you love it. Do special things with them on that day that you do no other (e.g., Dad: cook them breakfast, wake them in a special way, spend relational time with them in the afternoon, read them spiritual books and stories, make ice cream sundaes for them after the evening service and the like).
Third, attend evening worship. If we believe the whole day is the Lords day, then it ought to be framed with worship. Morning and evening worship in the Reformed tradition is the single most powerful and effective total congregational discipleship program in the history of Christianity. I have never known a family that was faithful in Sunday evening attendance in an evangelical church, that, when the great crises of life came, did not weather the storm and walk in faith, and persevere.
Fourth, memorize the catechisms. It is a proven method. It is simple. It is content rich. It teaches our children the language of Zion, as well as the precious doctrines of the Bible. It increases memory ability and capacity for thinking.
Fifth, worship together as a family at home. Praise, pray, and read the Bible together as a family at home. Why should we do family worship? (1) Because we are stewards to God of our children, whom he has graciously given to us.Ps 127:3 tells us how we are to view them “Behold, children are a gift of the LORD.” How will we account to him of the soul-care that we are to give these precious trusts? (2) Because God has commanded us to train our children up in the Lord in the home. As we have already seen in Deut 6:7, God says, “You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.” (3) Because the home is the seedbed of piety and religion for the church (1 Tim 3:4-5, 12).
The Nature and Content of Family Worship
What should be in family worship? There is no reason to make it complicated, and you really need nothing more than a Bible and a good hymnbook to lead in it. “Song, scripture, supplication” says Jerry Marcellino-that is what should be in family worship.3 That is, the three basic components of family worship are singing, Scripture reading, and prayer, led by the father or head of the household.
“Let those refuse to sing who never knew our God” go the lyrics on one stirring old hymn (Isaac Watts “Come, We That Love the Lord”). An old proverb says “As we sing, so we believe.” So singing is an important component of both family and corporate worship. Do not let this intimidate you if you are not musical. Sing children’s songs with the young and favorite hymns with older children (but do not underestimate how young children can pick up hymns, even hard ones-my two-year-old sings “Angels we have heard on high,” with its tricky Latin refrain, flawlessly and on pitch!). If you cannot sing get a tape to help lead your children in singing. Do not forget to sing psalms with them too.
God’s word written is at the heart of all Christian worship: private, family, or corporate. Follow a Bible reading plan (many good ones are available, such as Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s kept in print by the Banner of Truth Trust). But do not hesitate to utilize solid Bible story books for the very young. Venture into some Scripture memory work. Test your children’s knowledge of Bible facts (they may surprise you). But above all, be committed to reading God’s word aloud to them.
“Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies” (Westminster Shorter Catechism A. 98). So make sure your family prayer reflects that well-rounded balance of adoration of God, confession of sin, thanksgiving for God’s favor and intercession for ourselves and others. Use Scripture as your guide to prayer and lead your family to the throne of grace.
A whole host of practical questions and problems come to mind once we determine to begin family worship. How long should it last? It should be regularly brief, as little as 10 minutes when the children are very young. Gradually, it will run a little longer as they grow older and conversations strike up. Do not kill it by trying to go too long. Pace yourself. Regularity and repetition is the key. When should we do family worship? When it works-morning/breakfast, suppertime, or bedtime are the three most common times. What about the obstacles to starting and continuing family worship? Fair question. There are many:
- A late start: you have already been married for many years or a parent for many years, and you have never done it before. If this is your situation, be prepared for it to begin with all the ease of pulling teeth without anesthesia. Pray for the grace of perseverance, and do not begrudge your family the jarring sense of change.
- An unsupportive wife: your wife does not think it is important or is critical of what you are trying to do or is uncooperative. Woo her to the habit. Indulge her all you can. Refuse to speak sharply to her about her unsupportiveness. Explain it to her. Enlist the prayers and encouragement of your pastors and elders, but make every effort not to shame her outside the family circle.
- A lazy father: your husband is indolent and unconcerned, but you really desire family worship. Pray for him in your private devotions. Ask God to change his heart and to make you the most attractive and nonaggressive advocate for the importance of family worship he will ever meet. Talk to him kindly and respectfully. Explain your desires. Make it easy for him to do. Offer to help him choose passages, hymns, and Scripture prayers. Do not nag. Encourage him to get involved in a male Christian discipleship friendship with a pastor or elder who will help him take up his fatherly and husbandly role. Place a Bible and a hymnal within easy reach of the family dinner table.
- A resistant audience: your children are older, unused to the practice, and resistant to it. They hate it, complain about it every day, discourage you no end. Keep it short, explain why you are doing it, and do it anyway.
- An uncooperative schedule: your schedule is crazy, husband traveling, kids piled up with activities. Meet consistently and flexibly. Let the wife lead while you are away, but take an interest in planning for it and in talking about it when the husband is back. Call home long distance and do a conference call at family worship time.
There are dozens of potential hindrances: lack of discipline, lack of sense of the importance of family worship, lack of experience of family worship in ones own upbringing, and more. But above all, the enemy is idealism. You have this picture of a Puritan family sitting around the table attentively and reverently reading the whole book of 1 Chronicles at a sitting, singing half the Psalter from memory, and praying for ninety minutes, and then you look around your table and your wife is rolling her eyes, your two-year old is throwing leftover spaghetti around the kitchen, your eight-year old is making faces at her sister, and your teenager would rather do calculus. Do not let the gap between the ideal and the reality stop you! Those inattentive children will grow up and thank you for persevering, and the memories of a father who loved them enough to make that kind of an effort will etch a permanent affection in their hearts.
We have seen at least five pillars for family religion in this essay: corporate worship, morning and evening, together as a family; Lord’s Day observance; catechism; spiritual conversation in the normal course of family life and parental example; and family worship. The following is an eloquent and personal plea for this vision by Terry Johnson, the coauthor of this essay.4
Family-Based Renewal of Congregational Christianity5
When I was a young boy, I walked to my public elementary school every school day for seven years. After school, I rode my bike to the ball park for my Little League games. Every Sunday we walked a few blocks to church. The recreation park was a little further away than the ball park and a little closer than the school. Scout Hall was behind the school, so we also rode our bikes, or walked to Boy Scout meetings. Life was simple for us kids and our parents. In the suburbs of Los Angeles, the epitome of the commuter city, we lived life within a mile radius of our home. We even walked to the doctor’s office.
Most people used to live this way. Before the automobile, everything had to be within walking distance, or at least horse-and-buggy distance. Communities had to develop accordingly. Each neighborhood had its local grocer, clothier, druggist, school, church, and so on. People knew their neighbors because they could not be avoided. One was constantly rubbing shoulders with them as one worked, worshiped, played, ate, and lived in the same area.
I like our cars. I can hardly imagine life without them. But as I was driving to school, work, the store, and a ball game the other day, I kept wondering, Is this really a better way of life? Our city, Savannah, Georgia, like every other community in America, now sprawls. We have big malls, big parks, big hospitals, big medical practices, nice roads in every direction, and nice air conditioned cars in which to drive. But is this a more humanly satisfying way to live?
While driving through town one evening, I noted the remarkable differences between poor and middle-class neighborhoods. The poor neighborhoods are older, more rundown, and yet abuzz with life. Some folks are sitting out on their porches, rocking and talking. Others are walking on the sidewalks. Still others are congregating on a street corner or at a storefront. What do you see in the middleclass neighborhoods? Nothing. Not a soul. Why not? Air-conditioning. In the poor neighborhoods the deprived have no air-conditioning, but do have community. The affluent neighborhoods have air-conditioning, but consequently everyone stays inside, and minimal human interaction takes place. Who then is truly deprived? From air-conditioned offices to air-conditioned cars to air-conditioned houses, the socially impoverished move about, while the economically impoverished, though sweltering, enjoy a rich community experience.
We are technologically superior to previous generations. But are we losing too much in the process? First we walked, then galloped, then rode on rails together. Now we drive, largely with the window up, and go home to hermetically sealed homes, only coming out to take out the trash or grab the newspaper. Once we entertained ourselves at home by reading books aloud. In the 1920s families gathered around the radio. In the 1950s, they gathered around the T.V. Now there is a T.V. in each room. Computers only make it worse. Once the home was a castle, a place of refuge for the family. When behind its doors, the family conducted its affairs without interruption and without outside influence. Now one can hardly eat a meal or conduct family worship without the phone ringing. Sacrosanct family time is violated daily. Friends and strangers alike barge right into the middle of the family’s most private and intimate moments via technology. Again my question is, Is this progress? When does life slow down enough so that we can talk? When do we enjoy our neighborhoods? Where do we experience community? In the last hundred years we have gone from life on a porch with family and neighbors to life in isolation in front of a cathode tube. Is the quality of life improving? Is ours a richer human experience? Frankly, I do not believe it anymore. Call it romanticism. Call it naïveté. Call me a Luddite. We have wonderful toys today. But they have cost us too much. Growing prosperity and technological advancement do not necessarily or automatically mark human progress.
I have labored this point because I believe the church has largely failed to recognize the death of family and community or to compensate for it. Rather than reaffirm traditional practices that build family life and stimulate community, it tends to baptize secular trends that do the opposite. The small neighborhood church gives way to the large commuter church. The friendly country parson is replaced by the suburban CEO/pastor. Older practices such as the family altar and the family pew receive token attention, while new programs are devised that divide families and segregate the ages. In many ways we have become too clever for our own good. We are just as guilty of “chronological snobbery,” as C. S. Lewis calls it, as the rest of society. Tried and proven ways of transmitting the heart and soul of the Christian faith to others have been abandoned in favor of exciting, entertaining, novel, but ineffectual alternatives. We pride ourselves in being modern. We look down our noses at previous generations. We have a love affair with the novel and the new. Educational, political, social, and religious fads sweep over us again and again, first possessing the field and all right-thinking people, and then in a matter of months, fleeing to the curiosity shelf in our cultural museums, replaced by yet another untested novelty. The time has come to admit our error and pause to look back, before we again look ahead.
What we hope to demonstrate in the pages ahead is that by returning to the practices of previous generations we may be able to revitalize the family and the church of today. The “ancient paths” of Sunday worship, Sabbath observance, family worship, and catechizing are where spiritual vitality for the future will be found.
The Family Pew
What then is the first key to a Christian family’s spiritual health? Though you may not have anticipated our answer, the key is not new. It is not novel. It will not reveal long hidden mysteries, disclose any secret formulas, provide any new techniques, or require lengthy or costly counseling.
What is it? The first and primary key to your family’s spiritual health is a commitment to the weekly public worship services of the church. The most important single commitment you must make to ensure your family’s spiritual well-being is to regular, consistent attendance at public worship.
Sound far-fetched? I will say it even stronger. I have yet to meet a person for whom it could not be said that all of his problems-personal, marital, familial, or vocational-would not be solved by such a commitment. I do not believe that the person for whom this is not true exists. By saying so, I do not minimize the seriousness of the problems that people face. Rather, I maximize our confidence in the power of the gospel. So I will say it again: we do not know of anyone of whom it could not be said, if only he were in worship week in and week out, fifty-two weeks a year, year after year, his problems would be basically solved.
That public worship is not generally recognized as playing this central role in spiritual development demonstrates the degree to which modern individualism has rotted the core out of our commitment to Christ. How is it, after all, that we receive the benefits of the death of Christ? How is his grace communicated to us? Does it just drop out of heaven? Or are there means? Yes, there are means. What are they? The Shorter Catechism identifies the primary means as follows:
Q. 88. What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption?A. The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.
The three primary means are the word (“especially the preaching of the Word,” says the Shorter Catechism Q. 89), the sacraments, and prayer. Now ask yourself, where are these three primary means normally operative? Where is the word preached? Where are the sacraments administered? And as for prayer, yes, one can pray in one’s closet, but do not forget the special promise of Jesus concerning prayers offered where “two or three have gathered in My name”-no doubt, given the context of church discipline in Matthew 18, a reference to organized public worship (Matt 18:15-20). Jesus said, “Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven” (Matt 18:19). There is unique efficacy in such public prayers.
When we gather in public worship, we are ushered into the presence of Christ. He is among us (Matt 18:20). We do in worship what we were created to do-offer to God intelligent praise. We become more truly human at that point than at any other of human existence. Just as a boy is more aware of his identity as a son in the presence of his father, or as a husband is more aware of his identity as provider and protector in the presence of his wife, so we are most aware of who we are and what we were created to do as human beings at that point at which we bow in worship before our Creator and Redeemer. We are humbled as we offer to him our praise and adoration. We are cleansed as we confess our sins. We are built up, torn down, and rebuilt again as we submit to instruction by his word (Eph 4:11-16). We are fed and united to the whole body of Christ by the sacraments. Through the bread and cup we enjoykoinonia with Christ and one another (1 Cor 10:16). We access His strength through “all prayer and petition” (Eph 6:18) and are thereby enabled to fight the spiritual battles of life.
The public worship services of the church are our lifeline. There we are both purged and fed. There we make soul-saving contact with Christ through His word, sacraments, prayer, and the fellowship of His people. That contact, over the long haul, will change us. It will make us into the kind of people who are able to solve our own problems with the strength that the gospel provides.
The opposite view, that we can prosper spiritually on our own-apart from the public ordinances of the church and the public gatherings of the saints-is foolhardy. No, it is worse than that. It is worldliness-worldly individualism, worldly pride, worldly self-sufficiency.
The metaphor of the church as a body is employed by the New Testament to represent both our union with Christ and mutual dependence: “The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you” (1 Cor 12:21). We need each other: “We who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another” (Rom 12:5). We need each other’s gifts (Eph 4:11-16; 1 Cor 12-14; Rom 12). We need each other’s graces (as in the many “one anothers” found throughout the New Testament: love one another, be kind to one another, bear one another’s burdens, etc.) We need each other’s fellowship. So we are warned, “Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together.” The writer to the Hebrews sees the public assembly as the primary place in which the mutual stimulation to “love and good deeds” takes place: “Not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near” (Heb 10:24-25).
How does this commitment to public worship relate to the family’s spiritual well being? The effect upon parents is clear enough. Spiritually nourished parents make for better families. But the family pew has more in mind than sanctifying parents. When your children are brought with you into public worship, they too are sanctified. Your children, from their earliest years, will be ushered along with you into the presence of God. They will be brought under the means of grace and will experience the fellowship of God’s people week after week as they mature through childhood. Beyond this, they will sit by you Sunday after Sunday, watching you publicly humble yourself before God and submit to His word. Among their earliest and warmest memories will be those of holding their parents’ hands during church, sitting close to their sides, following along in the hymnal, placing money in the offering plate, and bowing their heads in prayer. Do not underestimate the cumulative effect of this witness upon covenant children. It is considerable, even incalculable.
The key to your own and your family’s spiritual health is remarkably simple. Though there is considerable hype to the contrary, it involves no pilgrimages to sacred places. It requires no week-long or weekend retreats, seminars, or special programs. It depends on no special techniques or novel methodologies. You will not have to spend yet another night out. You will not need to add more meetings to an already frantic schedule. The key is to be found in the regular, ordinary, weekly worship services of the church.
The Lords Day
Let’s explore this further. As we have noted, many well-meaning but misinformed leaders in the Christian world would have you running hither, thither, and yon to find the magic formula for spiritual growth. They would have you out every night attending meetings for prayer, study, and fellowship. They thrust before you countless tapes, study books, and methods, techniques, seminars, retreat, and programs, each promising to provide the key to your spiritual well-being and happiness. Our response is-It is not that complicated. Whatever is of fundamental importance for the Christian life has been known in every era and is reproducible in every culture. If a thing is true and necessary, it can be understood and practiced in a primitive, grass-hut civilization, an igloo, and in modern America. This is not to say that the toys of modernity cannot help. We make profitable use of the tapes, videos, telephones, fax machines, and computers. We access the modern means of transportation. But we should not lose sight of the greater reality that all that we need to thrive spiritually may be found down the block at our local evangelical church through its regular ministry and worship. In its failure to recognize this, the church today is little better than the world in unnecessarily contributing to the frenetic pace of modern life.
What can we do? Slow down. Stay home. Quit running mindlessly all over town. Limit yourself. And do this: Commit yourself to the Lord’s Day in the Lord’s House and little else outside of the home will be necessary for the cultivation of a thriving spiritual life. The Puritans referred to the Lord’s Day as “the market day of the soul.” Six days a week one buys and sells for the sake of one’s body. Sunday however we are to “trade” in spiritual commodities for the sake of our souls. All secular affairs are to be set aside. All Christians, “after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs beforehand,” are to “not only observe an holy rest all the day from their own works, words, and thoughts, about their worldly employments and recreations,” but also are to be engaged “the whole time in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 21.8). The key to consistent attendance at public worship (of which we have spoken above as the key to your spiritual well-being) is a commitment to observing the Christian Sabbath. Or to state it negatively, you will never be able to become consistent about attending public worship until you are convinced that Sunday is not just the Lord’s morning, but the Lord’s Day.
When the writers of the Westminster Confession created a single chapter entitled “Of Religious Worship and the Sabbath Day,” they knew what they were doing. We are the first generation of American Protestants to have forgotten the benefits of the Sabbath command. Prior to the middle of this century, all American Protestant denominations, whether Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, or Episcopalian, were sabbatarian. This was true for over 350 years dating from the establishment of the Jamestown colony in 1607 until the mid-1960s. For generations it was understood that the Sabbath was made for man, for man’s benefit (Mark 2:27-28). But once again we have become too clever for our own good. We have crammed our schedules full of activity seven days a week. We have lost our Sabbath rest in the process. What have we given up? Hughes Old writes: “Any attempt at recovering a Reformed spirituality would do well carefully to study the best of the Puritan literature on the observance of the Lord’s Day.”6 How is this so? What is the point?
Essentially it comes down to this. If you are not convinced that the whole of Sunday is the Lord’s and not yours, you will not be consistent. You will inevitably allow other matters to interfere. Things will come up. But, if you are convinced that Sunday is the “market day of the soul,” then it changes everything. The question of the Sunday services is settled-you will be there morning and evening. That the issue is dead, so to speak, has a wonderfully therapeutic effect. It is like the divorce laws in the pre-no-fault days. Because it was tough to get out of marriage, one tended to work it out and in the process find marital happiness. Eliminating options helps. Because Sunday worship is an inflexible given, everything else has to accommodate it. The fourth commandment tends thereby to cast its influence over the rest of the week. Life has to be organized around ones Sunday obligations. Shopping, travel, business, yard work, housework, recreation-all must be finished by Saturday evening. Sunday must be cleared of all secular obligations. The blessed consequence is not only that one is free to worship twice on the Lord’s Day, but one also enjoys guilt-free, refreshing rest from the concerns and labors of life. I find myself regularly falling asleep about three o’clock in the afternoon with chills of gratitude and pleasure for the rest of the Christian Sabbath. Amazingly, even for preachers for whom Sunday is the busiest day of the week, it is also the most restful.
One can understand why the prophets sometimes speak of the abandonment of the whole of Old Testament religion as “profaning the Sabbath” (Ezek 20:21; 22:8; 23:38). There is a subtlety to Sabbath observance. Because it excludes secular activity, its “holy rest” comes to dominate all of life. The family’s week must be organized around its inactivity. Consequently, it can function as a plumb-line, a litmus test for measuring your commitment to God. Will you submit to the lordship of Christ in this tangible way, this way that forces you to organize your life, to prepare, to complete your secular affairs, and devote half of “your” weekend to the things of God? Will you desist “from your own ways, / from seeking your own pleasure, / and speaking your own word” (Isa 58:13)? If you will, you will find time for all the things that really count-time for your soul, time for rest, time for the family, and time throughout the week for everything else.
Now we come to the heart of our concern. During the nineteenth century, as Sunday schools began to be introduced in North America, resistance was encountered in a number of traditional Presbyterian churches. Their argument? That as the Sunday school was established, it would result in parental neglect of their responsibility for the spiritual training of their children. Were they right? Cause and effect would be difficult to determine. But if they were, it would be an example of the law of unintended consequences that is typical of the modern world. Our intentions are wonderful. We mean to improve life by the creation of labor-saving devices, the development of new methods, and the provision of supplementary resources. But are we careful to examine the net effect of our innovations? Do they, in the long run, really help? If the consequence of the proliferation of Christian meetings has been the neglect of daily family worship, then the net spiritual effect of those meetings has been negative.
Let us assume for a moment that we all understand that the Bible commands that we conduct daily worship in homes. This was certainly the conviction of previous generations. For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches that worship is to be conducted “in private families daily” (21.6), and the Church of Scotland included in its editions of the Westminster Standards a Directory for Family Worship, its General Assembly even mandating disciplinary action against heads of households who neglected “this necessary duty.” Indeed, many of our Reformed ancestors believed in and practiced family worship twice daily (following the pattern of the morning and evening sacrifice). Family worship, they all assumed, was vital to the spiritual development of both parents and children.
But today, one does not hear much about family worship. No, instead we seem to have replaced it with small-group activities. These are the key, we hear again and again, to spiritual growth. Everyone needs to be in a small group. Or, it might be said, everyone needs to be in a discipleship group. Perhaps even, one needs to be involved in both. Maybe one needs to be involved in both, plus the church’s prayer meeting, plus visitation, plus the choir, plus committee meetings, and so on. You see my point already, I assume. Protestantism has become all but silent on the issue of family worship, a near universal practice in the recent past, and replaced it with meetings that take us out of the home and away from the family. Not only have we given up a proven method of transmitting the faith to the next generation, one that has a built-in format for Bible study, prayer, and singing, but we have done so for alternatives that add to our already hectic pace of life and take us away from our spouses, children, and neighbors.
I like small-group Bible studies. I will get more involved with them at a later stage in life, when my children are not so young and my wife and I are able to attend them together. But in the meantime we have a discipleship group, and if you are a parent with children at home, so do you. Everyday little eyes are watching. Sooner than we realize, they become aware of discrepancies between what we say and what we do. The family, in this respect, is the truest of all proving grounds for authentic Christianity. Parents either practice what they preach or become the surest means yet devised by man or devil of sending their children to hell. Daily family worship forces the issues of Christian piety before the family every twenty-four hours. It forces parents in the roles of preachers, evangelists, worship leaders, intercessors, and pastors. Who is adequate for this? No one, or course. He who would attempt to be so must necessarily be forced to his knees. Children growing up with the daily experience of seeing their parents humbled in worship, focusing on spiritual things, submitting to the authority of the word, catechizing and otherwise instructing their children will not easily turn from Christ. Our children should grow up with the voices of their fathers pleading for their souls in prayer ringing in their ears, leading to their salvation, or else haunting them for the rest of their lives.
If your children are in your home for eighteen years, you have 5,630 occasions (figuring a six-day week) for family worship. If you learn a new psalm or hymn each month, they will be exposed to 216 in those eighteen years. If you read a chapter a day, you will complete the Bible four-and-a-half times in eighteen years. Every day (if you follow our format) they will affirm a creed or recite the law. Every day they will confess their sins and plead for mercy. Every day they will intercede on behalf of others. Think in terms of the long view. What is the cumulative impact of just fifteen minutes of this each day, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, for eighteen years? At the rate of six days a week (excluding Sunday), one spends an hour-and-a-half a week in family worship (about the length of a home Bible study), 78 hours a year (about the length of the meeting hours of seven weekend retreats), 1,404 hours over the course of eighteen years (about the length of the assembly hours of forty week-long summer camps). When you establish your priorities, think in terms of the cumulative effect of this upon your children. Think of the cumulative effect of this upon you, after forty or sixty or eighty years of daily family worship-all this without having to drive anywhere.
Finally, we commend the catechizing of children, a grand old Protestant tradition that regrettably has fallen on hard times. Few catechize their children any more. For some, the word itself sounds archaic or like something the Catholics used to do. In actual fact, it is an ancient practice reaching all the way back to the earliest centuries of the church. It was revived in the sixteenth century by the Protestant Reformers so successfully that even the Roman Catholics began to mimic them. Catechisms were written by Luther, Calvin, Bullinger, and nearly all the major Reformers. In keeping with this tradition, the Westminster Assembly produced two catechisms, the Shorter Catechism for children, and the Larger Catechism for adults. The former has been the most popular and widely used in the English language since the mid-seventeenth century.
Should you catechize your children? Yes, you should, and for a number of reasons:
1. It is a tried and proven method of religious instruction. For generations Protestants have successfully transmitted the content of the Christian faith to their children through catechisms. This was taken so seriously in Puritan New England that a child could be removed from the parents’ custody if they failed to catechize him or her! Admission to the Communion table in Scotland for generations was preceded by the successful recitation of the Shorter Catechism. It was not uncommon in nineteenth century Presbyterian homes in America that the Shorter Catechism would be completed during a child’s sixth year. According to John Leith, 17,000 Presbyterian youth memorized the Shorter Catechism and had their names published in the Christian Observer in 1928, the year in which he achieved that feat. Education pedagogues come and go. Here is a method that works.2. It is simple. It does not require additional resources. Any parent can catechize any child using no more than a small booklet. (In the process, the parent may learn more than the child!) But since the Bible places the responsibility of Christian education squarely upon Christian parents (Deut 6:4-9, Eph 6:1-4), here is a method easily adopted by parents.3. It is content rich. The old catechisms are rich reservoirs of theological, devotional, and practical content. Fully 40 percent of the Shorter Catechism is concerned with ethics (the law of God) and nearly 10 percent with prayer. God, man, sin, Christ, faith, repentance, and so on are all given succinct, accurate definitions. Children nurtured on the catechism will be formidable theologians in an age of irrationalism and general mindlessness.4. Memory is a faculty that should be developed. One might liken memory to a muscle-it grows when exercised and shrinks when neglected. J. A. Motyer, former Principal of Trinity College in Bristol and lecturer in Old Testament and Hebrew, once said that he noticed a significant change in the capacity of his students to learn Hebrew declensions. What was typically learned upon first hearing by students in the 1930s and 40s was the labor of a week in the 1970s and 80s. Obviously, it is a great asset in life to have what we call a “good memory.” What has often not been understood is that having such is more a matter of work than nature.5. Memorizing logical, structured, conceptual material like the Shorter Catechism actually contributes to mental development. J. S. Mill, no friend of orthodox Christianity, claimed in his famous essay On Liberty that the Scots become mental philosophers of the first order through their study of the Bible and the Shorter Catechism. Douglas Kelly, noting the work of Scottish theologian T. F. Torrance, states that “children brought up on the Catechism have a greater capacity for conceptual thinking (as opposed to merely pictorial thinking) than those who never memorized it.” It provides matter (theological matter!) for building the mental framework within which rational thought can take place. While not superior to the memorization of Scripture, this does explain why the catechisms are to be memorized alongside of Scripture. Anglo-Catholic essayist, J. A. Froude, who spoke of “the Scottish peasant as the most remarkable man in Europe,” traced the dignity, intellect, and character of the typical Scottish peasant up to that time “as largely fl owing from the memorization of the Shorter Catechism.7 Let educational fads come and go. Concentrate on a method that has stood the test of time.
A Simpler Life
Now pull together the various threads. Instead of spiritual concerns contributing to an already frantic pace of life, the family should commit itself to the time-proven, biblically based means of spiritual nurture-public and family worship. In these settings great psalms and hymns are sung, children are catechized, sins are confessed, and the Scriptures are read and taught. Instead of running all over town, children and parents heading out in every direction, commitments are focused upon the Lord’s Day services and daily worship at home. Life is simplified! Not only will we be using means that are more fruitful than the modern alternatives, and more likely to result in the salvation and sanctification of covenant children and parents alike, but the pace of life will slow, allowing more rather than less time for families to be together. Public worship, family worship, the Lords Day, and catechizing are the ancient paths in which we will find rest for our souls.
1 This article was originally published as, and has been slightly adapted from, chapter thirteen (“A Call to Family Worship”) in Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship, ed. Philip Graham Ryken, Derek W. H. Thomas, and J. Ligon Duncan (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2003) 317-338. Used by permission of P & R Publishing.
2 Excellent helps on the subject of family worship are Jerry Marcellino,Rediscovering the Lost Treasure of Family Worship (Laurel, Miss.: Audubon, 1996); Terry Johnson, The Family Worship Book (Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus, 1998); and Douglas F. Kelly, “Family Worship: Biblical, Reformed, and Viable for Today” in Worship in the Presence of God, ed. David Lachmann and Frank J. Smith (Greenville: Greenville Seminary Press, 1992) 103-129. A number of classic works have been reprinted: Cotton Mather, A Family Well-Ordered (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 2001); J.W. Alexander, Thoughts on Family Worship (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle, 1981); and B. M. Palmer, The Family in Its Civil and Churchly Aspects (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle, 1981). See also Kerry Ptacek, Family Worship (Greenville: Southern Presbyterian Press, 1994) for an annotated copy of the old Westminster Directory of Worship.
3 Marcellino, Rediscovering 11-12
4 See Johnson, The Family Worship Book, especially the superb historical resources that he provides, including the great Thomas Manton’s famous letter to the readers of the Westminster Confession and catechisms, and the Westminster Directory for Family Worship.
5 In the following section we are not promoting congregationalism as a form of government, though what we advocate by the phrase “congregational Christianity” should draw complete agreement from those committed to that church order. Rather, we mean, precisely, that Jesus’ intention was for his disciples to be nurtured in the context of a healthy local church. That is, explicitly, at least part of what the Great Commission means by “baptizing and teaching” the disciples that are made among the nations. Jesus is saying in effect, “nurture these converts by word and sacrament into growing disciples in the context of a mutually accountable local gathering of believers.” Personal Christianity is to grow in the nursery of congregational Christianity. So when we speak of the renewal of congregational Christianity, we are acknowledging that our individualized Western Christianity needs to be “re-congregationalized.”
6 Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship That is Reformed according to Scripture(Atlanta: John Knox, 1984) 37.
7 See Douglas F. Kelly, “The Westminster Shorter Catechism” in To Glorify and Enjoy God: A Commemoration of the 350th Anniversary of the Westminster Assembly, ed. John L. Carson and David W. Hall (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994) 101-126, esp. 123-125 for his comments, referenced here and above, on the impact of memorization of the catechism.
Article from The Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood