Rev. Koole is pastor of Faith Protestant Reformed Church in Jenison, Michigan.
Nowhere has this matter of family worship been so thoroughly addressed as by the Westminster Assembly. They made specific reference to this calling in their Confession (Ch. 21, Art. 6).
God is to be worshipped every where, in spirit and in truth; as in private families daily, and in secret each one by himself.
Already prior to this in Scotland, by the Act of Assembly 1596, the elders, “within the quarter and bounds assigned to each of them,” were instructed to inquire about the matter of family worship. At church visitation the question was put to the elders, “Are they careful to have the worship of God set up in the families of their bounds?” The minister in his pastoral rounds was to ask “Whether God be worshipped in the family, by prayers, praises, and reading of the Scriptures? . . . If there be catechizing in the family?”
In the same year that the Westminster Confession was adopted (1647), the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland drew up a “Directory for Family-Worship.” This “Directory” lays out in detailed form what the presbyterian “church-fathers” were convinced made up proper, profitable family worship. It represents the best of the Reformation on family-worship.
How serious the Assembly took this matter of regular family worship is apparent from the prologue to this “Directory.” Having required that the minister and ruling elders make “diligent search” whether there were families under their care neglecting this matter of family worship, the Assembly went on to say,
. . . 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 . . . till he amend.
This reminds us that regular family worship is not only a privilege, but a calling and duty. God Himself will call us to account.
Since most are unfamiliar with this “Directory,” it is worth our while to quote a few select segments.
Having stated that “Besides the publick worship in congregations . . . private worship of families, be pressed and set up,” the “Directory” goes on to speak of “The ordinary duties comprehended under the exercise of piety which should be in families . . . .”
First, Prayer, and praises per; formed, with a special reference, as well to the condition of the Kirk of God, and this kingdom, as to the present state of the family, and every member thereof. Next, Reading of the Scriptures, with catechizing in a plain way, that the understandings of the simpler may be better enabled to profit under the public ordinances, and they made more capable to understand the Scriptures when they are read: together with godly conferences tending to the edification of all the members in the most holy faith: as also, admonition and rebuke, upon just reasons, from those who have authority in the family.
Article IV begins with the practical reminder, “The head of the family is to take care that none of the family withdraw himself from any part of family-worship . . . ..”
Having given some good practical instruction on the calling of a father to make sure that his family had profited from congregational worship on the Lord’s Day, the Assembly addressed the matter of family prayer (Art. IX):
So many as can conceive prayer, ought to make use of that gift of God: albeit those who are rude and weaker may begin at a set form of prayer, but so as they be not sluggish in stirring up in themselves (according to their daily necessities) the spirit of prayer, which is given to all the children of God in some measure . . . .”
To give some direction in the matter of prayer, a list of elements suitable for prayer was then set down. For instance:
Let them confess to God how unworthy they are to come in his presence, and how unfit to worship his Majesty….
They are to confess their sins, and the sins of the family….
They are to give thanks to God for his many mercies to his people, and to themselves….
They ought to pray for the kirk of Christ in general, for all the reformed kirks, and for this kirk in particular-… for all our superiors, the king’s majesty . . . for the magistrates, ministers, and the whole body of the congregation whereof they are members….
The far-reaching influence of diligent attendance to this matter of family worship, which we call “family devotions,” simply cannot be emphasized enough. It is at the, time of family worship and devotions that our children are given to see a spiritual side of us they might not otherwise know about. They get to see our heart of hearts, and perceive our deepest spiritual concerns (whether spiritual concerns are even there). This can have a powerful impact on them.
J.W. Alexander put it well:
The children look more deeply into the parents’ heart by the medium of family-prayer. A single burst of genuine fatherly anxiety in the midst of ardent intercession may speak-to the child a volume of long-hidden and travailing grief and love. Such words, uttered ‘on the knees, though from the plain untutored man, are sometimes as arrows m the heart of unconverted youth. The child is forced to say within himself, “How can I offend against the father who daily wrestles with God in my behalf? How can I be careless about the soul, for which he is thus concerned?” . . . He is little read in the human heart who fails to recognize here a great element of filial piety, or who refuses to believe that the tenderness of a child’s attachment is increased by the stated worship of the household (Directory, pp. 63- 64).
God-fearing parents ought to read these words again, and then reflect on their-own prayers uttered at the table with their children. How heartfelt and personal are our family prayers? The fruit of attendance to this kind of family worship was the marked godliness and happiness in the land of Scotland for many long years.
Scotland was not alone in this practice. Its parallel could be found in the Protestant home life of the northern provinces of Holland as well. The documents produced by the Synod of Dordt show the same concern for family life, namely, one that revolved around the Word of God and prayer, and involved daily worship.
One element we tend to forget (neglect?), but which was promoted by the Reformers, was family singing, families singing psalms and good hymns at mealtime. Luther composed songs for his own children. “Away in a Manger” is one familiar instance. There were others of more substance. His own family often took out their musical instruments and made melody on their strings and in their hearts, praising God by song. It is simply a fact that Reformation homes were psalm-singing homes.
Family singing, as past of family worship, was once common practice in Reformed homes. The evidence of this is seen in how many of our Dutch (and German) grandparents knew their old psalms in versification. Psalm after psalm, stanza after stanza, by memory. They had learned them by singing them as children in their families in the “old country.” This had great benefit later in life, even on their deathbeds. They could sing psalms of comfort and of victory. The Word of God was embedded in their souls in song!
Since that day things have slipped in this area. Evidently it started soon after our grandparents moved to this country. Singing as a common element of family worship died out even in our grandparents homes.
I suspect, in part, that they, like ourselves, became too busy in this land of commercial opportunity. They did not have enough time anymore to do all these things as they sat down with their families. And undoubtedly the language problem entered in as well. Dutch was their mother-tongue, but their children were more familiar with English. Who was interested in learning Dutch songs anymore? For whatever reason, the custom of singing as part of family devotions all but died out.
This raises then question, of course, how much singing do we do together as families anymore, or even as believers getting together? True, we can be thankful for Christian schools which are still teaching our children “psalms and spiritual songs.” These are the melodies they will later sing in their hearts. But what about our own families and singing?
Permit me to give a couple of suggestions.
First, most of us have “sound systems” in our family rooms,” some rather elaborate ones at that. What an excellent opportunity to fill the atmosphere of our homes with good, solid, spiritual, God-glorifying, grace-magnifying, biblically-sound, music and praise.And let us not forget the Psalms! Please! They tie us in with the church of all ages; and this will help singing in church. The songs our children hear regularly in the home are the songs they will most enjoy singing years down the line. And who knows in what “dungeons dark and deep” they will need these songs!
Secondly, what about the holidays, when our extended families, young and old, get together? What a splendid opportunity to sing together as families. Spiritual songs for the season and anthems of praise. Take along the song books. Make it a family tradition.
Let us remember, it is exactly where family worship has flourished that you find a flourishing church, its worship services well attended by entire families, morning and evening. And it is from these families that come faithful kingdom workers—mothers, fathers, officebearers, teachers, godly witnesses, and all the rest.
Where it has been neglected?
J.W. Alexander again is much to the point:
I no longer marvel that Christianity has become a dying, empty, thing in the houses of those professors (alas, that there should be such!) where there is no joint worship of God (p. 54).
This is a timely reminder to us.
We are reminded that the Reformers called husbands and fathers to take the lead in this. It was not enough simply that they read and prayed each day briefly with their families. Rather, time was to be taken to instruct and discuss.
Did the children understand what was read?
How did the Word apply to the life and members of the home?
The father was to bring it home!
And what were the particular needs of each that needed to be addressed in admonition or in explicit reference in prayer?
In summation, time was to be taken (made, if you will) just as with church worship. Thought was to be given. And God’s Word was to be thoughtfully applied.
And then the family, led by the father-priest, was to approach God in prayer once again. Sins were confessed. Grace sought. Needs laid out. Love expressed. And homage and gratitude rendered.
This is the legacy of the Reformation to our families.
Now follow the questions.
Are we taking the time for family worship?
Are we giving it thought?
Are we doing our best to have devotions with all the family members present?
Or, have we let these things slip?
The sad truth is, the springtime of the Reformation is long past. Deep autumn is upon us as church of Christ and families. Are we also growing lax and becoming dormant—leaves yellow, fruit withering, devotional life sluggish in our homes?
Fathers, does it not start with ourselves as heads of homes?
When the Lord of Elijah returns, will He find faith and fruit yet in our generations?
May I remind you that spiritual vitality and strength to resist the most severe spiritual frost and stormy blast has to do with faithfulness in “family worship”?
God give us grace to attend to it!