The Family Altar
Our subject today is family worship. It is a vital subject and I want to try and look at the whole issue of family religion with you for a moment, so that we can put family worship in context. Many Puritan sermons used to spend 40-60% of the message in application, and that’s going to be the case today, although I won’t do what one Puritan did, and put 68 points of application in the message. You can imagine the relief of the congregation when they arrived at, “And sixty-eighthly.” It won’t be quite like that, but we’ll be taking a biblical principle and applying it fairly thoroughly. We’ll be referencing various passages of Scripture, so keep your Bibles open. I do want to mention, in passing, that there is a wonderful tape available through the church library of a talk given on this subject by Ruling Elder Bill Harper, just a year or so ago, at one of our Men of the Covenant luncheons; and it is an excellent and practical treatment of family worship. I commend it to you.
Let me also say that you should not let the gap between the ideal and the reality stop you in this area, especially. Just like people who struggle starting their personal devotions and keeping them going consistently, find it frustrating sometimes and are tempted to quit because the reality is not meeting the ideal, even of their own hearts and desires. So also, and especially, we should not give up striving for the ideal even when the reality is not there in our own practice and experience. We’re going to look at a number of passages tonight, but I want you to begin with me by looking at Deuteronomy 6, verse 4. This is God’s word:
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your hearts, and you shall teach them diligently to your sons and talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up. And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontals on your forehead, and you shall write them on the doorposts of your house, and on your gates.” Amen.
Lord and God, we thank You for this, Your word. Teach us by it, inspire us, move us by Your Word. Perhaps it is the case that we come to this message knowing more about our duty than we do. If this is indeed the situation with us, then we pray that by the Spirit You would move us to embrace with joy and wllingness, the duty You set before us in Your Word. Perhaps we come unaware of the extent of our duty as heads of households and as parents toward our covenant children. If that is the case, shake us from our ignorance and bring us into a full realization of the glory of that responsibility. And in all things, glorify Yourself and help Your people, this we ask in Jesus name, Amen.
Our goal at First Presbyterian Church is for every family unit to become a discipleship group, for every husband and father to become an active, self-denying spiritual leader in his home, for there to exist 1,500 family-based growth groups within our larger church family, for family religion to be the fountain of healthy, robust, corporate worship, as well as worship in all of life. And for that to happen, we need to know something about what the Bible says about family religion. So, I’d like to set forth before you four or five things on which to meditate. First of all, I want you to think with me about our covenant responsibilities as Christian parents to our children. Then, I want to think with you about five simple, practical ways that we can exercise those responsibilities. Then, I want to ask the question, “Why should we do family worship?” I want to speak briefly about the nature and content of family worship, and then talk with you about obstacles to family worship.
I. The covenant responsibilities
of Christian parents to their children.
There are significant things that we can do as Christian parents to promote the spiritual health and growth of our covenant children. Salvation is of God. I understand that. The Holy Spirit works when, and where, how, and with whom He pleases. I understand that. I’m a Calvinist. Many of you are too. However, God’s sovereignty does not rule out or work against our responsibility, but in fact, usually works with our responsibility as His means, as His cause, as His instrument to work His design. Salvation is of God, and the Spirit works when and how and with whom He wishes, but Christian parents still have covenant responsibilities toward their children whom God is pleased to use as means of those covenant children’s spiritual birth and growth. And among those means are the following: First, as Christian parents we must take time to consider the spiritual condition and need of our children. Let me ask you this: Do you spend more time thinking about your children’s physical and temporal needs than their spiritual needs? Are you more concerned about their placement in school, how well they do in school, the social group with which they run, their success in secular employment in life, their performance in scholastic pursuit, than you are their spiritual growth and nurture and health? Cyprian, the great North African churchman, said that a parent that was more concerned about the physical and temporal needs of his child than the spiritual needs of the child, was like a man watching his dog drown and his child drown at the same time--and choosing to save his dog. A fairly striking illustration, isn’t it! It is vital that we are concerned and we take time to consider the spiritual condition and needs of our children. That’s our first covenant responsibility we need to exercise.
Secondly, there is this: We need to use the baptism of our children as an occasion to call them to faith. Use the baptism of your children as an occasion to call them to faith. Every time we see a baptism administered in the church it offers you an opportunity to talk with your own children about the significance of their baptism and all the claims that puts on them and all the responsibility it puts on them to respond to God in faith, and to embrace the promises of the covenant.
Cotton Mather, in his wonderful little book, A Family Well Ordered, tells the story of a man in his own town, whose diary he had seen after his death. And in this man’s diary, he records what he did the day before his children’s baptism. He spent the whole day in prayer, begging God to make the promises set forth in symbol in the sacrament to become a reality in the life of his children. He gave himself to God, he gave his children to God, and then he begged God to respond in mercy to the promises He had made in His word in the lives of His children. I want to tell you, as I read Cotton Mather about that, I said to myself, “I didn’t do that when my children were baptized.” But I have the opportunity, every time that baptism is administered in this church, to revisit that situation with my own children, and to pray those prayers and to tell them the meaning of their baptism, and to call them to embrace, by faith, the realities that are set forth in that baptism. Do you use baptism as a opportunity to call your children to faith? That’s one of your spiritual responsibilities as a covenant parent.
Thirdly, we need to instruct our children in the great issues of salvation. There are numerous opportunities to do this. We can talk with them about the content of sermons, we can ask them about Scriptures that they have memorized in Sunday School, we can see how far they understand things they are learning in the Children’s Catechism, or learning from their Sunday School teachers, or their Bible school teachers, or from their school teachers at the Day School, or wherever they may be learning scriptural and spiritual truth. We need to concentrate on learning their soul. Isn’t it interesting here, in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, that the responsibilities of parents are spelled out in nurturing their children in the truth. It’s not just one location or space or time that they are to utilize in nurturing covenant children--it’s everywhere. Not just at a Scripture reading or family worship time, but everywhere in life they’re to be looking for opportunities to nurture their children in the great issue of God and salvation.
Fourthly, we are, as covenant parents, responsible to correct and restrain our children from those things which are prejudicial to their spiritual life and salvation. We need to display a sweet and gentle, but a firm parental authority. It is spiritual murder to indulge our children in their sins. It is lunacy to allow our children to trample us. Here’s a beautiful phrase. Cotton Mather says, “Our children ought to fear us with delight.” There ought to be a combination of parental authority and filial devotion which is displayed in the way we nurture our children. We need to challenge straying teenager-- and for heaven’s sake--we can’t be cute with our children about their sin. Joking with young men about sexual indiscretion and exploits is a crazy thing to do. Making fun with young women about caving in to the pressures around them is a crazy thing to do. We need to challenge our children, especially those teenagers, who are straying under the pressures of peer influence.
Fifthly, we need to challenge our children to embrace the covenant. Think how many exhortations there are in Scripture that we can use with them. We need to exhort them in the things of the Lord. For instance, turn with me to 1 Chronicles 28:9, as David addresses his son, Solomon, now grown, he says, “As for you, my son Solomon, know the God of your father, and serve Him with a whole heart and a willing mind, for the Lord searches all hearts, and understands every intent of the thoughts. If you seek Him, He will let you find Him; but if you forsake Him, He will reject you forever.” You know, all you have to do is take the word “Solomon” out of there, and you’ve got an exhortation to your own children. Have you ever given that exhortation to your own children? Challenge your children to embrace the covenant.
You don’t have to go to the Old Testament; you can go to the New Testament. Turn with me to 1 John 3:23, where John says, “This is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another just as He commanded us.” You can take that and bring it as a charge, as a challenge to your covenant children. Believe in the name of His Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another just as He has commanded us. Every directive, every command, every imperative in the Scripture supplies you with a challenge that you can bring to your covenant children to call them to embrace the covenant. Plunder the Scriptures for charges and challenges and exhortations and spiritual commands, and share them with your covenant children.
Many of you have heard me tell the story of Douglas McMillan’s mother who was dying of cancer, and when Douglas would come home late at night, he would often hear her singing. She couldn’t sleep because of the pain of the cancer, and often she would ask Douglas to read passages of Scriptures to her. On the final time when Douglas was there with his mother, exactly a week before she died, the final occasion on which he read Scripture to her, she asked him to read from John 14 and 16, the words that Jesus spoke to His disciples. And after reading Jesus’ words to the disciples about preparing for them a place with many mansions, that they would come to and be with Him, she told Douglas, “Douglas, that’s enough.” And he said, “But I could keep on reading.” And she said, “Douglas, that’s enough.” And then he closed the Bible and she said to him, “Douglas, in just a little while I am going to be with Jesus.” Douglas had not made a profession of faith, and his heart was hard to the Lord, and she said to him, “Douglas, I want to ask you one thing? Will you meet me there?” She challenged him to embrace the covenant. Do we challenge our children to embrace the covenant?
Be a disciple yourself, that’s the sixth thing. Love God. You have to be a disciple to make a disciple. You have to be a disciple to disciple another. You have to be a disciple to disciple your children. Look at the order of Psalm 34. In Psalm 34:1, 4, and 11, where David says this, “I will bless the Lord at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth. I sought the Lord and He answered me and delivered me from all my fears.” So David blesses the Lord, David seeks the Lord; David is delivered by the Lord. Now, look at verse 11. “Come, you children, listen to me, I will teach you the fear of the Lord.” David had to know the fear of the Lord, David had to know the praise of the Lord; David had to seek the Lord, and be delivered by the Lord before He could teach the children the fear of the Lord. And so also with us. We must know the Lord; we must walk with the Lord, before we can teach our children the fear of the Lord.
And along with this, we must be conscious of our example in life and priorities and choices. Your children will see what is important to you. That’s absolutely crystal clear. Children have a “bunk detector” that is virtually infallible. They see right through adults. Adults have a hard time scamming children. Children see what is important to you. Is God important to you? Is His worship important to you? Is the Lord’s day important to you? Is the Bible important to you? Is the Christian life important to you? is the work of God’s kingdom important to you? Or, is your life taken up with trivialities, secular labors, the pursuit of pleasure, or just escape from pain? Let me say this: your children will see what is really important to you, and it will either definitively contradict what you have said to them with your words, or it will definitively confirm what you have said to them with your words. And to a certain extent, it will do the same for my words to them, or a youth minister’s words to them.
Jerry Marsellino, in his wonderful little booklet, Rediscovering the Lost Treasures of Family Worship, says this about this very point. “Often, so often, a child sees behind all the religious garb of his parents, and finds what is really precious to them. He sees patterns of heart which lure them toward a pursuit of wealth, leisure, athletics, entertainment, television, shopping, and religious business. A child can easily see when these things are more exciting to his parents than devotion to Jesus Christ. When this proves to be the case, a child will embrace those same affections to the detriment of his own soul. However, when children see parents who pant after God, parents who are constantly pouring over the Scriptures and going to God in prayer about everything, parents who have a proper balance between the enjoyment of legitimate recreation and seeking to conform to everything that would bring glory to God, their children can be expected to adopt the same balance. Whatever or whoever is precious to you, the same will be precious to your children.” We need to be an example in our lives, and priorities and choices.
And finally, we need to pray for our children. Pray for their salvation. Pray for their spiritual growth. Pray for their future spouses. Pray with them as for them.
Not long ago, our Christian Education Department from the denomination produced a prayer sheet that I keep in the back of my Bible, which has 31 days of prayer for your children. Listen to some of the things it suggests and gives Scripture references to pray. Pray for your children’s salvation. Pray for their growth in grace. Pray for their love. Pray for their honesty and integrity. Pray for their self control. Pray for their love of God’s word. Pray for their justice in society. Pray for their mercy. Pray for their respect for others and for authority. Pray for faithfulness, courage, purity, kindness, generosity, for them to be peace loving, for them to have real spiritual joy, for perseverance, for humility, for compassion, for responsibility, for contentment, for faith, for a servant heart, for hope, for wisdom, for willingness and ability to work, for passion for God, for self discipline, for prayerfulness, for gratitude, and for a heart for missions. There is so much to pray for your children that you should never be at a loss for thought or desire or words as you lift them up before the Lord in prayer. Pray for their future spouses. Pray with them as well as for them. All of these are covenant responsibilities of Christian parents toward their children.
II. How to promote family
What are five simple and practical ways, then, to promote family religion in your household, in light of those covenant responsibilities that we have? What are some ways that mean you don’t have to go off and take an eight-week seminar, or go to a conference in order to learn them? Here they are. This is high-tech stuff, so just hang on. Sit together at church. Go to church every week--even vacation--52 weeks a year, year after year, and sit together. You have no idea the power of that on a child’s soul. There are very few things in the world that can even approach the power of that on a child. The family ought to be together in the worship of the Lord. Children can get together with their friends after the service is over, but in church, the family ought to be prime. And the power of the ordinary means of grace should not be underestimated in this. In Terry Johnson’s book, The Family Worship Book, he says this, “How does the commitment to public worship relate to the family’s spiritual well being? The effect upon parents is clear enough. Spiritually nourished parents make for better families. But the family pew has more in mind than sanctifying the parents. When your children are brought with you into public worship, they too are sanctified. Your children from their earliest years will be ushered along with you into the presence of God. They will be brought under the means of grace and will experience the fellowship of God’s people, week after week, as they mature through childhood. And beyond this, they will sit by you Sunday after Sunday watching you, you publicly humble yourself before God, publicly submit to His word. Among their earliest and warmest memories will be those of holding their parent’s hands during church, sitting close by their sides, following along in the hymnal, placing money in the offering plate, bowing their heads in prayer,; do not underestimate the cumulative effect of this witness upon your covenant children, no doubt it is considerable even incalculable. The key to your own, and your family’s spiritual health is remarkably simple. Though there is considerable hype to the contrary, it involves no pilgrimages to sacred places, it requires no weeklong or weekend retreats, seminars or special programs. It depends on no special techniques or novel methodologies. You don’t have to spend yet another night out. You won’t need to add one more meeting to an already frantic schedule. The key is to be found in regular, ordinary, weekly worship services of the church. It is not a glamorous key, but it is the key nonetheless. Sit together at church.”
Second. Work to have a Lord’s day. Live as if Sunday is the Lord’s--not yours. There are a thousand different questions you have in your mind. Forget the questions—here’s the big picture. Live as if Sunday is the Lord’s day, not yours. View it not as some oppressive, restrictive, narrowing, confining, thing; but view it as the market day of the soul. I promise you that will have impact that you cannot calculate.
Thirdly. Attend evening worship. Now I know I’m preaching to the choir tonight, literally, I know. I need to do this on Sunday morning. But if we believe the whole day is the Lord’s day, it ought to be framed with worship. Let me make a strong assertion here. I have never known a family that was faithful in Sunday evening attendance, that when the great crises of life came did not weather the storm and walk in faith and persevere. I have never known a family that faithfully attended Sunday evening that when the challenge came—when the crisis came—they did not weather the storm with faith. That’s just an indisputable fact of my experience, and I think is somewhat of an appropriate experiential testimony of the power of the means of being under the means of grace.
Fourth. Memorize the catechism. Start with The Children’s Catechism. Go to The Shorter Catechism. Bless your heart if you do The Larger Catechism. But memorize the catechism. It is a proven message. It‘s simple; it’s content rich. It teaches our children the language of Zion. They don’t need to understand it when they first memorize it. That’ll come later. It teaches them the language of Zion. It increases, as a by-product, their memory ability and their capacity for conceptual thinking but it is simple and content rich. You don’t have to have some special accreditation to teach the catechism and you know, the amazing thing is, the stuff that you learn while you’re doing it.
Fifth. Worship together as a family at home. Praise, pray and read the Bible together as a family at home. If you were to worship together as a family at home each day, by the time your child was age 18, you would have had over 6,500 opportunities to read the Scriptures, sing and pray with him or her. If you had been reading roughly a chapter a day, you would have read the Bible through four and one-half times. If you had been learning a new hymn, or song, or Psalm, at the rate of one a month, you would have learned 215 new hymns, songs, or Psalms. Think of the cumulative effect of that on a child. Now, with that the fifth of the simple and practical ways to promote family religion, let’s just jump right into that issue of family worship as we look at my third, and fourth, and fifth major points. Third. Why should we do family worship?
III. Why should we do family
Three reasons. Because we are God’s stewards of our children. We are accountable to Him. He has graciously given our children to us. Psalm 127:3 says, “Behold, children are a gift from the Lord.” We don’t earn them, we don’t deserve them—they are gifts from God to us and we will give an account for every gift that He gives us—especially our children. So we have a stewardship to God. Secondly, God has commanded us to train up our children in the Lord in the home. That’s what Deuteronomy 6:4-9 is all about. Listen to verse 7. “You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.” Billy was exactly right tonight. It is great to learn about the Lord in church and at school, but you also need to learn about the Lord at home. Learning about the Lord at home is a preparation for learning about the Lord in church and in school. And that’s my third point, the home is the seedbed of piety and religion for the church. That’s Paul’s point in 1Timothy 3:4 & 5, when he’s talking about the elders, and in verse 12 when he’s talking about the deacons. What’s his point? That godliness begins in the home—that’s where godliness begins and that’s why we do family worship.
IV. What is the nature and
content of family worship?
What is the nature and content of family worship? That’s the big fourth point that I will be talking to you about tonight. The nature and content of family worship. What should be in family worship? Song, Scripture, supplication—that’s Jerry Marcelino’s rhyming version. In other words—singing, Scripture reading and prayer—that’s what ought to be in family worship. Sing together. Sing children’s songs with the young, sing hymns with the older children. If you can’t sing, get a tape to help you, but sing together. Take a hymnal, buy a hymnal, have a hymnal at home and learn the great hymns of the faith. Bible reading. You can use Bible-story books for the young, catechism memory, you can try and follow various Bible reading plans, you can read consecutively through the Bible, but just read the Bible. You can read bits of the Bible. Prayer. Use Scripture, but pray. Include adoration and confession and thanksgiving and supplication.
It is amazing how young children can pick up on what you’re doing while you are praying. One of the moms in the church was telling me that during vacation Bible School week, her daughter had asked four consecutive nights at prayer time to pray for Jennings. She was two. Two nights ago, I’m praying about this, and that and the other, and Jennings says, “I want to pray for mommy and for Sissy.” Now, he’s two. I don’t know what he knows; I don’t know what he doesn’t know, but he’s already aware of what I’m asking for in prayer. Pray with and for your children. Include adoration and confession and thanksgiving and supplication.
How long should family worship last? It should be regularly brief. You try and make it long and you’ll never stay the course. Ten minutes or less is long enough when the children are young. Occasionally, it will run longer as they grow older and conversations strike up.
When should you do family worship? Do it when it works. The three most popular and common times are morning at breakfast, suppertime, or bedtime—but do it when it works.
What are some resources? If you’ve never done family worship before and you want to start, I’ve already mentioned Jerry Marcelino’s Rediscovering Family Worship, Terry Johnson’s The Family Worship Book or Cotton Mather’s A Family Well-Ordered.
What are the obstacles to family worship? There are a lot of them. You may be getting a late start. Family worship, by the way, is not just for couples with children. You may have already been married for many years and you’ve never done it before, and it’s hard to start in midstream. You may have been a parent for many years, and you’ve never done it before and it’s hard and embarrassing. It’s humbling; it’s shaming to start in midstream because you’re admitting you should have been doing something that you haven’t been doing. That’s hard. You may have an unsupportive spouse. Your wife may not think it’s important to do. She may be critical of what you’re trying to do. She may be uncooperative, or, you may have a husband who is lazy and unconcerned about family worship. But maybe you are a wife who really does desire your family to worship; what do you do? Pray and make it easy for him to do it. Don’t nag. Your children may be older. They may be unused to the practice and resistant to it, so keep it short, explain why you’re doing it, and do it anyway. Your schedule may be crazy. Your husband may be traveling. Your kids are piled up with activities. Meet consistently but flexibly. Change times. You may do it at different times on different days. Let your wife lead while you are away. Call home when you are on a business trip, and do a conference-call family worship. Or it may just be lack of discipline or a lack of the sense of the importance of family worship, or a lack of experience of family worship in one’s own upbringing. If it’s a lack of discipline, pray for discipline. If it’s a lack of a sense of the importance of family worship, pick up something like the resources that we’ve mentioned and read about this. If it’s a lack of experience of family worship in one’s own upbringing, there’s good news—this is not rocket-science—sing, pray, read. And find somebody to be accountable to who cares about your soul and the souls of your family, and who’ll ask you—“Bob, Jim, Lig, how’s family worship going?” And hold to that accountability.
May God grant us a congregation where family religion thrives.