A Return to Family Worship
Written by Jerrold Lewis
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Reformed Practice - The Family

Family Worship has fallen on hard times. There was a day when a family would rise early in the morning, trim their lamps, walk down the dark cold hall or some steps, and sit as a family as father lit the morning fire. Then, surrounded by the glow of licking flames, or the smell of coal in the stove, father would open his Psalter to an appropriate place, and begin to sing out a Psalm, followed by his family. Next, there would be reading of Scripture (usually from the Old Testament) with some deep application for the children, followed by a time of catechism and prayer. All of this before the pot of porridge was ready, and morning chores began. The day would conclude in the same way. Father would come in from the barn or field, eat a home-cooked meal, and once again gather his family around the fire, sing a Psalm, read from the New Testament, and perhaps this time cap the evening off with a reading from à Brakel, Samuel Rutherford, or John Bunyan.

The Impact of Modern Life

Those days are gone. A sad reality, but true. In most congregations today, many of our men rise very early, and are often on their way to work (an hour commute or more), long before mother and children begin to stir. And for those left at home, there are school busses to catch, lunches to be made, homework to be checked, field trip release forms to be signed, and general preparation for a day that will, for the most part, take place somewhere other than home.

We live in busy times, and there is simply no way to go back to the tranquil and oft romanticized era of a bygone day. Or is there? “We live in a new world, complex, and ever changing,” someone might say. True. A world that despite the Internet, microwave, cell phone, and any number of other time saving inventions, is more fragmented than ever. What is the Christian family to do in times such as these? Do we have the answer in a word? The modernist in me would say “multi-task!” but I rather think “simplify” is the correct one.

The truth is, we will make time for those things we want to do. Webster’s dictionary defines “busy” as one of its definitions, “foolish active.” I wonder if this word applies to much of what we do other than our callings? I think it might.

Former Days

Were our forbears less busy? They lived, on average 17 years less than we do. They suffered ailments without cure or relief of pain at a much earlier age than we do. Their day began before dawn, and ended after dusk. To “go to town” was not a five-minute drive, but usually much longer, after they saddled the horse or hooked up the carriage. Let’s not even talk about walking! No running water, dishwashers, indoor plumbing, or gas heating. Yet they found the time to spend as a family in the Word at least twice a day. They took very seriously the command in Deuteronomy 6:6-9,

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.

Is there a reason we should be any different?

A Revival of Practice is Needed

To what end is this practice of family worship? Is it so we may pattern ourselves after our forbearers and feel that we are walking in the ways of the old paths? I hope this is not the primary reason of any reader. We are not to follow men, but Christ. If the Puritans did so, then we are safe to emulate them insofar as they followed Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). No, the reason for this practice must run much deeper than tradition.  I think Charles Haddon Spurgeon gives us the best answer:

We deeply want a revival of domestic religion. The Christian family was the bulwark of godliness in the days of the Puritans, but in these evil times hundreds of families of so-called Christians have no family worship, no restraint upon growing sons, and no wholesome instruction or discipline. How can we hope to see the kingdom of our Lord advance when His own disciples do not teach His gospel to their own children? Oh, Christian men and women, be thorough in what you do and know and teach! Let your families be trained in the fear of God and be yourselves ‘holiness unto the Lord;’ so shall you stand like a rock amid the surging waves of error and ungodliness which rage around us (From “Home Worship” and “Morning an Evening”).

Who cannot say ‘Amen’ to this? What can possibly be so important in this busy world, a world that will soon pass before us as the morning dew, that it would cause us to neglect our souls and the souls of our children? I can think of no reason whatsoever. Can I encourage you with the words of John Bunyan?

Thy children have souls, and they must be begotten of God as well as of thee, or they perish. And know also, that unless thou be very circumspect in thy behavior to and before them, they may perish through thee: the thoughts of which should provoke thee, both to instruct, and also to correct them (emphasis mine) (From Duties of Fathers and Parents).

Using the Means

It is my desire to acquaint ourselves (or in some instances reacquaint) with the old practice of Family Worship. I wish to do so in the months ahead, with the Lord’s help, by examining the Puritans, most specifically the Directory of Family Worship found in the Westminster Standards, as well as other Puritan writers. Then, as an aid to this, review a list of proven works that can be used during family worship, which will feed our hearts and minds. I hope to index and review several works that will help the parent in acquiring edifying material for the family altar, and spiritual fodder for their awesome task.

Next, I will also try and present some gospel gleanings from both the past and the present, drawing from the heritages of both the Scottish and Dutch that might be incorporated into family worship. Add to this some of my own musings as a father of eight, and several ways my wife and I have tried to keep the family altar from being formalistic and dry. We need a lively faith, a lively family altar, and a deep sense of our need and responsibility before the Lord. The Children’s Catechism says in question 19, “Have you a soul as well as a body?” The answer is: “Yes; I have a soul that can never die.” Oh, that we would remind ourselves every morning, and every night that placed in our care are little never ending, never dying souls. Also, may we pray for the Holy Spirit to fill us so, that we have enough to spare for our children in dispensing instruction and light. I conclude with the words of Jonathan Edwards in this regard,

Every Christian family ought to be as it were a little church, consecrated to Christ, and wholly influenced and governed by his rules. And family education and order are some of the chief means of grace. If these fail, all other means are likely to prove ineffectual. If these are duly maintained, all the means of grace will be likely to prosper and be successful. Let me now therefore, once more, before I finally cease to speak to this congregation, repeat, and earnestly press the counsel which I have often urged on the heads of families, while I was their pastor, to great painfulness in teaching, warning, and directing their children; bringing them up in the training and admonition of the Lord; beginning early, where there is yet opportunity, and maintaining constant diligence in labors of this kind (From Every Christian Family a Little Church).

Rev. Jerrold Lewis is the Pastor of Pompton Plains Free Reformed Church. This article was previously printed in the FRC Messenger and has been republished here with permission.