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Family Worship

Family worship takes time, effort and daily discipline.

  • Brian M. Abshire,
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My wife Elaine makes Scrooge look like a spendthrift on a Vegas vacation. When she pulls a quarter out of her wallet, the image of George squints because its been so long since he's seen daylight. But since she works full time running the house, home schooling six children AND serving as my administrative assistant (I'm the only pastor in my presbytery who can legitimately chase his secretary around the desk) sometimes, despite herself, I can convince her to actually spend some money and eat out. (I could never understand her current reticence, since, when I was courting her, she loved eating at the fanciest, most expensive restaurants around. She explained it to me in simple terms: before we were married, I was spending MY money. Now, I'm spending OUR money, and that little pronoun change made all the difference.) Recently we took the kids to the Golden Arches where they have one of those big, built-in playgrounds. Elaine graciously consented to ordering two coffees (as opposed to just one cup we could share, since they give you free refills) and TWO super-sized Cokes for the kids. Then, to my amazement, she splurged on letting them share a cinnamon roll! Wow, does this girl know how to party or what?

As we sat drinking our coffee, the kids went running through the playground, organizing a game based on a book one of them had been reading (Peter Capstick's Maneaters, and the game involved hunting the dangerous "animals" through the maze). Since it was the middle of the week, there were not many other children there, but the few who were, made up in noise for what they lacked in numbers. I was reminded again of the differences between Biblical child-rearing practices and those of contemporary Americans. Look, my kids are sinners by nature, just like everyone else's. But at home they are taught respect, self-control, obedience, etc. When they play, they have fun, and run around and do kid stuff. But the other children playing were literally self-absorbed little monsters, screaming, yelling, arguing, pushing, shoving, showing contempt for their mothers, ignoring basic safety rules and generally making a nuisance of themselves. The mothers sat by, oblivious to their children's behavior. Now granted, I am sure that someone, somewhere has done a research study demonstrating that mothers are 75% more able than fathers to handle the cacophony of little children. At the same time, repeatedly as I watch pagan children, it appears to me that they are out of control. After one obnoxious little snot stood toe- to-toe with his mother, defying her to discipline him, Elaine remarked, "Well, there's your argument for birth control." I respectfully disagreed: "There is your argument for parental control."

Granted, many of these moms are trying to do an impossible job, i.e., raise children without any help from a husband. Either they are divorced, separated or were never married. Repeatedly, sociological surveys demonstrate that the children most at risk of drug abuse, violent crime, pregnancy or "premature" death, are those from single-parent families where the father is absent. Even if physically present in the household, he is often emotionally and spiritually absent. He has abdicated his responsibilities, and his children pay the price. America is raising an entire generation of uncontrolled, self-absorbed, irresponsible, "sons of Hell" who threaten to destroy what remains of this culture.

Pagan Child-Rearing Practices Among Christians

Pagan child-rearing practices infiltrate the covenant community as more and more Christians compromise with a secularized, hostile and aggressive humanism. Having abandoned a full-orbed, Biblical world view for a truncated, pietized and privatized religion, the Christian family has no defense against these pagan practices. Examples abound, but it is telling that the leading complaint of visitors to Lakeside Church is that we do not have a nursery for their children. Our children (about 45 of them), even the youngest, sit in worship with us. They sit quietly and reverently. The older ones (over 5) take notes. The younger ones draw pictures based on what the pastor preaches (and there is usually one good, gory anecdote per sermon that serves as their artistic muse!).

But often visitors' children are squirmy, noisy, and generally undisciplined, sometimes even getting up during the middle of the service and wandering around the sanctuary (and on occasion, parents have had to leave the service because of the terrible behavior of their kids). Our children can worship with us because the fathers are all convinced of the importance of daily, family worship. They study the Scriptures and apply them on a daily basis at home. Our children learn how to worship literally at Daddy's knee. Therefore public worship is just an extension of what they have already been doing throughout the week.

Compromised Christian Families

Compromised Christians on the other hand, develop their core values regarding marriage and family from a anti-Biblical perspective. Thus, they have no real understanding of what a child needs to grow into a responsible, self-governed, godly adult. Instead, "We mustn't discipline the little jewels because it might damage their self esteem!" Never spank or correct them, because that's barbaric and the new priesthood of psychology has given us better wisdom than the Scriptures. We must "reason" with the little tykes, appeal to their "better" natures, give them "time outs." And if they can't sit still, if they are disrespectful, disobedient and obnoxious, why that's the school's problem, or the church's, or anyone else's, but certainly not the parents'!

Men's Responsibility

The man as the covenant head of the family bears the greatest responsibility. However, without having had a strong father figure at home, or a strong pastor in the pulpit, too many men just don't have a clue of how to be godly fathers. They then do what men have been doing since the time of Adam in the Garden: they push the responsibility off on somebody else ("But Johnny has to go to public school so he can play sports on a REAL team").

Happily, home schooling is a welcome counter-cultural trend. While all covenant children require a Christian education, home schooling offers the parents an incredible opportunity to take personal responsibility for their children. If for no other reason, home schooling has been a great boon in that it forces parents to make a direct, personal investment in their children's lives. They cannot console themselves by thinking, "That's someone else's job." Home schooling is a sacrifice, but it allows parents to be intimately involved with their children at every step of the education process.

Dangers for Home Schoolers

However, there is a subtle danger even in home schooling. Every Christian home school curriculum has some sort of Bible module, whether it be Scripture memory, general Bible knowledge, or some sort of Bible story book. And here is the problem. Sometimes, Dad can get the idea that since Bible study is part of home school, and Mom, by default, usually handles most of the home schooling chores, then he has just found another way of abdicating his responsibilities. Dads need to lead in family worship, and that means planning the time, and taking the time daily to do it.

Now many Christian families try to have some sort of "devotions." Usually this means reading a little passage out of some devotional book, praying at meals and basically just leaving it at that. And granted, it's better to do something rather than nothing. But real family worship is a greater responsibility than just mumbling a few words and getting on with the day.

Reformed Family Worship

The Directory of Family Worship, adopted by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1647, is an important historical document, long forgotten by most Reformed Christians. It demonstrates powerfully the duties and spiritual responsibilities of the head of a house towards the family. It also humbles one as he meditates on how far we have fallen from the standards of our Reformed forefathers. Whether Presbyterian or Puritan, our spiritual ancestors understood the importance of family worship and raised up generations of warriors for the Faith. Though not without their faults (see my essay on the "Puritan Family" in the August, 1996, Chalcedon Report), their example demonstrates why they were able to exercise such a powerful influence on their world, while we today are too often influenced by the world.

The original Directory of Family Worship is available directly from Greenville Theological Seminary (P. O. Box 9279, Greenville SC 29604). Lakeside slightly edited its own version for easier reading by updating the language and breaking the long, complicated sentences down into more easily grasped principles. A copy of this is available on our web page ( However, the principles are so vital to a living, Christian Faith that it is worth highlighting some of this document's contents.

Fundamentals of Reformed Family Worship

The General Assembly approved the Rules and Directions for family worship "for cherishing piety, and preventing division and schism." The Scottish Church understood that the family is the foundation of social order both within the state and the church. No church has enough ministers to adequately train every child, just as no free state can afford the number of police required to monitor every citizen (though Washington certainly seems to think it worth the attempt!). Instead, the church recognized that the responsibility of teaching and catechizing the nation's children fell to the family. If each family diligently and conscientiously trained its children in the doctrines of our holy religion, there would be a great unity of faith and practice. Values caught by daily, family worship when a child is young are likely to stay with him for the rest of his life. Furthermore, such doctrines help a child avoid the sinful life decisions that destroy whole generations (Ps. 119:9-11).

The Directory sees the church's role as not primarily educating the children, but ensuring that such education takes place in the home. It "appoints ministers and ruling elders in each congregation to take special care that these Directions be observed and followed." Furthermore the leaders were to reprove or censure those who did not keep them.

If any family was found to be deficient, "the head of the family is to be first admonished privately to amend his fault; and, in case of his continuing therein, he is to be gravely and sadly reproved by the session; After this reproof, if he is found still to neglect Family-worship, he shall be, for his obstinacy in such an offense, suspended and debarred from the Lord's Supper, as being justly esteemed unworthy to receive the sacraments until he amends his ways." Family worship was a very serious duty. Today, with our low view of ecclesiastical authority, the fact that a man could be barred from the Lord's Supper for failing in family worship may seem extreme. But the early Presbyterians knew something that modern churchmen have forgotten: if the family does not do its duties, the church cannot fulfill hers. Character is normally created in a Christian home. Bringing children up in the discipline and admonition of the Lord is fundamental to every other area of life (cf. Eph. 6:1ff, Dt. 6:4ff).

Today we substitute Sunday School, youth group, summer camps, etc., for family worship. Yet, these things, although certainly not evil in and of themselves, undermine the father's responsibility. It is too easy to think that our obligations are being fulfilled when we turn our children over to someone else. My own sad experience as a youth pastor twenty years ago was that the parents expected me in a couple of hours a week to undo all the damage done to their children by statist education, R-rated movies, rock music and television. It just could not be done.

Family Worship Requires Hard Work

Family worship takes time, effort and daily discipline. Over the years, as I have worked in various church and parachurch ministries, I have been conducting private surveys on a number of issues. It is no accident that the more developed the Christian education program in a church, the less actual time the family spends together in family worship. The more time, money and effort spent on Sunday school, the less catechized the children. Look, we are all "busy" people today with many demands on our time, energy and attention. It is just too easy to push off one job onto someone else, especially if no one is emphasizing its importance. It is especially difficult if we do not have clear directions as to what this duty entails.

Family worship begins with what the Directory calls "secret worship" or what some call today "quiet times." The Directorymakes it clear that national reformation can only occur when there is personal transformation. Therefore, every person was to be dedicated to personal prayer and meditation. Having been brought to faith in Christ through a parachurch organization known for its emphasis on "quiet times," I have always appreciated the leg up this gave me over many other Christians to whom the very concept seemed a mystery. Many people don't have a clue as to what a "quiet time" is. The Directory defines "secret worship" as the means "whereby, communion with God is enjoyed, and right preparation for all other duties obtained." In other words, it is quality personal time with God and nobody else. It is a time of praising God for his nature and being, meditating on his Law (Jos. 1:8) and being convicted of our sin. It is then a time of spiritual refreshment as we learn to cast all our burdens on him (1 Pet. 3:5), trusting in Christ and Christ alone for our salvation and forgiveness. It has been said, and it is true, that Christianity is not a religion but a relationship (Jn. 17:3). We love God's law because it is an expression of his character. My children obey my laws around the house because they love me and they know I love them. My laws are reflections of my character and values. How sad if my kids grew to love my laws, but neglected to love the law-giver! Secret worship is the time spent along with God, relating to him, enjoying his presence, glorifying his name. There is a significant difference between piety and pietism. Perhaps some of us, in reaction to the slushy sentimentality and subjectivity of modern antinomian, broad evangelicalism are at risk of losing something central to Biblical Christianity — a personal relationship with the living God!

Pastors' Obligation

Pastors were required to exhort their congregations "to perform this duty morning and evening." Notice the terminology here: secret worship is not just a nice thing good Christians do. It is a duty that God himself requires. To fail to have regular secret worship is to fail God. Furthermore, it is the responsibility of the head of every family "to have a care, that both themselves, and all within their charge, be daily diligent herein." So not only did Dad have to have secret worship himself, but he was required to make sure everyone else under his authority had it as well.

At Lakeside we enjoin our fathers to have their "secret" worship on the same passage they will use for family worship later in the day. This way, the father gets a chance to consider the passage of Scripture, get his own heart right before God, and have time carefully to consider how the Scriptures apply to his personal situation. Then when he brings the family together, he can share the word of God powerfully, because it has already had a chance to work in his own life.

The Duties of Family Worship

Family worship is much like public worship, apart from the sacraments. When families convened for worship they were first to pray and praise God with special emphasis to the church and the kingdom, the family in general and "every member thereof." Next, they were to read the Scriptures. Third, they were to catechize the children and "uneducated" persons so that they "may be the better enabled to profit under the public ordinances, and made more able to understand the Scriptures when they are read." Catechism is one of the most potent ways of internalizing truths. Years ago, we began with the Children's Catechism, a short, easy introduction to the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Confession. But one of our deacons at the time, Brian Schantz (now a ruling elder), questioned the efficacy of having to teach the children two different Catechisms. He showed up one Sunday afternoon with his two year old having memorized the first seven answers of the Shorter Catechism! I was so impressed I immediately dropped the Children's Catechism and began teaching my kids the Shorter as well. We had to work with our youngest ones quite a lot but made a game of it, and soon the oldest were memorizing three or four questions a week, on their own! Of course, they do not understand all that they are learning, and part of my job in family worship is to relate the Catechism answers to real life. Often in family worship, a question, concern or issue will arise directly from the text for that day. I then ask the kids leading questions until they see how the Catechism answer relates to that concern. Thus, my kids not only learn by rote, but also by organically internalizing the concepts into their daily life. This is what the Directory requires: "There should also be godly conferences for the edification of all the members in the most holy faith: as also, admonition and rebuke, upon just reason, from those who have authority in the family."

Hence, the Directory does not require the father to preach a sermon every day. Instead, the Scriptures are to be read, "and it is commendable, that afterwards [the family] confer, and by way of discussion make some good use of what has been read and heard." The Directory offers specific examples, such as "if any sin is reproved, the whole family is to be made aware and watchful against the same; or if any judgment is threatened, or mentioned to have been inflicted. . . , the whole family should fear lest the same or a worse judgment befall them." And, finally, if any duty is required or any comfort held forth in a promise, the family should stir up themselves "to employ Christ for strength to enable them to do the commanded duty, and to apply the offered comfort." In all of this, 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."

Family worship does not supplant public worship on the Lord's Day but rather encourages it. "On the Lord's Day, after everyone of the family apart, and the whole family together, have sought the Lord (in whose hands the preparation of men's hearts are) to fit them for the public worship, and to bless to them the public ordinances, the master of the family ought to take care that all within his charge repair to the public worship, that he and they may join with the rest of the congregation." Afterwards, the father is to spend the rest of the Lord's Day catechizing and discussing the sermon, finding practical applications for the family so that "they may confirm and increase their communion with God: that so the profit which they found in the public ordinance may be cherished and promoted, and they more edified unto eternal life." Hence we come full circle. A family instructed, admonished and encouraged in secret and family worship is ready to appreciate public worship. Squirmy kids in worship thus may well indicate a father's abdicating his duties at home.

Practical Application

There is of course more in the Directory that is of great value, but the main point here has been to demonstrate just how important family worship is to raising godly, dominion-oriented children. At Lakeside, we encourage people to begin by setting definite times every day when family worship can be held. We strongly encourage people to set aside two portions of the day. The first is in the morning, before we leave for work, school or other daily labors; the second, in the evening, either after supper or just before bedtime.

In the morning session, we encourage the heads of the household to convene the family after they have had their own personal devotions. This means getting up a little earlier than most of us are used to. Yet, many homes find that mornings are the most hectic and troubled time of the day. Beginning the day with family worship helps to focus our attention on what is good and right and proper.

We recommend the family start by singing a hymn together. Not every family is musically gifted, but every family can enjoy singing Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (cf. Col. 3:16). Don't allow self-consciousness to rob you of praising God. You can do it and your family will be enriched by praise. At Lakeside we supply our families with the songs we will be singing for the next Lord's Day service. This is to help very young children learn the hymns so they can participate more fully in the service.

After the hymn, the father should open with brief prayer. Though not required, we encourage families to pray the Lord's Prayer together and then recite one of the great ecumenical creeds of the Faith (i.e., either the Apostles' or Nicene Creed is very good). Again, this is usually for the benefit of very young children. It provides the opportunity to learn important statements of Faith as well as giving them things to do (the more the children are included, the less tendency to be squirmy!).

Then the father should read a passage from Scripture. If the family has very young children, it is helpful to focus on narrative passages which tell a story. One can work through the Old Testament and the Gospels, giving children a broad overview of Scripture. When the children are older, didactic passages from the epistles are more appropriate. The family can discuss the points made in the passage with Dad making some practical applications from it.

At one time, we used to re-read the same historical narrative as told in a Bible story book. However, we found that these books come in uneven quality and need to be handled carefully. Eventually, our Dads found that they could re-tell the same story in their own words with better effect and fewer heresies, than most popular Bible story books. If one's children are old enough, we allow them to read the Scriptures one verse at a time. In other words, we try to get as many of the children involved in as much of the program as possible. This helps maintain attention spans.

Dad should focus on making some practical applications for the family. Many Dads have found that first having 15 minutes of private devotions on the same passage gives them the time and opportunity to think through the passage so they can teach it to the rest of the family. Preparation helps performance! (For more information about how to draw good, practical applications from a passage of Scripture, see my book Get More from Your Bible, Scripture Union Publishing, 130 City Road, London, EC1V 2NJ, 1988).

We then ask the children to pray for the specific needs of the family, church, friends, etc. We include a suggested prayer list of members of the church in our weekly bulletin. Sometimes, especially with children under four, the prayers are quite simple and Dad may need to help them word the prayers accordingly. But the children are often quick to pick up on the method. Dad then closes in prayer.

That's it! Thirty minutes, tops. And the result is children who enjoy hearing and studying the Scriptures, singing Psalms and doctrinally sound hymns and praying for people they know.

In the evening, family worship consists of working on the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Confession. Here, brevity is the key. Fifteen minutes of sharing questions and answers on a daily basis will do more to help your kids learn and remember the Catechism than four hours once a week. Furthermore, it just brings everyone together on a common cause with the idiot box turned off. During this time, we also share about God's providence during the day. We usually end by reading from a good children's story book, then pray together and let the children retire for the evening.

Sometimes, in our hectic schedules, families just cannot manage to put it together in the morning. Some of our people swap the order, where they do a couple of Catechism questions in the morning with a short prayer, and then have the singing, praying, reading, etc., at night. This means that a lot of traditional church activities that go on during the week must be cut out. And really, is this so bad? What is of more value to the kingdom, a family having worship together, every night, where the children are learning the Scriptures from their father? Or endless committee meetings, activities, etc., that the average evangelical church requires of its members?

Personally speaking, my kids love family worship and are most upset if we miss it. It is not a burden because we try to make learning about God and his commands fun. They value the uninterrupted time with Mom and Dad and try to outdo each other in learning new questions from the Catechism. In fact, my oldest, when he was just seven, often got the
Catechism book down to lead his younger siblings in impromptu family worship sessions of their own!

For those who have not had regular family worship, their children might initially resist this innovation. They will fidget, whine, complain, etc. However, just like any other aspect of child-rearing, parents have to set the standard and enforce it. If we are consistent, they will be. The kids will test whether you are really serious about doing this. A few bottoms may sting until they finally get the message. But, again don't be afraid to have fun! It is a duty, but also a great joy to worship the Lord.

The head of the house is responsible to God for caring and nurturing his family. Our family is the most important ministry God has given us. If you cannot handle this one, Scripture says you are not qualified for any other (cf. 1 Tim. 3:3ff): "These exercises out to be performed in great sincerity, without delay, laying aside all exercises of worldly business or hindrances, not withstanding the mockings of atheists and profane men; in respect of the great mercies of God to this land, and of his severe corrections with which He has lately disciplined us. And, to this effect, persons of eminency (and all elders of the Church) not only out to stir up themselves and families to diligence..., but also to exhort all other families, where they have power and charge, to conscientiously preform these same exercises."

  • Brian M. Abshire

Rev. Brian Abshire, Ph.D. is currently a Teaching Elder associated with Hanover Presbytery. Along with his pastoral duties, he is also the director for the International Institute for Christian Culture, has served as an adjunct instructor in Religious Studies at Park University and is a visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at Whitefield College.

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