Duties, Parts, and Expectations Of Family Worship
Written by Jerrold Lewis
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Reformed Practice - The Family

Duties of Family Worship

The Westminster Confession’s Directory for Family Worship states,

Besides the public worship in congregations, mercifully established in this land in great purity, it is expedient and necessary that secret worship of each person alone, and private worship of families, be pressed and set up; that, with national reformation, the profession and power of godliness, both personal and domestic, be advanced.

This meant, that when elder or pastoral visitation occurred in the home, one of the first questions that was asked was whether this practice is kept faithfully day by day. If it was not, the parents, especially the father, was admonished to remember this duty. The directory goes on to say that if any continue in the neglect of the duty, “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 which reproof, if he be found still to neglect Family-worship, let him be, for his obstinacy in such an offense, suspended and debarred from the Lord’s supper, as being justly esteemed unworthy to communicate therein, till he amend.”

Does this seem harsh? Why would our forefathers put such a high premium on family worship? Because it is in the home that the child ought to increase in scriptural knowledge and understanding, so they might better grasp the preaching on the Sabbath day. Are your children growing under the preaching of the Word? Their early growth under the means of grace will, in part, be directly proportionate to the spiritual nursery you provide in your home. This responsibility should not be taken lightly or looked at as something that can be left off in a busy world. Family worship should come before all else, such as homework, chores, and extracurricular activities (music lessons, sports involvement, and friends). All of a family’s life should come to a standstill for family worship. The Directory adds, “These exercises ought to be performed in great sincerity, without delay, laying aside all exercises of worldly business or hindrances.”

It is an enormous responsibility to be a parent. The truth is, the Lord will one day require at our hands the spiritual condition of each child placed in our care. When He gives us a covenant child, He is saying in effect, “Take this little one, and bring him/her up for me.” There will be a year of Jubilee, when all that we have been given by God shall return to Him. On that great Day, it will matter very little how busy we were, or how unable we felt to do the task. No, all of this will grow strangely dim when we stand before Him who is “the discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Heb 4:12). Where there is no family altar there will be no family piety. J.A James says, “No wonder their children go astray. This is easily accounted for. Some of the most immoral young people that I know have issued from such households” (The Christian father’s Present to His Children, p.8; Grey & Bruce Printers, 1827).

I hope thus far in our series, we have sufficiently established the need for Family Worship in every home in our federation.

Parts of Family Worship

The first thing that must be encouraged in our children regarding family worship is private worship. The Directory states, “And first, for secret worship, it is most necessary, that every one apart, and by themselves, be given to prayer and meditation, the unspeakable benefit whereof is best known to them who are most exercised therein.” It was the common practice of the Puritan household to set time aside before family worship for private devotions. It was the first way that the heart was softened and made receptive to the Word. It is the turning over of the soil of our lives that will foster the reception of the Word of God by praying for light, help, forgiveness, and a listening ear. Encourage private devotions in your children every day. There are several good resources for this that we will discuss later in this series, the Lord willing.

The Directory then states, “Next, Reading of the scriptures, with catechizing in a plain way,” is to be followed. It is the “catechizing in a plain way,” that I wish to focus upon for a moment. Most homes in our federation will be faithful for the most part by closing the meal with the Word and prayer. We thank the Lord for this dedication. Yet family worship goes beyond this. The Scottish divines taught that after the Word was read, that there should be some simple yet penetrating questions asked of the text. We do not think that catechizing is always reciting a formal answer, but it can also be encouraging a knowledgeable and heartfelt response to the text just read.

It is wise then to choose some portion of the Bible that is easily understood on its own. Steer away from Paul’s Epistles with young children as well as apocalyptic and major/minor prophetic books (these can be incorporated later at an age more suitable for comprehension). Work slowly, 10-15 verses at the most, through the historical narratives of the Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Sam, etc,) as well as the Gospels and Acts. In these books are wonderful stories that can capture the attention of the young hearer, as well as communicate profound theological concepts in word pictures. “The kingdom of heaven is likened unto,” “a net,” “a treasure,” “a merchant,” a seed,” etc. There are so many profound truths that can be communicated in simple ways.

Try and leave off reading at a high point of excitement, making the children ask, “What will happen next?” or say, “Keep reading daddy!” This creates an expectation and anticipation in our children that will make them run to family worship the next time. After the portion of Scripture has been read, open up the floor for discussion. Ask question like, “Why did Abraham agree to offer Isaac as a sacrifice to God?” “Why did David not kill Saul in the wilderness of Engedi?” “Was Cain any different than you are when you get angry with your brother or sister?” Look for ways at drawing out the spiritual and doctrinal elements of the narrative and make application. This may mean that our fathers will need to prepare a bit before leading in worship! Keep Mathew Henry close by as well as Matthew Poole (both available from RHB).


“So many as can conceive prayer, ought to make use of that gift of God.” So says the Directory for Family Worship. I have heard of some that will not allow their children to pray in family worship until there are some signs of having been converted. Yet the Puritans believed that the “conception” of prayer should be the governing criteria. What does this mean? It means that if a child knows the words to speak, he or she could be encouraged to offer up prayer unto God. This should be encouraged. If our children are unconverted, the offering up of prayer is of course unacceptable to the Father. However, the exercise of prayer does not go unnoticed by God, especially when the child is asking for a new heart or make them willing.

Let your children pray. Many who cannot pray as adults were never taught the words of prayer as a child. Anyone in the family that “can conceive prayer,” should pray. This means our young ladies as well as our young men. Fathers should close the meeting in prayer as covenant head. He is to remember the sins of the family, church and state, ask for forgiveness, plead the promises of the Gospel, and thank the Lord for his bountiful supply.

Expectations Of Family Worship

“If a sermon is good, it need not be long, if it is bad, it ought not be long.” So said William Jay about the length of a sermon. The same can be said for family worship. In this exercise, we are not looking for length but depth. The aim of family worship is to leave the child with some kind of confrontation with the Word. This can be done in short order if the parent is watchful, keeping an eye on the text.

It is best to look at family worship as a marathon rather than a sprint. Lord willing, you will have your children for the better part of twenty years. It takes time to do all that the Lord requires of us. I remember one congregation full of young families making a competition out of which of their youngster could first have the Westminster Shorter Catechism memorized first. All 107 answers! What I discovered was none of the children knew what many of the answers taught, though they could recite them. We want our children to understand what we are speaking about in the Word and in our instruction, so take time to explain difficult words and ideas. Don’t move on until there is some comprehension. Let us not make family worship an issue of pride for us or for our children.

Family worship should not be longer than twenty minutes. Sing a few Psalters (take requests!), read a good devotional book (like Gospel Gleanings For Young People), read the Bible, have discussion/catechism, and close in prayer. Make a prayer list compiled by the family, and assign certain items to members that can pray. Check these items off as the prayer is answered. It is a wonderful way to see how the Lord works in our lives.

General Expectations and Goals for Our Homes
There is no hard rule when it comes to expectations. Every family will be different. However, it is good to set landmarks ahead of time to strive for. Here are some we have found normative, in homes that practice regular family Worship.

The very young (2-5 years old) should be expected to know:

  • Who made them and all things.

  •  That they are a sinner.

  •  That they need to be washed (made clean).

  •   What is God's Book.

  •   Who saves from sin.

  • Short Bible texts (Genesis 1:1, Psalm 19:1; Matthew 19:14, Proverbs 5:1, etc.)

  • Several Psalter numbers.

  • How to offer short prayers to God. (The Children’s Catechism is perfect for this).

The young (6-10 years old) should be expected to know:

  • All 66 books of the Bible in order from memory.

  • The 10 Commandments from memory.

  • The Apostles Creed from memory.

  • First 30 questions of either the Heidelberg Cat. or Westminster Shorter Cat.

  • Longer Bible texts (proofs of the catechism preferably).

  • Many of the Psalter numbers

  • How to offer longer prayers to God

The older children or teens (11-17 years old) should be expected to know:

  • All the above mentioned material.

  • The remainder of the Heidelberg or Westminster Shorter Catechisms.

  • Many portions of the Bible from memory.

  • Be able to lead in Psalter singing and prayer as well as Bible reading.

In all of this, do not forget to review, review, review. Too many memorize a passage or a catechism Q & A and thereafter promptly forget it! This is not acceptable.

Take time every week to review memorized material time and again, so that the long term memory has been affected. If an adult knows the Heidelberg Catechism or the Westminster Shorter Catechism, it should be from their youth up.

The Goal

Our goal in all of this is to foster a spiritual seed bed in the life of our children so that when the Lord does His converting work, they are properly equipped. The late Rev. D. Beattie told us, “If we catechize properly, and have meaningful family worship, once the Lord does His converting work, the child or young adult will have many ques- tions already answered for them.” This is indeed our goal, to lay the foundation, so the Lord might build the house.

My son, if thou wilt receive my words, and hide my commandments with thee; So that thou incline thine ear unto wisdom, and apply thine heart to understanding; Yea, if thou criest after knowledge, and liftest up thy voice for understanding; If thou seekest her as silver, and searchest for her as for hid treasures; Then shalt thou understand the fear of the LORD, and find the knowledge of God. Proverbs 2:1-5.

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.