The great preacher John Wesley is best known for helping to establish Methodism. He travelled throughout Britain sharing the gospel and witnessing the spirit’s work as the Church grew rapidly. But Wesley also argued that the revival would not continue unless families worshipped together, spending time in prayer and reading scripture. For Wesley, family worship was the ordinary way in which God brings children to faith. Without it, the Church was bound to decline.
Today, we know that many children who grow up in Christian homes later reject the faith. While 95% of those born to ‘non-religious’ parents remain ‘non-religious’ as adults, 40% of children raised in Christian homes no longer identify as Christians in later life. In the Church of England, half of the children of churchgoing parents stop attending church when they reach adulthood. The main reason for the Church’s decline is not its failure to evangelise but its failure to pass on the faith to the next generation.
Wesley was right to highlight the importance of family worship. Unless families regularly spend time engaging with the Bible and praying together, children are less likely to trust and follow Jesus. As sociologists show, modelling faith in the home – including through family worship – gives parents the best chance of helping their children come to faith. And yet many Christian parents have never heard about family worship, and those who practise it often feel alone.
In 2015, a friend and I interviewed a number of Christian parents about why and how they lead family worship. A number felt that what they were doing was countercultural, including within the Church. One couple mentioned that their friends felt that it was a little extreme to read Bible stories at the kitchen table. Another expressed their disappointment that so few Christian families seemed interested.
While Christian parents help their children in a range of activities – such as homework, sports clubs, and music lessons – many don’t set aside time to help them to know and worship God. Many parents, it seems, have outsourced the spiritual formation of their children to the youth or children’s groups at church. It’s not simply, however, the fault of parents. With some notable exceptions, church leaders rarely speak about faith in the home. If Christian parents aren’t encouraged and equipped to lead family worship, it’s not surprising that many don’t see it as a priority.
And yet the Bible and history – as well as sociology – point to our need to recover family worship.
Four tips on how to worship as a family
1. Pray and begin
Rather than waiting for the perfect time, just make a start. Pray for God’s help as you do, and perhaps tell your church leader or a Christian friend so that they can pray too.
2. Keep it simple
While there are many good resources to help you in family worship, don’t make it too complicated. An easy way to begin is by reading a short Bible passage and praying about it with your children.
3. Find what works
Try to find a way of worshipping together that suits your family. A family that loves music, for example, might naturally incorporate worship songs, though others may not.
4. Keep going
One of the biggest challenges of family worship is sticking with it. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you miss a day, or even a few days. Just make a fresh start. Aim to make family worship a habit and part of your family culture.
NOT A NEW IDEA
In the Old Testament, God’s covenant embraced children as well as adults (Genesis 17), and parents were given a key responsibility in helping their children to love God and know the law (Deuteronomy 6). Children also took part in the key festivals of Israel (Exodus 12:21-28), and learned to pray and worship among their elders.
The New Testament also assumes that parents – as well as the wider Church – have a role in helping children come to faith. In a world where children were often undervalued, Jesus welcomed and blessed them, seeing them as recipients of the kingdom (Matthew 19:13-15). Paul instructed fathers to bring up children in the ‘training and instruction of the Lord’ (Ephesians 6:4), and hints from his other letters point to the key role that parents had in raising their children to follow Jesus (1 Corinthians 7:14; 2 Timothy 1:5; Titus 1:6).
As the early Church grew, key figures continued to stress the importance of family worship. One of the most significant treatments is found in a sermon delivered by John Chrysostom, the fourth and fifth-century Bishop of Constantinople. Chrysostom encouraged parents to see themselves as entrusted by God with the spiritual welfare of their children, and offered a range of advice for parents in helping their children to follow Jesus. Chrysostom suggested, for example, that parents should share Bible stories with their kids and help them draw connections between the stories and their lives.
Family worship was also an emphasis of the 16th century Reformation. Martin Luther explained that helping kids to worship and serve God was the ‘greatest good’ of married life. For Luther, parents are ‘apostles, bishops, and priests to their children, for it is they who make them acquainted with the gospel’. To help parents teach their children the faith, Luther and the other Reformers produced ‘catechisms’ – series of questions and answers about key Christian beliefs. In the 18th century, it was not only Wesley who promoted family worship. George Whitefield, another famous preacher of the evangelical revival, similarly called for parents to lead worship within the home.
In a sermon entitled ‘The Great Duty of Family Religion’, Whitefield encouraged parents to emulate the example of Joshua, who committed his family to follow God (Joshua 24:15). For Whitefield, family worship is a duty within Christian households, something that God commands. As Whitefield asks, if Christians have been blessed so much by God, why would they not help their children know God as well?
IN THE OLD TESTAMENT, GOD’S COVENANT EMBRACED CHILDREN AS WELL AS ADULTS
What we find throughout history is a repeated call by Christian leaders to take family worship seriously. Theologians and preachers pointed to the responsibility of parents, under God, to bring up their children to know God. This was first of all a matter of faithfulness, but also helped to ‘Start children off on the way they should go’ (Proverbs 22:6). While a child’s faith was ultimately due to the work of the spirit, parents were called to guide their children in the way of faith – and pray for God to do the rest.
FAMILY WORSHIP TODAY
It’s one thing to show that family worship was central in the past, but it’s another to explore how families might worship God together today. Interviews with parents who lead family worship showed that while engaging the Bible and prayer remain core, the ‘how’ of family worship can vary enormously.
Some families find that worshipping together at breakfast suits them best. Phil and Ruth have three young children (7, 5 and 1), and they start the day together with God over cereal and orange juice. Family worship involves reading through a children’s book about God, with links to key Bible verses, and spending time praying for others. They’ve also put together a ‘family prayer’ photo book, with images of people to prompt prayer. Since their children aren’t all yet reading, this means everyone can participate and also helps them to pray for the needs of others.
MODELLING FAITH IN THE HOME GIVES PARENTS THE BEST CHANCE OF HELPING THEIR CHILDREN
Other families find that worshipping together in the evening works best. Irfan and Raheela gather with their children after dinner, and worship by singing songs, praying together and reading the Bible. With four children in their teens and 20s, family worship is a time for digging deeper into God’s word, with each member of the family taking turns to read and explain a chapter of the Bible.
For Irfan and Raheela, worshipping with the children binds the family together and is a ‘spiritual investment’ for the future. Marina and Grant, and their three sons (aged 9, 11 and 14), come together for prayer and Bible reading over a weekly ‘Shabbat’ meal. The meal draws on Marina’s Jewish roots, and provides time to talk and pray over the sharing of bread and wine (or juice!). The family pray traditional Hebrew prayers, read scripture, and light a candle to acknowledge Jesus as the light of the world. The meal provides a great opportunity for all in the family to explore questions of faith as well as share concerns for prayer.
Resources for family worship
The Lion Storyteller Bible
What can be better than telling your kids a good Bible story? While there are a number of great children’s Bibles available, The Lion Storyteller Bible is particularly suitable for telling your children Bible stories in a fun and engaging way.
The Jesus Storybook Bible
This retelling of the Bible shows how both Old and New Testaments point to Christ. The child-friendly text is accompanied by lovely illustrations.
(The Good Book Company)
Published by the Good Book Company, Table Talk provides a helpful resource for parents and children to read the Bible and pray together. Each issue covers three months of Bible readings.
Faith5™offers a helpful and easy ‘faith practice’ for parents to use with their children before bed. The five steps include space for sharing highs and lows of each day, as well as time for reading the Bible and praying together.
The New City Catechism
Families wishing to experiment with using a catechism may find the New City Catechism helpful. This joint adult and children’s catechism draws from the Reformation catechisms and includes 52 questions and answers, along with some great online resources.
While our interviewees varied in their practice, they were all honest about the challenges of family worship. One of the biggest hurdles is simply making the time, and interviewees agreed that family worship is likely to slip unless it’s made a priority. Another challenge is finding a style of family worship that suits different ages and stages, and parents spoke of the need to change as children grow older.
Each of our interviewees agreed, however, that family worship is worth it. It’s a practice that brings families closer together and centres them on God. It models faith within the home and lays foundations for our children’s future, and so too for the future of the Church.
If we have tasted the ‘riches of God’s grace’ (Ephesians 1:7), then we’ll want the next generation to know that grace for themselves. Knowing Jesus, after all, is more valuable than anything else in life (Philippians 3:8), and there is surely no greater blessing than seeing our children come to know him too. If family worship helps with that – and it does – then it’s something that the Church desperately needs to recover.
ED MACKENZIE is a discipleship development officer for the Methodist Church and an associate lecturer at Cliff College. He lives in Derbyshire with his wife and their two sons (aged 5 and 7), and has written – with Gareth Crispin – Together with God: An Introduction to Family Worship (Morse-Brown).