An Introduction to Family Worship

An Introduction to Family Worship

In the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, when parents bring their children before the Lord for baptism, they promise to teach them the Scriptures, pray regularly for and with them, and bring them up in “the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” I can think of no better means of fulfilling those vows than through the regular practice of family worship. This is the first in a series of posts I plan to write on the principles and practice of family worship in the Christian home.

It might help to begin with a bit of encouragement from Presbyterian history. The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, in addition to the Westminister Confession of Faith and Shorter and Larger Catechisms, approved in 1647 a directory for family worship. The General Assembly believed that the practice of family worship was vital to wellbeing of Christ’s church in every generation. It was of great concern to the ministers and elders who drafted the Directory that the ministry of family worship not be neglected. In fact, it was of such great importance that, in their preface, they wrote that if any family did not practice regular family worship, the head of that family was to be “gravely and sadly reproved by the session” if he willfully neglected his duty to provide spiritual leadership to his family, and if he did not repent, he was “for his obstinacy in such an offense [to be] suspended and debarred from the Lord’s Supper, as being justly esteemed unworthy to communicate therein, till he amend.”

The Directory for Family Worship was written for the purpose of “mutual edification, for cherishing piety, for maintaining unity, and avoiding schism and division.” In other words, the goal was much broader than encouraging spiritual growth among individual families. The goal was the unity and maturity of the whole body of Christ (Eph. 4:11-16). The ministers and elders of the Church of Scotland wisely recognized that the ministry of the Word must begin in the church, flow out of the church into the home, and flow out of the home back into the church. Only a church in which all of life was lived to the glory of God could have any influence for Christ and the Gospel in the world. The home, as the Puritans liked to say, was to be “a little church.”

So, what can we learn from the Directory for Family Worship? The Directory gives several very practical principles that I hope to build upon in this series of posts. Here is a summary of some of those principles:

1. The foundation of family worship is private, or “secret,” worship. The Directory begins with private worship, noting that private communion with God is the wellspring of all other duties in the Christian life. It encourages the regular practice of private worship every morning and evening by every member of the household, and emphasizes that heads of household have a particular responsibility to set an example of daily private worship, and to instruct, encourage, and admonish all within their care to be diligent, and grow in, regular private communion with God.

2. Family worship ordinarily consists of three main parts: prayer and praise, reading the Scriptures, and edifying conversation. First, families should pray and sing praises to God together. In particular, families should pray for the church, the nation in which they live, and for the needs of the family and every member thereof. Second, families should read the Scriptures together, using the catechism as a help, with the goal that each member of the family should be better prepared to profit from public worship on the Lord’s Day. Third, together with prayer and praises, and the reading of Scriptures, families should engage in “godly conferences.” In other words, they should talk openly and earnestly together about the things of God. Sometimes this will even take the form of “admonition and rebuke, upon just reasons, from those who have authority in the family.”

3. Heads of households should lead their families in understanding the Scriptures. While only ministers have the calling to preach and teach God’s Word officially in the church, heads of household have a particular calling to read the Word to their families, explain its meaning, and apply it to the particular needs and circumstance of each individual member of the home. “In all which the master of the family is to have the chief hand; and any member of the family may propose a question or a doubt for resolution.”

4. No member of the family may excuse him or herself from family worship. Since the head of household is responsible for the spiritual growth and vitality of his family, he “is to take care that none of the family withdraw himself from any part of family worship.” The head of household is accountable to God for this great responsibility, and the minster and elders of the church are to “stir up such as are lazy, and train up such as are weak, to a fitness in these exercises.”

5. Families should take care not to allow anyone to lead them in family worship who is not particularly called by God to that task. One example of this would be allowing a Mormon, or a Jehovah’s Witness, to enter your home for the purpose of instructing your family. This is dangerous, “seeing such persons tainted with errors, or aiming at division, may be ready (after that manner) to creep into houses, and lead captive silly and unstable souls.”

6. Family worship is generally reserved for those who share the same home together. The Assembly considered it unwise to gather individuals and families together for family worship when the elders of the church are not calling for an assembly of God’s people. Private meetings for “extended family worship” were to be discouraged. Often such meetings begin well, with all the best intentions, but end in disunity and disaster. This direction was not intended, however, to discourage families from inviting houseguests to participate with them in their family worship.

7. Heads of households have a special duty to direct their families in public and private worship on the Lord’s Day. Every member of the family ought to be instructed and encouraged to come into the Lord’s presence with a heart ready to worship Him. Not only should heads of household ensure that every member of their household attends public worship on the Lord’s Day, but also that the whole day is used rightly as a day of holy rest and worship, and that only the works of necessity and mercy be performed by any member of the family on that day. Fathers (or heads of households) should follow up on the preaching of the Word by reviewing the sermon with the family. The day is also best used in catechizing the family, taking time to talk about spiritual things, and “reading, meditation, and secret prayer, that they may confirm and increase their communion with God: that so the profit which they found in the public ordinances may be cherished and [promoted], and they more edified unto eternal life.”

8. Family worship ought to take precedence over all worldly business and activities. How often we give ourselves the excuse that we are “too busy” for family worship! But why are we so busy? Because we have other plans and other priorities. The  Directory helps us to see that God has better priorities for us and our families than we do. On this point, the Directory is very emphatic. It argues that family worship “ought to be performed in great sincerity, without delay, laying aside all exercises of worldly business or hindrances, notwithstanding the mocking of atheists and profane men.” We are to remember how merciful God has been to us, to our families, and to our nation, in making such a thing as family worship possible, and in giving us a desire for it. Furthermore, anyone with any influence at all has a responsibility by word and example to encourage and admonish others to this basic Christian duty of family worship.

For an excellent resource on family worship, I would commend to you J. W. Alexander’s, Thoughts on Family Worship, available here.

Even better is B. M. Palmer’s, The Family, which contains Alexander’s book as an appendix. That volume, which is now out of print can still be obtained at a very low price here. Palmer’s book is really the best resource on the family I have ever come across, and this book may not be available much longer. If you do not yet have this resource, I would urge you to sell all your modern books on the same topic and purchase it while you still can.


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