This article is part 7 in a series about pastors and their practice of the personal spiritual disciplines—those practices found in Scripture by which we pursue obedience to the God-inspired command given by the apostle Paul to his pastoral protégé Timothy to “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7, NASB).
I have not addressed the interpersonal spiritual disciplines, such as congregational worship, prayer with others, fellowship, serving others, and more. These, too, are at least as important in a believer’s pursuit of godliness, a term I consider basically synonymous with Christlikeness, holiness, and sanctification.
In this article, I want to write about a discipline that one might consider somewhere in between the personal and interpersonal disciplines: family worship. By definition, this is not a biblical discipline that one engages in privately, nor is it done publicly. It takes place in the home. By including family worship in the list of disciplines, we might broadly categorize them as personal, familial, and interpersonal. And while the practice of family worship involves at least one other person (such as a spouse or child), it usually relies primarily on the discipline of one individual (typically the husband/father) for it to happen. Pastor, in your home, this would be you.
Family worship in the Bible
While there is no explicit command about family worship in the Bible, scripture implies its practice. Space permits only a few brief examples.
When Abraham was about to sacrifice his son in response to God’s command, Isaac asked, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” (Gen. 22:6-7).” How did Isaac know they didn’t have everything necessary for the worship of God? It was because he had seen his father build altars and offer animal sacrifices before. Abraham obviously led his family in the worship of God on many other occasions.
The book of Job (1:1-3) begins with a description of Job’s devotion to God, the size of his family, and the abundance of his wealth. Verse 4 tells how Job’s seven sons would take turns hosting feasts, events at which they would also invite their three sisters.
After each of these family feasts, Job would lead his family in the worship of God. And it may be that he did this often, because it states Job did this “continually.”
In Psalm 78, the writer commands fathers to “Tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done” (v. 4; see also vv..5-8). The context for this command appears to be one of worship. But local synagogue worship would not arise for centuries, and congregational worship in those days would have been on a national scale and very infrequent, occurring during one of the annual observances at the tabernacle. Moreover, the language in this psalm is familial, not congregational. So, when would fathers have obeyed this command? The implication seems to be in some type of family worship.
This “washing of water with the word” is one of the most beautiful and memorable phrases in the New Testament. But in real life, how does a husband do this? I would contend that one of the best ways men can bring the pure water of the Word of God into their homes is through the spiritually cleansing and refreshing practice of family worship.
Ephesians 6:4 addresses “Fathers” and tells them, “do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Beyond taking your children to church, how do you accomplish this? While it should occur in unplanned and teachable moments throughout the day, it should also happen intentionally. Consistent, father-led family worship is one of the observable and measurable ways a man can obey this command.
Husbands are the focus again in 1 Pet. 3:7. Note that all husbands are not fathers, and most fathers reach a time when children are no longer in the home. That means family worship is for both childless couples and empty-nesters, as well as those who have children living with them.
I did not realize for many years that the prayers spoken of here are not the husband’s prayers, but the mutual prayers husbands and wives pray together. Peter assumes that husbands and wives pray together. That’s part of family worship.
Family worship in Christian history
In my book on Family Worship, I devote 16 pages to a brief survey of family worship in Christian history. It begins with how believers practiced family worship in the decades immediately after the apostles and continues with examples from well-known believers throughout the centuries up to the present. I wrote this to demonstrate that family worship is no contemporary fad, but something that Christians have always understood to be a biblical practice.
I wish I had the space to repeat more of these inspiring testimonies so that you might feel the weight of the importance given to family worship by our Christian forebears. But I will include only three representative examples.
The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) and the Second London Confession of Faith of the Baptists (1689)—the most influential confessional statements of their various traditions; documents still affirmed by thousands of churches around the world—both declare:
The Westminster Directory of Family Worship (1647) prescribes church discipline for men who would not lead their families in the daily worship of God.
Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) said:
And the incredibly busy Spurgeon practiced what he preached. Regardless of the number of visitors almost always present in his home, his wife Susannah wrote that at 6:00 every evening, everyone present gathered in the pastor’s study to join Spurgeon, his wife, and twin boys for family worship.
In our own day, John Piper has written, “You have to decide how important you think these family moments are. It is possible—for little ones and teenagers and parents. You may have to work at it. But it can be done.”
Family worship in your home
There are three things the Bible tells us to do in worship that we can do whether we are worshipping publicly (that is, with the church), privately, or with the family. Those things are: read the Bible, pray, and sing.
Open the Bible where you left off last time and read an appropriate length for those present. Then pray. I’d suggest praying about at least one thing from your Bible reading. This prevents the prayers from sounding like “the same old things about the same old things” each time and teaches the participants (children especially) the essentials of how to pray the Bible.
Then sing. This can feel awkward at first—even for a pastor— particularly if it’s just you and your wife in worship. But it doesn’t have to be long; perhaps just a chorus or one verse of a hymn. Having a songbook can be helpful. Your church might even have some unused hymnals you could employ.
That’s it! If time permits, the family worship gathering can also be a great time to catechize, work on Scripture memory, read a Christian book, or do some general reading.
Beware, however, of setting your expectations too highly. You’ll likely become discouraged—often—because something “significant” so seldom happens. A lack of enthusiasm for and response to family worship is common. Don’t quit. The effects of family worship are cumulative, and rarely noticeable on a day-to-day basis. Regardless of the lack of visible fruit, your long-term faithfulness will not be in vain. Even if you rarely see “results,” God is worthy of worship in your home by your family.
Pastor, regardless of what anyone else does, may you have the resolve of Joshua 24:14, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” in family worship.
If you want to learn more about family worship, or still have a number of What about . . . ? questions, or want a resource to teach family worship your church, see my little book, Family Worship (Crossway, 2019).
The Blessings of Fasting as a Spiritual Discipline
Praying the Psalms as a Spiritual Discipline
Reading and Meditating on the Bible as Spiritual Disciplines for Pastors