Leading Family Worship

Desiring God 2011 Conference for Pastors

The Powerful Life of the Praying Pastor: In His Room, With His Family, Among the People of God

Turn with me please this evening to two passages of Scripture. The first is from Joshua 24:14–24 (all Scripture references from the KJV). Hear the word of God and be aware that this is a portion of Joshua’s farewell address to Israel.

Now therefore fear the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in truth: and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the flood, and in Egypt; and serve ye the Lord.

By the way, the word serve here could also be translated as worship throughout the entire passage. The passage continues:

And if it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.

And the people answered and said, God forbid that we should forsake the Lord, to serve other gods; For the Lord our God, he it is that brought us up and our fathers out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage, and which did those great signs in our sight, and preserved us in all the way wherein we went, and among all the people through whom we passed: And the Lord drave out from before us all the people, even the Amorites which dwelt in the land: therefore will we also serve the Lord; for he is our God.

And Joshua said unto the people, Ye cannot serve the Lord: for he is an holy God; he is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins. If ye forsake the Lord, and serve strange gods, then he will turn and do you hurt, and consume you, after that he hath done you good. And the people said unto Joshua, Nay; but we will serve the Lord. And Joshua said unto the people, Ye are witnesses against yourselves that ye have chosen you the Lord, to serve him. And they said, We are witnesses. Now therefore put away, said he, the strange gods which are among you, and incline your heart unto the Lord God of Israel. And the people said unto Joshua, The Lord our God will we serve, and his voice will we obey.

Now let’s read Deuteronomy 6:4–9.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates.

Well brothers, I don’t know where you’re at regarding family worship, but just as in private worship, all of us, no doubt, fall short. We fall short in private prayer, so in family prayer; in private reading, so in family reading. My prayer tonight is that somehow by the grace of God, those of you who are engaging in daily, serious family worship may hear things tonight that may strengthen that family worship and cause it to grow, and that those of you who are not engaged in it, or do not know how to engage in it, or have never engaged in it, might learn how to engage in it and not find it threatening, but find it as Dr. Piper just said, encouraging to begin. I assure you it will change your family’s life.

A Call to Family Worship

I grew up in a Dutch Reformed home. My father always prayed before the meal, and then in Dutch circles you would pray after the meal as well. So there were always two prayers and a Bible reading. But my father only spoke to us and interacted with us in engaged, prolonged family worship once a week on Sunday evening. We were trained as kids that when we got married we would pray before the meal, pray after the meal, and read Scripture. So we read three chapters a day with our family — morning, noon, and supper — but we did not engage in much conversation.

When my son was three years old, my firstborn, I was asked to do a talk on family worship and I studied the Scottish tradition and the Dutch tradition, and I was absolutely blown away. I said to my wife, “I’m to give this talk and I’m not doing it myself.” I sat down with my boy when he was three years old and I said, “Calvin, please forgive daddy that I have not been talking to you the way I should have.” He had no clue what I was talking about. And I said to my wife, “Please forgive me, I have not been leading family worship the way I ought, the way my dad did on Sunday evenings.” Every Sunday evening he would read Pilgrim’s Progress to us for about 40 minutes. We’d sing and then we’d interrupt him sometimes when he was reading. We’d ask him questions, he’d often set the book down and teach us about how the Holy Spirit leads sinners with tears coming down his eyes.

It was wonderful. In fact, when my parents had their 50th anniversary, two years before my father died, all five of us children agreed that we would thank my mother for one thing and we would thank my father for one thing and we put it on tape so they could keep it as a keepsake, but we agreed that none of us would talk to each other about what we were going to say. Well, it was absolutely amazing because all five of us thanked my mother for her prayer life — she was a prayer warrior — and all five of us thanked my father for the Sunday evening family worship and Pilgrim’s Progress time.

My oldest brother said, “Dad, I want to thank you that I never had to question in my mind if God is real, because the oldest memory I have in life is when I was three years old sitting on your lap, looking into your face and seeing you weep as you talked to us about God from Pilgrim’s Progress.” Don’t you want your children to have that as their oldest memory?

The Value of Family Worship

Family worship is invaluable. For the last 17 years of my life, I can say to you that family worship time is the most important thing I do in my life. I wouldn’t miss it for anything in the world. It’s the highlight of my day. It doesn’t mean it always goes perfect and it doesn’t mean it even always goes well, but I know and I feel to the core of my being that it is critical to have family worship.

I don’t know if you remember the Space Shuttle Columbia tragically disintegrating during its high speed reentry into the atmosphere in 2003. Do you remember the commander of it was Colonel Rick Husband? He was a conservative evangelical Christian, and before he launched into space for 18 days, he made 36 videos — 18 for his son and 18 for his daughter — because he said, “I’m going to be gone for 18 days, but I want to lead you in family worship every day even when I’m gone.”

He wrote these words in a videotaped interview that was played at his memorial service, “If I ended up at the end of my life having been an astronaut but having sacrificed my family along the way or living my life in a way that did not glorify God, then I would look back on it with great regret. Having become an astronaut would not have meant that much at all. I came to realize that what meant the most to me was to try to live my life as God wanted me to do, to be a good husband to Evelyn and a good father to my children.” How precious do you think those 18 videos are to Rick Husband’s family today? To each child? Isn’t that the legacy that we want to leave to our children and our grandchildren?

We all want our churches to grow in this way don’t we? But sometimes our most solid growth is internal growth, and it comes from families that are already there and we need to nurture them. We need to nurture them in the home. We, as pastors, need to lead the way so that people coming into our home see us engaging in family worship. We need to preach about it. We need to talk about it so that our families, our church families, engage in family worship and strive, albeit with shortcomings, to be what the Puritans said — “We must seek to have our families be little churches for that will be the backbone of the visible church.”

Goals for Gospel Ministers

My goals with you in this address as ministers of the gospel are really four-fold. First, I want to set before you a kind of paradigm of family worship according to the Scriptures and lace it with some of my own ideas and suggestions. Second, I want us to examine our own practice of leading family worship and ask ourselves what must change or what could change for the better? And then third, I want to challenge you to commit to preaching on this subject yourself. Perhaps you can give out a little book or an audio recording of some kind to reach every family in your church with this call to family worship.

And then fourth, I want you to seriously consider doing what the Puritans did when they officiated at the wedding of couples in their church. They went over to the couple’s house shortly after they were married and they modeled family worship in front of the couple to train their men to lead their families from day one in family worship.

In fact, did you know that the Puritans took this so seriously that in their directory of public worship, they also talk about family worship — this is the Westminster Divines of the 1640s. They actually went so far that they barred the father from coming to the Lord’s supper if he refused to engage in regular daily family worship because they said it’s an integral part of daily life and it’s actually the foundation plank of child-rearing. Now, you can do great family worship and still turn your family into a mess if you don’t live what you’re saying in family worship. But the point is this, you see, family worship is the foundation of child-rearing and that’s what we need to get firmly into our minds. As family worship goes, often so will go the family; and as the family goes, so will go the home; and as the home goes, so will go the church; and as the church goes, so will go the nation. Family worship is the backbone of the whole venture of our society. That’s what the Puritans taught.

A Biblical Paradigm of Family Worship

Now, what I want to do then is I want to look at four things with you. First, we’re going to look at the duty of it grounded in the Scriptures. I won’t look with you so much at the theological foundations of that. I’ve actually got a chapter on that in my little book on Family Worship if you want to look at that. But let me just say a quick word about it right now. This is just a brief outline. Our God is a family God, he’s a triune God. He’s not a lonely Allah, a single solitary person, but he’s three persons in one. He has a Son, he has a Spirit, he has an intertrinitarian relationship and that is the basis of earthly families.

In his fatherly love, our God overflows into the world he created, and he created us in his image to emulate him and to worship him also in our family units. He deals with home and he deals with families all throughout the Old Testament as well as the new through the principles of covenant and representative headship. Therefore, we fathers are responsible to lead our children and our families in the ways of God. That’s why he said already to Abraham in Genesis 18:19:

I know [Abraham], that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord . . .

In the New Testament we see whole families converted together under fatherly leadership and called to grow in holiness in the life of the church. That’s why Doug Kelly says:

Family religion, which depends not a little on the household head daily leading the family before God in worship, is one of the most powerful structures that the covenant-keeping God has given for the expansion of redemption through the generations so that countless multitudes may be brought into communion with and worship the living God in the face of Jesus Christ.

The Duty of Family Worship

Well, that needs to be fleshed out and you can read about that, but I want to look first then at the duty of family worship. Second, we’ll look at how you do it and implement it. And then, third, we’ll look at some objections and conclude by giving you some motivations.

First, let’s consider the duty. I just read to you Joshua 24:14–15 and Joshua concludes verse 15 with these critical words:

But as for me and my house, we will (not optional) serve the Lord.

Now, there are several things we want to notice here quickly. The first thing is that Joshua enforces the service of God in his family by his own example. Joshua 24:1 actually explains that he’s addressing the heads of households, and Joshua 24:15 declares that Joshua is going to do what he wants every other household in Israel to do, namely to worship the Lord in his family. And he has such command and leadership over his own family that he doesn’t go around and ask them, “Will you worship the Lord with me?” No, he says, “As for me at my house, we will worship the Lord.”

Now we need to remember that Joshua is over a hundred years old here. He has remarkable zeal and courage and command as an aged man, and he knows that his leadership is soon going to end. His direct control over his family will soon terminate. God has told him he’s soon going to die. This is his farewell message. Yet he’s so confident that his influence will continue in his family, that they will not abandon family worship after he dies, that he says, “As for me and my family, we will (future tense) worship the Lord.” That’s an amazing testimony of faith.

Here’s a man who’s over a hundred years old. This is a farewell message. He’s going to die. He knows that much idolatry remains in Israel. He has just told the people, “Put away your false gods.” He knows that his family will be swimming against the stream in continuing to worship the Lord, but he believes they will do it anyway because he set the example and he’s imbued it into them, instilled it there. Now, turn with me just a moment to Joshua 24:31. You see his influence is so pervasive that most of the nation follows his example for at least one generation. Look at Joshua 24:31. It says:

And Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders that outlived Joshua (that is, the next generation), and which had known all the works of the Lord, that he had done for Israel.

Wow, that’s dynamite. Joshua’s influence that was grounded in family worship pervades throughout Israel, and for the whole next generation the elders are continuing that tradition among the people and the people are worshiping God daily in their families. Joshua said, “As for me and my household . . .” Would to God that every one of us would say that tonight with conviction — “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. We will seek him. We will worship him. We will pray to him as a family. We will read his word, replete with instructions, and reinforce its teachings in our family.” Let me quote Doug Kelly once more:

The representative principle inherent in God’s covenant dealings with our human race indicates that the head of each family is to represent his family before God in divine worship and that the spiritual atmosphere and long-term personal welfare of that family will be impacted in large measure by the fidelity or failure of the family head in this area.

Now, it’s possible that we have failed completely in this area and God is amazing in his grace and he can still bless our children, still bless our families, but his normal way is to give a special blessing upon families that worship him from day to day.

Instruction in God’s Word

What is our duty to do in family worship? What does Scripture say? What are the ingredients of family worship? Well, there are three in number. The first is daily instruction in the word of God. That means we need to worship God in our family by reading the Scriptures together as a family and then instructing our children about what we’ve just read.

Apparently, the way that was done in Old Testament times was, according to Deuteronomy 6:4–9, through Q&A and instructions and interactions about sacred truth. All those activities that Moses talks about that I read to you — sitting in your house, walking by your way, lying down, and rising up — these are daily activities. You lie down every night, you rise up in the morning, you sit in your house every day, and you walk by the way every day. Moses is saying that we must diligently, not passively, converse with our children about the truths of God with burning hearts as fathers, just like we engage in these daily activities.

We must teach the word of God diligently, from the heart, with tears at times, with earnestness, with the kind of earnestness that we preach to our congregations. We are to be as holy in our family as we are, or as we appear to be, in the pulpit. There must be daily instruction in the word of God.

Prayer Before God’s Throne

Second, there must be daily prayer to the throne of God. “Pray without ceasing” implies praying in your family as well, doesn’t it? First Timothy 4:4–5 says:

For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.

If we are to do everything to the glory of God, even our eating and our drinking, then the food we eat must also be dedicated to God, not just with a little, “Father, thank you for this food. Amen. Let’s eat.” We must engage in prayer with our family. Whether it’s before supper, after supper, or whatever time of day you pick, that’s up to you. But whenever the family can get together, we must storm the mercy seat with them.

Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God (Deuteronomy 8:3).

We must seek to bring our families into heavenly places and to reign down the benediction of God upon them through prayer. God says in Jeremiah 10:25 that he will pour out his fury — that’s a scary word, God’s fury — upon families that call not upon his name. A Puritan Thomas Brooks commenting on this text said, “A family without prayer is like a house without a roof, open and exposed to all the storms of heaven.”

Songs for God’s Praise

And then third, daily singing the praise of God. Psalm 118:15 says:

The voice of rejoicing and salvation
     is in the tabernacles of the righteous:
     The right hand of the Lord doeth valiantly.

That’s a clear reference to singing. Philip Henry, the father of the famous Puritan commentator, Matthew Henry, said, “What that means is that as you walked along around meal time or family worship time in Israel in the ancient days, you’d hear some singing from that tent and then you’d hear some singing from that tent. They would be singing the Psalms, God’s hymn book, and people would be responding and involved in family singing, not just temple singing.” The Lord is to be worshiped daily by the singing of Psalms and hymns in our homes. He’s glorified and families are edified by singing.

Colossians 3:16 says:

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.

Dear brothers, we must implement and we must teach our congregations and our families to implement family worship in our homes. God requires it of us not only privately as individuals but publicly as members of the covenant body and community and socially as families. The Lord Jesus is worthy of family worship, God’s word commands family worship, and your conscience affirms that it’s your duty. Your family owes its allegiance to God, corporately as a family, and God has placed you in a position of authority to guide your children in the ways of the Lord. Your first congregation is your family. You’re more than friends and advisors to your children as their teacher and ruler.

Your example and leadership are crucial, and so, clothed with holy authority, you must walk in your family not just as the buddy of your kids, but you’re their prophet, their priest, and their king. You’re their prophet to teach them, you’re their priest to pray for them, you’re their king to guide them and rule over them by conversing with them and showing them the way to go through the word of God. And so, as pastors, we must lovingly inform the heads of families in our churches that they must command their household to worship God every day.

The Practice of Family Worship

Well, how do you do it? That’s my second thought. How do you implement it? Well, I’ll try to avoid two extremes here. I’ll try to avoid an idealistic approach that’s beyond the reach of even the most God-fearing home, and I’ll try to also avoid a minimalist approach that almost abandons daily family worship because the ideal seems out of reach. Let’s aim for a happy medium here.

The first thing is this — a few prefatory remarks. Number one: family worship requires some preparation. You should pray for God’s blessing upon that worship. You should have your Bibles ready. You can delegate it to your wife if you want. That’s okay. But you’re in charge. Have your Bibles ready and a Scripture passage selected and perhaps a catechism book, or books of questions and answers for children, which can be helpful, or a good daily devotional, or something at hand to assist you perhaps — particularly the fathers in your families will need that.

You may find as pastors that you just want to do it freely from the text at hand. That’s great. Choose some Psalms and hymns that are easy to sing. Pick a place to gather. We never have family worship around our supper table with all the clutter of dishes. We move right away after supper into a separate room and all our books are situated there by our five chairs, and we sit in a tight circle and we do family worship. Use whatever time and guard it well. Use whatever time fits you best and expect everyone to be there as much as possible. Family worship is to be jealously guarded.

Principle number two: in family worship, aim for brevity. Don’t provoke your children. If you worship twice a day, probably 10 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the evening is probably sufficient for most families. If your children are older and they are God-fearing and they really want to talk with you longer, maybe shut down the family worship and let some of the younger ones go and play and then speak longer with them. That’s fine, but don’t overdo it.

And don’t do 45 minutes on Monday and then skip Tuesday. That’s like binge-eating on Monday and fasting on Tuesday. You need spiritual food every day, and so does your family.

Principle number three: don’t indulge excuses to avoid family worship. Maybe you come home at night and you say, “I’m so tired, let’s just quit it tonight. We’ll pick it up tomorrow.” Don’t do that. The Lord Jesus was very tired for you when went to the cross, and he kept on going. Jesus, having loved his own, loved them to the end (John 13:1). If he wasn’t too tired to die for you, you shouldn’t be too tired to live for him.

Or maybe you just lost your temper 20 minutes ago at one of the kids and you’re in no mood to do family worship. A.W Pink says that’s all the more reason to do family worship. Because first you need to confess to your child and to God because the greatest problem in our lives really is not sin — I say that reverently — but the greatest problem in our lives is unconfessed sin. So confess it immediately and get beyond it. You’ll be surprised how children forgive. If you’re not in the habit of confessing things to your children, I’m always surprised how resolute children are that way, how quick they are to forgive. It’s amazing. Just ask them for forgiveness and get beyond it and your family worship will probably have more meaning to you that night.

Principle number four: lead your family worship with a wonderful combination of a firm, fatherly hand and a soft, penitent heart. Speak with hopeful solemnity, with encouraging warmth, with abiding love. Talk naturally and yet reverently to your children, using the tone that you would use when you speak to a deeply respected friend about a serious matter, and expect as you do so, great things from a great, covenant-keeping God. Those are some prefatory remarks.

The Practice of Scripture Reading

Let’s look now at the three areas and let me give you a couple of practical guidelines for each. First, consider the reading of Scriptures.

Number one, have a plan. Read perhaps 10 or 20 verses from the Old Testament in the morning, and 10 or 20 from the New Testament in the evening. If your children are very young, read maybe a series of parables or stories, or the book of Genesis is great, or miracles, or historical portions. Just be sure that as your children get a bit older, you read the whole Bible. J.C. Ryle said “a whole Bible makes a whole Christian”. Eventually, you want to bring them through the whole word of God. Since our children were around 10 and up, we just moved from Genesis to Revelation, and when I try to do something different, they don’t like it. They said, “No dad, we want the whole Bible.” Okay, well whatever works for you.

But make sure that they get the Scriptures.

Number two, account for special occasions. Don’t make it ironclad. Do break through for special occasions. If we’re going to go on a trip, we all get down on our knees and we read Psalm 91 or Psalm 121. That’s an obvious choice. And we talk about the need for God’s protection, and then we go on the trip. Or if we’re going to have Lord supper that Sabbath morning, we read Psalm 22, Isaiah 53, or Matthew 26.

Number three, involve the whole family in the reading. As soon as the children can read, even before they can read, give them a Bible. We like to give each one of our children a Bible with a bunch of study notes on the bottom, and we give them different ones, if possible, so that they all have different notes and we can compare notes and facilitate conversation. Of course, the ones that can’t read yet try to pretend they can a bit and that’s okay. They’re feeling involved and you can help them. You can put your finger on it there and say a couple words. They’ll say a couple words behind you, and so on. And just lead them through a couple verses.

If we have 20 verses to read, we have five people in our family so we all read four verses. Everyone is involved. And as they read, teach them how to read. They might read too fast, so you say, “Oh son, wait a minute, you’re going so fast. This is the word of God, my boy. Slow down a bit.” Teach them to read with expression by your own example. Don’t mumble; read with expression. This is the word of God. It’s a breathing book. Read it with expression. You teach them so that by the time they’re 10 or 12 you don’t have to say anything anymore. They read the Scriptures wonderfully.

The Practice of Biblical Instruction

Here’s the second area — biblical instruction. This is a challenge at the beginning, but actually you’ll come to love it.

Number one, be plain in meaning. The 1647 Church of Scotland directory provides counsel here. It says:

The Holy Scripture should be read ordinarily to the family, and after they are read, there should be a conference (that is, there should be conversation), making use of what has been read and heard. If there was sin reproved in the word read, the father must then make use thereof to make all the family circumspect and watchful against that same sin. If any judgment be threatened or mentioned to have been inflicted in that portion of Scripture read, use may be made by the Father to make all the family fear lest the same or worse judgment fall upon them. If any duty be required, if any comfort and promise be held forth, use may be made by the Father to stir up themselves to employ Christ for strength and to enable them for doing their commanded duty and to apply the offered comfort to their own souls.

In all of this, the master of the family (that’s you fathers) is to have the chief hand and any member of the family may propose questions or doubts for resolution in the midst of the discussion.

That’s the way to do it. You encourage family dialogue around God’s word. You just walk your way back through the 20 verses read and your children follow along and you ask them questions. You might say, “Hey Calvin, what do your notes say about that expression there in verse 15?” And then he reads the notes, and you say, “What do you think? Here’s what my notes say. What do you think is better? How would you interpret that?” If they’re a little bit younger you might talk about, “How can you apply this to your daily life? What does this have to do with you today, Lydia? How can you use this?”

Never ask another child the same question if the first one doesn’t get it because they start competing or they start feeling insecure, especially if the younger one gets the answer right. I learned that the hard way. Aim your questions at each child according to their age. I simply name them and then ask a question, and the other ones aren’t allowed to answer, and I give the other one another question. This way you encourage family dialogue, and if you don’t know the answers or they don’t know the answers, don’t ever make them feel belittled, ever.

This is a learning experience for all of us. Sometimes I don’t know the answers. Generally, it’s good to have a commentary or two, especially teach your fathers to do that in the congregation. Have Matthew Poole or John Calvin or a more contemporary commentary that is sound and Reformed. Have it sitting beside you and look it up right there. If it still doesn’t have the answer, just say, “Well, Dad will study that out for a day, and I’ll try to get you an answer tomorrow.”

Utilizing Experience and Illustration

Second, be pure in doctrine. There’s no excuse for abandoning doctrinal precision when teaching young children. All you’ve got to do is aim for simplicity and soundness together.

Third, be relevant in application. Don’t be afraid to share your experiences when appropriate, but do it simply. Recently we read 1 Timothy 1, and 1 Timothy 1:15 was an incredibly special verse to me. Some of you know, I was assaulted in Latvia by two men as I came back from a lecture. They hit me. One guy had a knife, he cut up a sheet and they bound me, head and feet and arms behind my back very tight, and they gagged me and kept running the knife up and down my back, and they said they were the mafia. That’s all I understood. They said, “Mafia, mafia.” I’d just been told all the night before that if the mafia ever gets ahold of you, you’re as good as dead.

I really never imagined at that moment and it didn’t even enter my mind that I’d come out of this alive. I knew I was dead. I just took those last minutes of my life to pray to God. I commended my wife, my children, the seminary, and the church, to God. It was amazing because God just applied this promise to me:

This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.

I was laying there expecting to die any moment, and I saw that it was through the blood of Jesus that I was saved and through that blood alone, and I could rest in that and I was at perfect peace, for a little while. And then I started thinking about my kids, and my hands were tied very tightly behind my back and numbness started going up my arm. It got up to just about my elbow and I said, “You fool, focus on Jesus,” and I focused on Jesus. Honestly, the numbness went right back down and out of my finger. I thought it was a miracle at the moment. Later, I explained it to a doctor in my congregation and he said, “Well, it’s very physiologically explained.” All right, but it was wonderful to me at the time. But you see that verse is imprinted on my memory bank. I love that verse. I love to preach that text.

So when we come to that in family worship, I tell that to my children, and I say, “You know what this verse means to your dad?” And this gives a sense that, “Hey, the Bible is real to my dad. The Bible is a real book. The Bible helps us in times of need.” It’s not just relevant in applications to daily life. Try to bring things from your own life or try to bring positive things from the life of people from your church or positive things from church history about these various texts so that your children feel this is a real book that gives real answers. Use concrete illustrations or try to tie it into sermons you preached last week or two weeks ago. That’s very helpful as well. It makes children feel, “Hey, sermons aren’t just for Sunday. They are to be lived out. They’re to be talked about during the week as well.”

An Affectionate Manner

Fifth, be affectionate in manner. Here, my hero is Solomon in Proverbs. I just think this is amazing the way he talks to his sons. There’s just such warmth. He says things like, “Come, my son. I’m going to give you wisdom and understanding” (Proverbs 2:1–6). That’s how we should do family worship. It’s all affectionate. Our children need to feel our warmth and our love, and yet our urgency. We need to be a father-friend to them. We need to take them on our laps when they’re young and talk to them. We should have one on one knee and one on the other, face-to-face, eyeball to eyeball, and talk to them about the wonderful things of God with love.

Tell them how wonderful the Lord is. Tell them there’s no other way to live but to love the Lord, serve the Lord, fear the Lord, and delight in the Lord. There’s no other option. Say, “Children, this is the way.” Let them feel your warmth. Convey to them the whole counsel of God while they’re on your lap. When you go to pray, you pray, “Lord, I can’t bear the thought that I’d miss any of these children in heaven. Please, Lord, convert all of them.” That’s what my dad used to pray at our family table all the time. Oh, we must have heard it a thousand times. He would say, “Lord, I can’t miss any of our children in heaven.” Then when we all got converted, he said, “Lord, I can’t miss any of the grandchildren; convert them all, Lord.”

Well, my mother now has 35 grandchildren and 89 great-grandchildren, and most of them serve the Lord, but now it’s, “Convert the great-grandchildren, all of them.” Our children need to feel that we love them, but that we love their souls most of all. “Soul love,” said Ryle, “is the soul of all love.” They have to feel that. They have to know that. “Love is the one grand secret of successful training,” Ryle concluded.

When my son was three years old, he taught me something I’ll never forget. We have a separate little room. We call it the sunroom, but really it’s the discipline room. And I take them there individually. I follow Tedd Tripp’s example in Shepherding a Child’s Heart that you never discipline in front of other children. Well, my son got a few spankings from me. One time after he got a spanking and we hugged and then prayed, we walked out of the room, hand in hand together, and there was closure, and he looked up at me and he said something that just floored me. He said, “Daddy, how come you never sin?”

“Whoa, let’s go back in the room. Son, I sin. I sin every day. I’m a sinner just like you.” But it overwhelmed me. Do you know little children see you as a God figure? That’s awesome. We had a family coming to church and we were visiting for a while, and I went over to visit them. On the next Sunday I got on the pulpit and the lady was sitting at about row 10 with her child, and the child was four or five years old and she said to the child, “Do you know who that is?” I had just been there. She expected, of course, for the child to say, “Reverend Beeke,” but the child said, “God.”

But you see, last night we talked about Calvin saying what prayer is. He said, “I climb onto the lap of God and I know the warmth of his ear and his heart like a good shepherd.” He’s the great shepherd and we climb up so that we can hear his priestly, beating heart. Well, in family worship, I want my children to have that feeling. I put them on my lap, and with the warmth with which I embrace them, this is the way God embraces sinners. I want to teach them by the very posture in which they’re sitting on my lap.

Requiring Attention

And then, finally, of course you must require attention. This is where you have the firm part coming in. As loving as you are, you never allow slouch behavior. You say, “We are worshiping God, family. No one answers the phone now. This is far more important than any phone call. The caller will call back. We are worshiping God. There are no interruptions. No one brings their cell phone to family worship. Everything centers around God. Our audience with God is more important than the voice of any human being.” We require attention.

Hear, ye children, the instruction of a father,
     And attend to know understanding (Proverbs 4:1) . . .

The Practice of Prayer

Now, what about the praying part? Well, be short. When your children are young, probably three to five minutes is sufficient. As they get older, please don’t go more than seven or eight minutes. That’s long enough even for teenagers. And don’t teach in your prayer and don’t preach in your prayer. God doesn’t need your instruction. If you’re going to preach to your children, do it with your eyes open. Teach with your eyes open and pray with your eyes shut. Be simple without being shallow.

A perfect model here is J.C. Ryle. One of the first things we did when our kids were seven or eight years old is that we got the Expository Thoughts on the Gospel series by J.C. Ryle. We read through all four of those volumes and I talked to them about it. I simplified the language, but an eight-year old can understand Ryle. It’s amazing and he’s not shallow, but he’s simple. Find good books like that to help you and direct you.

Be direct. Spread your needs before God. Plead your case, ask for mercy, name your teenagers by name and all your children, and spread their needs out one by one before God. Ask them before you pray, “Do you guys have any tests tomorrow? Okay, Esther, you have a test in algebra? Okay. Everyone’s feeling well? Okay, everyone’s feeling well. Do you have any friends that are in need right now?” And you just bring all these things in prayer.

Now, when you’re direct and when your children know that you’re going to pray for every need they have — and you want to know their needs because you want to pray not just in family prayer, but you tell them, “I want to pray for you privately. Please tell me what’s going on in your mind, in your heart. I want to know your needs. I can pray for you” — whenever they get in any trouble or they get any problem, the very first thing to do is to get alongside them and say, “Okay, let’s pray. First of all, let’s pray.” They know that dad is going to be there to pray for them in every need they have.

After a while, what’s going to happen? When they have a need, they’re going to come to you and say, “Dad, I’ve got this need, will you pray with me?” That’s beautiful. It’s beautiful when your children come to you and say, “Please pray with me.” It’s great. The power of that is that when they get older, it’s like putting money in the bank. You put it up in reserve. When they get older and they’re tempted to sin or tempted to go into places they shouldn’t be, maybe the power of prayer and your example and your concern and your appeal to their conscience, will hold them back even if they’re not saved yet.

When I was 12 years old, I was tempted to go to a place with a friend, and this sounds crazy but this actually happened. I was going to go into a place I shouldn’t go, and it was like suddenly before I got into the door I saw my mother on her knees in front of me. I was so befuddled, I said to my friend, “I can’t do this.” I didn’t have the courage to tell him why. I said, “I can’t do this.” I was unconverted. You never know the power you have with your children when you set examples for them.

Modeling Prayer for Children

Now, be varied in your prayers as well. Obviously, you need to teach your congregation. You men pray every Sunday so this shouldn’t be difficult for you, but teach your people to use the ACTS acronym — Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. It’s so easy for them to remember. Just teach them. Model it for them and give variety to your prayers and bring in the church people, the sick ones. Let your children grow up feeling they’re part of the congregation. They need to pray through the bulletin of the sick as well as you do. When it comes to your supplication, begin with your immediate family, but then move to the congregation.

And be a trainer. By that, I mean train your children to pray when they’re very young. What I did was I took them on my lap when they were three, and I prayed before the meal and then at the end of the family worship, my wife took a turn and the three children took a turn. That’s just the way I’ve always done it. When my children are three years old, I let them pray the closing prayer. But I first take them on my lap of course, and I say, “Now, daddy is going to whisper in your ear what to pray.” So I whisper a few words, and they repeat it. When they’re about four I say, “Why don’t you try to start?”

They do a couple sentences and I say, “Just poke me in the stomach when you’re stuck and I’ll continue and whisper some more.” Well, my youngest daughter really poked me, but okay, she poked me so I kept going. By the time they’re seven or they’re eight, they’re praying the whole prayer by themselves. Their friends come over when they’re nine and 10 and you say, “Okay, Esther, it’s your turn to pray.” There’s no embarrassment to pray in front of their friends, they have been doing this for five or six years. This is ordinary, you see. So you train them in this way. Then of course, once in a while, you’ll have to correct their unreformed doctrine. But do that very tenderly, do that privately, and do that only as a last resort.

One of my daughters prayed when our house was built for four months in a row, every time, that the people building the roof would not fall off the roof, and the house was long built. Eventually I had to say, “You don’t need to pray that anymore.”

The Practice of Singing

Now for singing, sing doctrinally pure songs and don’t forget the Psalms. Calvin said that the Psalms are an anatomy of all parts of the soul. Whatever you think about the Psalms, they were God’s original book for singing and they have a wonderful living, God-centered, scriptural, experiential piety available to us in them. Teach your children to sing them heartily and with feeling.

And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men (Colossians 3:23).

You might say, “But my son would never sing.” Well, that’s simple. You say, “Son, no singing, no food.” They’ll sing. After family worship, when you get down on your knees together at night with your wife, just the two of you, storm the mercy seat for blessing on your family worship that day. Pray, “Lord, use our poor, stammering instructions to save our children, to cause them to grow in grace, that they may put their hope in thee. Use the family worship today. Lord Jesus, breathe on this family worship with thy word and with thy Spirit and make these life-giving times for our children.”

Objections to Family Worship

All right, what about objections? Well, let me go through these very briefly. One objection may be, “Our family doesn’t have time for this.” Well, Samuel Davies answers that one well. He says:

Were you formed for this world only there would be some force in this objection, but how strange does such an objection sound coming from an air of eternity? Pray, what is your time given to you for? Is it not principally that you may prepare for eternity? Have you no time to invest in your family for what is the greatest business of your and their lives?

Another objection is, “There’s no regular time when we can all meet together.” Well, maybe you have to have two family worships, or maybe you have to teach your family priorities. When my son was 12 years old, he loved to play soccer. He played soccer one season for a team and the next season he came to me and said, “Dad, soccer this year is going to be from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. every time there’s a game.” I said, “Oh.” He said, “That’s family worship time, isn’t it?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well, can I just do it this year, just this year? Next year I think the time will be different.” I said, “Well, what do you think I should say?” He said, “Yeah, family worship is more important. Maybe I can do soccer next year.” I never told him. It was great. I was actually debating myself.

Another objection is, “Our family is too small. Richard Baxter answered that objection by saying, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I will be in the midst of them.” I was telling the speaking group here around the supper table of when I was in Singapore recently. The man whose house I stayed in came to me and said, “I’m going to do family worship now. Would you like to join us?” He had no children. I said, “Sure.” So we went upstairs and, lo and behold, there was a pulpit up there and there were two church pews. I mean, this is going really over the top. Then his wife came in and sat down, put a head covering on, and he began to preach to her. I sat in the second pew.

Others might say, “Our family is too diverse to profit from that.” Not really. You see, you all need to pray, young and old. You all can understand singing. Your youngest child can memorize a song. As far as the instruction part, you just tailor-make it according to each one. When you talk to the youngest children, the oldest ones are listening. If you’re talking to a five-year-old, the 19-year-old is listening, and you say to the 19-year-old, “You listen as I talk to this five year old now because you soon, God willing, will probably have to be head of a home yourself, and you’ve got to be able to take this over.” So they’re learning as they’re listening to you.

Well, then the last objection is, “But I’m not good at leading family worship.” That’s a common one. Get these simple books. I’m not the only one that wrote a simple book on family worship. Jerry Marcellino has one and Don Whitney has one. Then there are the old ones. James Alexander has a book, as well as Matthew Henry, and so on. Teach your people to read one of the simple ones that’s about 50 pages. It will take them an hour and a half to read it and then try it.

Even if you do it for two minutes one day and the next day, three minutes, it will build. It’s like learning how to swim. You can do it. George Whitefield said, “Where the heart is rightly disposed, it does not demand any uncommon abilities to discharge family worship in a decent and edifying manner.” The greater problem is not ability, but commitment to do it and realizing how important it is.

Motivations for Family Worship

Well, what are the motivations? Let me conclude with those. Let me give you four or five of them.

1. The Eternal Welfare of Loved Ones

Number one — the eternal welfare of your loved ones. God often uses family religion to save souls. Church is wonderful, and God uses and blesses preaching. Of course, that’s his primary means of grace. But you know what? There’s always something in the mind of a teenager in particular that’s a little bit artificial about church or even about the school environment. But home is where the rubber hits the road. If they see reality in you and in your wife in the home, and they hear it from your lips and they see it with your godly walk of life, as you lay down and as you rise up, as you talk about the things of God throughout the day even, reinforcing your family worship, they feel the reality. That is the most powerful thing you can possibly imagine.

I was in Italy recently and there were 300 ministers and they asked the question, “How many of you had God-fearing mothers who made a deep impression upon you about Christianity?” I turned around and looked, I don’t think it was so, but it looked to me like every hand in the whole place went up. It was amazing. Our mothers and fathers are incredibly important. Do you want your church to grow? Do you want solid, stalwart sons and daughters of the church of Jesus Christ? You train your church to engage in daily family worship. That’s probably the best guarantee, under the Spirit’s blessing, of solid growth. Spurgeon said, “I remember my mother tearfully praying over me, saying, ‘Lord, you know that if these prayers are unanswered in Charles’s conversions these very prayers will bear against him in the judgment day.’”

Spurgeon wrote, “The thought that my mother’s prayers would serve as witness against me on the day of judgment sent terror into my heart.” But God used it in family worship in Spurgeon’s life to make him soft and tender for the things of God. Dear fathers, use every means you have and teach your fathers in your congregations to do so as well, to have your children snatched as brands from the burning. Pray with them, teach them, sing with them, weep over them, admonish them, plead with them. And remember, at every family worship, you are ushering your children into the very presence of the most high God. You are the same as Joshua, who said, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). Seek then to bring down God’s benediction upon your family. Seek their eternal welfare.

2. The Satisfaction of a Good Conscience

Number two — the satisfaction of a good conscience. One of the Puritans, Robert Bolton, was perfectly healthy one morning when he arose, and he gathered all his children around him and he said, “Dear children” — don’t ask me how he knew this but the Lord must have shown him somehow — “I’m breakfasting with you this morning, and tonight I will be supping with the Lord Jesus Christ. I’m saying farewell to you today. You know I haven’t been a perfect father. I’ve had my shortcomings, my flaws, my faults, and I ask for your forgiveness. But one thing you know. I have taught you, I have prayed with you, I have wept with you, I have offered Jesus Christ to you every day in this family. You have not been without witness. You know the gospel. Now children, don’t one of you dare to meet me on the wrong side of Jesus Christ on the great day.”

Wow, a free conscience alone could make a man have the boldness to say that. Matthew Henry had much the same kind of deathbed. He got his children around him and said something very similar. And J.C. Ryle said this:

I charge you fathers, take every pain to train your children through family worship, not just for the welfare of their own souls, but for the sake of your own future comfort and peace. Your own happiness depends on it. Children have caused the saddest tears that a man has ever had to shed. Who can bear the reproach of a stinging conscience that condemns us because we haven’t brought up our own children in the fear of God when we were preaching to the masses?

3. Assistance in Child Raising

Number three — assistance in child-rearing. You know, family worship helps promote family harmony in times of affliction, sickness, and death. It offers greater knowledge of the Scriptures. It helps our families grow in personal piety. It makes them more open to speak about things. If you can speak about the most intimate spiritual experiences with your children and about sacred things, tender things, in family worship, then you can speak to them naturally about religious things during the day, as you’re going on a trip, as you’re walking through the woods or whatever you’re doing. It comes naturally then because family worship sets the pattern. And then you can speak to them about anything. You can explain the facts of life to them. You don’t have to be embarrassed. You’ve talked about more intimate things, spiritually intimate things. It gives you open communication. It helps you in all kinds of ways.

4. The Shortness of Time

Number four — the shortness of time. My son is turning 20 tomorrow. Where did the time go? Most of us have a window just short of 20 years, and that’s if we live to train our children. It’s gone in a moment. “What is our life?” James says, “it’s a vapor that appears for little time and vanishes away” (James 4:4). We ought to conduct family worship in the consciousness of the brevity of time and see every day as a gift of God to bring the word of God to them.

Dealing with Our Failures

But let me conclude now. I want to conclude in two ways. First of all, what if I failed? Some of you are going to say, “I’ve failed miserably and I didn’t even know about these things. I’m just feeling terribly guilty right now. My kids are too old.” Well, begin today. God knows our weakness. He’s mindful of our human frailty. Don’t beat up on yourself, but begin today. Confess to your wife. Confess to any children you still have in the home, perhaps confess to married children and say, “I’ve come short.” Give them a little book. Help them to do differently than you’ve done. But don’t just sit and wallow; confess and begin.

If you can’t do it with your children, begin with your grandchildren. Pray for them. Take them on your lap. Speak to them about the ways of God. J.W Alexander put it this way, “If you’ve never done it before, fly at once with your household to the throne of grace.” And don’t become discouraged if your children don’t take to it right away and don’t give up. If you did it in the past and you’re growing lukewarm in it, confess it to your family, saying, “We’re growing lukewarm.” Begin again with fresh eagerness. Go forward. Be realistic. Don’t expect perfection, but do it. Yes, you won’t have perfect children. Yes, you’ll have problems, but you will find that family worship will set the tone for your entire home and your communication, and it will help you in every way, God blessing it.

The Testimony of John Paton

Now, the last thing I want to do is to read something to you from the life of John Paton. This has moved me. This has been a mentor for me. This is my model of how I want my children to think about me. John Paton served as a missionary to cannibalistic people in the Islands of the South Pacific Ocean. He faced enormous difficulties and sorrows, but he persevered as a missionary in the name of Jesus Christ. Later in his life, when he looked back, he said it was his father that had the influence on him. He says:

Our father went daily, often several times a day, to retire, to shut the door, and we children got to understand that prayers were being poured out there for us, as of old by the high priests within the veil in the most high place.

But it wasn’t only in the inner veil. He also engaged them in family worship every single day. Paton wrote that when the day came when he had to leave home to go to Glasgow to study theology and to do urban evangelism, he had to walk 40 miles before coming to a train station. His father walked with him the first six miles of the way, and this is what he writes:

His consoles and tears and heavenly conversation are fresh as they were yesterday. Tears are on my cheeks as freely now as then whenever memory steals me away to the scene. For the last half mile, we walked almost in silence. My father, as was his custom, carried his hat in hand with his long, flowing hair. His lips kept moving in prayer from me, I’m sure. His tears fell fast when our eyes met each other in looks for which all speech was vain. We halted on reaching the appointed parting place. He grasped my hand firmly.

For a moment he was silent. Then he looked me in the eyes and solemnly and affectionately said, “God bless you, my son. Your father’s God bless you and keep you from evil.” Unable to say more, his lips kept moving in silent prayer. In tears, we embraced and parted. I ran as fast as I could and went about to turn a corner in the road where he would lose sight of me. I looked back and saw him still standing with head uncovered where I left him gazing after me. Waving my hat, I was around the corner in an instant, but my heart was too full and sore to carry me further. So I darted into the side road and wept for a while. And then rising cautiously, I climbed the dyke to see if he still stood there. At that moment, I caught a glimpse of him climbing the dyke on the other side looking for me. He had not seen me. After he gazed in my direction for a while, he got down.

He set his face towards home. His head was still uncovered, his heart I know, therefore, was still rising in prayer for me. I watched through blinding tears until this form faded from my gaze. And then I hastened on my way, vowing deeply and often by the help of God to live and act so as never to grieve and dishonor such a father and such a mother as he had given me. The appearance of my father when we parted — his advice, his tears, the prayers, the road, the dykes, the family worship, the climbing up on it, the walking away head uncovered — have often all throughout life risen before my mind and do so now while I’m writing as if it was an hour ago.

It is no phariseeism, but deep gratitude, which makes me here testify that the memory of that scene not only helped me, by God’s grace, to keep me pure from prevailing sins, but stimulated me all through my years of studies that I might not fall short of his hopes and in all my Christian duties, I might faithfully follow his shining example.

What led him to have such a love for his father and for his father’s faith? He goes on to say this:

How much my father’s prayers at this time impressed me, I can never explain, nor can any stranger understand. But when on his knees and all of us kneeling around him in family worship, he would pour out his whole soul in tears for the conversion of the heathen world to the service of Jesus and for every personal need, we all felt as if we were in the presence of the living Savior.

And we learned to love and to know him as our divine friend. And as we would rise from our knees, I used to look at the light on my father’s face and wish I were like him in spirit. And I would secretly pray that I might somehow someday be privileged to be part of an answer to his prayers, to carry the gospel to the heathen world in some way.

And John Paton went to cannibals. There, his wife died and his child died, and he had to sit on their grave so that the cannibals wouldn’t eat their bodies. What gave him the strength? God blessed his father’s family worship and his father’s shining example.

is chancellor and professor of homiletics and systematic theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and pastor of the Heritage Reformed Congregation, Grand Rapids, Michigan.