Our Family Prayers
by Stuart Olyott
There is no doubt that it is the will of God for heads of families to ensure that there is regular family worship in their homes. Abraham did this, and God was not slow to commend him (Gen. 18:19). In the same way, as the children of Israel drew near to the Promised Land, and considered the whole matter of setting up their homes there, they were made to realize that these homes were intended by God to be the first sphere for the teaching of divine truth. The point was stressed with repetitive clarity. [See Deut. 4:9-10; 6:6-15, 20-25; 11.18-21; 32:46-47].
The tabernacle disappeared from the scene. The temple came, and went. The synagogue arose as a chief feature in the spiritual life of the nation. But family worship continued unabated, and was unaffected by these developments. And so New Testament days came. But the great apostle Paul continued to testify to the unspeakable value of family worship and instruction, and made it clear that it was to be a lasting characteristic of believers' households. [See 1 Tim. 3:4,12; 5:4,14; 2 Tim. 1:5; 3:15-17].
And it has been so - that is, until recently. Our forefathers thought so highly of it that they wrote `The Directory for Family Worship', giving clear and practical advice on the subject. They realized that if the practice died out, there was little hope of any widespread godliness in the nation. Even the likelihood of their own children walking in the truth would be jeopardized. Listen to them: `...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'.
Being so convinced of the good that family worship brings about, these same forebears reckoned that the persistent failure of a family to have such worship in the home was a disciplinable offence. I shall never forget the fright that I had when I first read the following words. It made me question whether we would have anybody at all at the Lord's Table, if these instructions were applied these days: `...the Assembly doth further require and appoint ministers and ruling elders to make diligent search and enquiry, in the congregations committed to their charge respectively, whether there be among them any family or families which use to neglect this necessary duty; and if any such family be found, 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 offence, suspended and debarred from the Lord's Supper, as being justly esteemed unworthy to communicate therein till he amend.'
If all believers had constantly held so high a view of the subject, it is doubtful whether family worship would ever have declined. But the rot of spiritual laxity set in, and exact submission to the Word of God died. Whole generations of British Christians have now come and gone, who knew nothing of even a semblance of family worship. And so today it has never occurred to most of the families and couples in our churches that they should establish regular worship together in their homes. Many of them have stemmed from godly parents. They are the children of believers, and have now grown up and married, and have homes of their own. Like most folks, they have copied much of what their parents did as they set up their new homes. Family worship was not a feature of their upbringing, so it does not even cross their minds to have it now for themselves. No wonder there is a spiritual famine in the land! The power of true religion has ever lain in the fact that it is family religion.
When my wife and I were on the brink of marriage, we gave a lot of thought to this question, and became deeply convinced from the Scriptures that we must please God by worshipping Him daily in our own home. But we were more than surprised when we asked our married Christian friends for practical advice in the matter. We discovered that the majority of Christian couples had no regular worship together, and we did not meet one single couple with children who had daily worship together as a family. Some considered our interest in family worship to be a bit odd. Most admitted that it was a good thing, and no doubt worked well years ago, but was not really a feasible proposition in the rush and bustle of twentieth-century life. We became reconciled to the fact that if and when the Lord blessed us with children, as far as family prayers were concerned, we would be steering a course for which the charts were almost lost.
As it was, the Lord blessed us with children sooner than we would ever have imagined, though not the sort of children that we expected! It is a long story; but suffice it to say that within six months of marriage He had sent to our home three boys, two at secondary school, one still at junior school. This precipitated the question of family worship before we had properly thought it through. But from the moment that the first lad arrived we have sought, as a family, to honour God each day, and we would like to testify to the unspeakable joy and blessing this has brought to our home and to our daily lives.
We have framed our family prayers together around four main principles, which we believe to be essential, and which we now pass on in the hope that they may help others. We believe that these principles apply universally, although other families may differ in their actual method.
First, we believe that family prayers should be honouring to God. By friendly example and gentle persuasion we are trying to get across to our lads that this is an act of worship of the most high God. We do not look upon our daily time together as a sort of spiritual pick-me-up to see us safely through the day, although we do believe that if we honour God we shall be blessed enough in ourselves.
Second, it is our conviction that enough has been accomplished in the way of teaching if each of us grasps one single truth from the Word of God, which we can remember throughout the day. One seed well sown is better than a dozen which have only been scattered on the surface.
Next, we seek to actively involve each member of the family at each act of worship. The head of the family obviously holds the whole thing together. But it is family worship, and we see no sense in the father doing everything, while the rest, with wandering thoughts, gaze politely on. To be personally involved also makes the whole time more real and relevant to each person present.
Last of all, as all these things can be quite satisfactorily accomplished without being unduly lengthy, we believe that the time together should be short. This is obvious for practical reasons, anyway - for there are few families who find it impossible to manage 12-15 minutes together each day, which is all the time our own family prayers take. A longer time is very much harder to fit in, and what you gain in time you certainly lose in concentration.
Having laid down these principles, there are still several methods open to any family working them out in practice. For ourselves, we take it in turn to begin with prayer, asking God to enlighten us as we read His Word together. Being Nonconformists, we do not believe that one man can write prayers for another, and so do not use any set forms of prayer. Nonetheless, we do encourage our lads to use Bible verses as prayers or as a foundation for prayer. Psalm 119:18 makes a good opening prayers for our purpose, and is used frequently by us all, although a short extempore prayer is used just as often.
Following this, we read a short Bible passage. Sometimes one person reads it all, but more often two or three share the reading. We follow a selective system of readings which in time covers all the main highways of Scripture. We seldom read more than ten verses at a time. Two of our boys are only semi-literate, and a longer passage would not be helpful.
Next, I put questions to the family about the reading. Most of the questions are aimed at seeing if everyone has understood just what the passage has said, for we believe the plain sense of Scripture must be grasped before anything else is attempted. Some questions are put to specific persons, in keeping with their age and ability. Others are put more generally for anyone to answer. In this way everyone is drawn in. We close the question time by seeing what the passage teaches about the nature of God; and also seek to draw out a practical lesson for ourselves.
Notes on the passage follow, and these are usually read to us by any member of the family who did not share in the Bible reading. Another member of the family then closes with a prayer, worshipping God, and applying the lessons learned from the passage to the needs of the day.
Our short time together concludes with the singing of a Psalm. For this purpose we have found very useful `Selections from the Book of Psalms with Music' published by the Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America. This is a judicious selection of metrical psalms, with modern wording, and tunes which are easy to sing. This part of our worship is very popular in our family, and we have been known to awaken the neighbours, who have questioned how we can sing with such enthusiasm so early in the morning!
It is to this daily gathering around the Word of God that we attribute the family feeling and loyalty that has become part and parcel of our home - something that every `instant' family does not possess so soon. Besides this very real blessing, my wife and I have been amazed at the discernment that our lads have sometimes shown in their reading and understanding of the Scriptures. Things have been revealed to them which have been hidden from the wise and prudent. Out of their mouths God has ordained strength and perfected praise.
With the teachings of Scripure before us, together with such blessings from our own experience, how we long to see family worship once again become a feature of God's people in this land!
This article is reprinted from the Banner of Trust magazine (1971) and the Bible League Quarterly, by kind permission.