Somewhere a faithful Christian father leads his family in evening devotion. He looks across the room over which he presides. Before him stretches chaos. One child is rolling on the ground. The firstborn is sitting with her hands in her lap—anxious to begin because she is anxious to finish. Father turns around and sees a third child discretely coloring the family hymnal. Experienced parents might define devotion less as glory descending from above and more as embarrassed majesty rising from a sea of uncooperative and argumentative children. They might forget that this, even this, is a City making progress.
Richard Baxter said that marriage is where parents “faithfully join as helpers in the education of their children.” Part of the warp and woof of Christian discipleship is the family devotion, sometimes called family worship. For English-speaking Christians, the habit of family devotion goes back to the seventeenth century Puritans, who introduced the devotional practices of the Christian family in England. Despite the common caricature, the Puritans were cheerful people with a deep sense of joy in God. They developed the idea of the Christian household as the pattern of parents teaching children the Bible and how to pray. This form of the Christian family has passed into American evangelicalism, where family worship and prayers are the responsibility of the father and mother as the spiritual leaders (Eph. 6:1-2).
Yet it is an intimidating thing for parents to conduct family devotions, especially if they are unaccustomed to the practice. Thankfully, the Puritan ethos of patient nurture charts a path forward. The Puritan family raised children with the principle of nurture that patiently trained children in the way they should go, caring for the soul like one might care for the body. Each devotional time resembles a football huddle more than a weekend conference. Devotions need not carry on too long, especially with the younger children. The design is to draw attention to the successive folds of truth as they slowly and gradually slide into view. After many years of simple huddles, you will have uncoiled a length of biblical truth that stretches the entirety of mere Christianity.
Parents feed children several meals a day, but not all at the same time. Not all the month’s meals are eaten in one sitting. I trust you recognize we’re talking about more than food. Such a diet won’t nurture disciples who love Christ, hate sin and fear God. Disciple-making requires the patience of a farmer. “See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. 8 You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand” (James 5:7b-8a).
So, we’re admitting that this isn’t easy, which is good since perfection is not the goal. God is content to allow human weakness to intrude while the Spirit does his work. How can family devotion help “establish … hearts”? In other words, what are the goals of family devotions? While admitting there are many, consider these four goals.
First, growing in knowledge and love.
Devotions are most useful when they fortify the foundations of Christian knowledge and love (2 Pt. 3:18), training the family in the practical use of the Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:16) while also stirring up love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24).
Second, fortifying foundations.
In today’s world where religious cynicism is the norm and believing isn’t easy, family devotion is one of the many things needed to head off unbelief off at the pass. This involves establishing biblical structures before false ones emerge and teaching lively faith before dead formalism obtrudes.
Third, choosing a good name.
Since most Americans aspire toward riches, and since a good name is better than riches (Proverbs 22:1), family devotion is the time to protect the reputation of the family name. Not just Smith or Jones, but the name of Christ. Christ is our family name if we are Christians. And if the Smiths are a Christian family, then the honor of the Smith name matters too. We cooperate with the world’s religious scoffing when we drag the family name through the mud of hypocrisy. We should suffer the reproach of the world for doing good rather than for doing evil (1 Pt. 3:17). So, train covenant children to do good and endure the name-calling of the world in the process.
Fourth, sharing your joy.
A child instinctively knows what their parents think is important. G.K. Chesterton said that children often reject what their parents say, but they never reject what their parents really think is important. Maybe we should call it the osmosis affect—children gradually absorb what’s most important in the house, even if those things are unstated. So, in addition to teaching your children to have joy in the Lord, you should actually have joy in the Lord in the presence of your children, rather than brooding when family devotion borders on disorder.
One way to show—while simultaneously saying—Jesus is the most important, is to sing hymns as a family. What’s that, you say you don’t sing well? Even better! Then your children will know that you aren’t singing because of your love of music. You are singing because of your joy in the Lord.
One of the secondary benefits of family devotion is that it encourages those moms and dads who think their gifts are too small. It is not the case that those without a ministerial calling have no calling at all. Every Christian is called to diligently perform their private calling in family life. When parents speak of divine things, when they feed the souls of their children, when they lead the family in prayer, they feel the reality of the things they speak. This will encourage them that the ordinary practice of family devotion has great value. And since they are leading something of great value, God is using them to advance the Kingdom.
Training Hearts, Teaching Minds: Family Devotions Based on the Shorter Catechism by Starr Meade
This book of short daily readings is based on the Westminster Shorter Catechism. It explains the catechism in simple language, includes key Scripture readings, and takes just a few moments each day.
Every Moment Holy by Douglas McKelvey
This book of prayerful liturgies has something for every season of life
The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions compiled by Arthur Bennett
This is more than a book of written prayers. It is a prompt and tutor for Christians who want to pray living prayers.
Our affections are shaped and molded by the music we sing—or don’t sing. When you own (and use!) a copy of your church’s hymnal (at TRC we use the Cantus Christi) you are preparing your family for the great victories and tragedies that befall God’s people.
Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville, Alabama. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.