Ascol on Family Worship

Dr. Tom Ascol pastors Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL and is the Executive Director of Founders Ministries. Most of my readers probably know this about him. Some of you may know him more for his blogging. As we have become friends I have been very encouraged by his love for God, his church and his family. I thought an interview would be an interesting way to talk about family worship on the blog, and Tom was the person who I most wanted to share his thoughts and experiences. Is family worship something God expects of each family, and why is it so important?

I do believe that God expects everyone and every family to worship Him daily. The Psalms are certainly filled with expressions that indicate that. "O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you and watch" (5:3). David resolved to sing of God's power and mercy "in the morning" (59:16; cf. 88:13, 119:147) and to sing praise and pay his vows to the Lord daily (61:8). Psalm 68:19 says, "Blessed be the Lord, who daily loads us with benefits, the God of our salvation!" Being loaded daily with blessings from above should provoke daily expressions of praise and blessing from below.

One thing that has helped Donna and me to see the importance of this practice is recognizing that the the whole earth is, as Calvin put it, the theater of God's glory. In Proverbs you sense that Solomon understood this as he treats the world as a classroom in which to teach wisdom to his son. God's fingerprints are everywhere and we must cultivate eyes to see them and hearts to respond to Him with praise and gratitude.

Deuteronomy 6:4-7, of course, is one of the better known passages in Scripture that sets before parents the responsibility to train our children in the ways of God.This is to be done not in a perfunctory way but out of a heart that cherishes God's commands. And it is to be done formally and informally. "When you sit in your house" certainly suggests a specific time of concerted effort for parents to teach their children God's law.

Making this a priority helps remind us that we are here for God and that He deserves to be worshiped all the time in the ways that we conduct our affairs and relate to people.

I think it's fair to say this is not something most Christian families practice today. Do you agree? Why is it this way?

Yes, from my observation that is sadly and undeniably true. Family worship has been lost to large segments of the Christian church over the last 100 years. Much of it has to do with the dissolution of the family due to various social and cultural forces. Just like family meals have become increasingly rare, so has family worship. But I think there is more to it than just those pressures. I think that the loss of a Gospel-driven, Christ-centered understanding of the Christian faith has made many beliefs and practices that were once common and prized among believers almost obsolete. American Christianity has become much more American than Christian. The message of salvation has been efficiently reduced to a "Jesus-fix" or a "get-out-of-jail-free" card that has virtually no implications for how one lives. Christian belief and experience are relegated to the periphery of life rather than the center. Where this approach to Christianity predominates, regular corporate worship is often treated as a matter of convenience and regular family worship is completely foreign. That is where most of our American evangelical culture is, I am afraid.

Most of the second generation Christians in our church (including me) did not grow up in homes where Christ was worshiped as a family. In my case, that was true despite the fact that our family was very active in our Baptist church. I do not recall ever hearing of the concept until I was an adult.

What is the fallout from the absence of family worship in our homes?

One great one is that it contributes to the tendency to divide life up into "sacred" and "secular." Worship is what we do on Sundays. Life is what we do the other six days of the week. That perspective is contrary to a biblical worldview and tends to relegate our corporate worship experiences to the ethereal.

In addition to this, children do not receive the kind of training that they could and ought. Children who are taught to worship in their homes learn much more readily what is involved in worshiping with the larger family of the church on the Lord's Day. It is much easier to instruct and correct your child in your own home than it is in a church service. Corporate gatherings of worship are not as spiritually intense as they would be if every individual and family came from a week of regularly worshiping the Lord in their homes.

What have you found to be the biggest hindrances in maintaining this discipline?

Early on, when I first began to attempt it, the greatest hindrance was unrealistic ideas of what ought to happen. I read about "family worship" and "family altars" and "family devotions," but, to my knowledge, I had never experienced one. So I envisioned a full-fledged Lord's Day liturgy conducted in my living room, complete with a robed choir, pipe-organ accompaniment of hymns and a 45 minute sermon! It wasn't quite that bad, but it wasn't far off. With a new mom and barely crawling baby, I would schedule a "family worship service" in the evening and come fully armed with an in-depth Bible study that required at least an hour. That seemed like a minimal amount of time to devote to the God of the Universe who created time and from whose hand we had received every good and perfect gift we enjoyed (my theological reasoning trumped my wife's practical wisdom every time). Of course, my infant child rarely cooperated and when she became a toddler it only got worse. When her sister arrived I viewed it as reinforcements to undermine my righteous efforts to lead my family in worship! They wouldn't sit still or quiet for the scheduled hour. I would usually get frustrated and quit, sometimes with a prayer whose tone and spirit betrayed my wounded pride at having a family that simply would not follow my leadership to worship God. We would go weeks without attempting it again until the guilt overruled the sense of futility and I would plan another "service," usually bigger and better in order to make up for all the days we had missed. No matter how strong my resolve, we never seemed to make it through my whole agenda. It was pretty pitiful.

It wasn't until our family visited in the home of a fellow pastor that the Lord delivered me from my terribly misguided attempts to lead in family worship. After supper, this man pulled out Leading Little Ones to God and read a chapter (about a page), asked the suggested questions, and then led in prayer. It was simple and effective. And it lasted only 5 to 10 minutes. The three toddlers and one baby who were present did just fine. So did the four adults. It was a liberating moment for me.

I tell that story to illustrate one huge hindrance to attempting family worship, namely, unrealistic expectations born of inexperience. I have seen many families effectively begin this practice as a result of seeing it modeled in the homes of fellow believers who wisely know how to plan and structure the time so as not to be wearisome.

As our family has grown and our children's lives have become more complicated it has been increasingly difficult to maintain regular times of family devotions. Our home has 3 children who are in college and 3 under the age of 17. Just recently we recognized that we had fallen into a pattern of sporadic family worship, due in part to the fact that we rarely have all of the children home in the evenings anymore. We unwittingly developed a habit of waiting until everyone was home for the night before we would gather for worship, in part because we read through books of the Bible together and no one wants to miss a section. As those times got later and later it became easier and easier to simply declare that it was "too late" for family worship. We are now resolved to carry on whether or not we are all present, regretting when that is not the case but recognizing that this is simply the season of life we have entered.

What exactly happens during this time for your family and how many days a week do you all have it?

We plan to gather every evening except Wednesday and Sunday--days when we meet with our larger church family. Most weeks we are able to have 4 or 5 nights of family worship. On Sundays around the lunch table we discuss the morning lessons from church.

Our times together are very simple. We have read through various books together (Leading Little Ones to God, Big Thoughts for Little People, Children's Story Bible, Dangerous Journey, sections of Mortification of Sin and Pilgrim's Progress, etc., depending on the ages of the children). We always read Scripture, usually a chapter. Each child gets to choose a book from the Bible that we will read and we will stay with that one until we finish it. I usually read aloud and will offer some explanatory or devotional or applicatory comments and ask questions. Sometimes this leads to extended discussions and sometimes only brief answers. We often sing a song that one of the children selects. Right now we are memorizing 1 Peter together, so we will, if time allows, occasionally work on that some. Then we pray. Usually I lead us in prayer, though sometimes I call on others to pray aloud. If we have guests who are believers I will often ask one of them to lead us also. If there are particular things or people that need to be mentioned we pray for them. On Saturdays we name and pray for missionaries and "preacher friends" that we know or know of, asking the Lord to bless their labors on the Lord's Day. For the last few years we have been kneeling as we pray and have found this to be a healthy reminder of our rightful place before the Lord.

Years ago we incorporated catechism training into our family worship. We are not as regular with that in recent years as the children have spread out on so many various levels of learning.

How long does family worship typically last in your home?

It varies. I try to plan for about 20 minutes. Sometimes that will stretch into an hour, which is not burdensome for the ages of our children (our youngest is 9). Usually we spend from 15 to 30 minutes together.

What benefit/fruit do you see coming from this time spent with God and family?

It has provided a natural way for us to talk about spiritual things as a family. Communication is so important in family life and it often gets stifled by knots in the relationships. Even where good communication is cultivated it can be hard to talk about the most important things in the world. Regular times of reading God's Word together help cultivate healthy, spiritual communication.

These times have also afforded us many opportunities to confess sin or struggles to each other. Repentance and forgiveness are expressed and often modeled in front of us. Our times of worship have alerted Donna and me to things going on in the lives of our older children on occasion, allowing us to follow up with further conversation. On more than a few occasions, one of our children has come to us after a time of family worship seeking counsel or with a deep spiritual burden. The Lord used our time together as a family to encourage them to come to us.

Our children have learned to discuss theology, to respond to hard questions, to sit quietly as the Word of God is read and to pray. They have also learned to be patient and forgiving toward their parents. Donna and I have learned that God can and does give grace to do what He has called us to do.

What advice would you give to those who have/are starting young families?

Make family worship a priority. Don't let pride keep you from asking for help. Ask men and women who are doing it to give you suggestions. Get Don Whitney's booklet on the subject (now available as a message on CD, as well) and read it together. Don't be intimidated with unrealistic goals or visions of what family worship ought to be. Start simple. Read the Bible, sing a song or a chorus or a verse of a song, and pray. Then do it again the next day. Recognize that there will be days that you are not able to worship together as you like. Recognize that there wiil be days that you are able and you simply choose not to due to laziness, neglect or blatant sin. When that happens, repent, believe the Gospel, and start over, and do that the rest of your life. Once you incorporate family worship into the regular pattern of your life, don't let house guests divert you from your schedule. Include them, or at least invite them to join you. Evangelism happens during such times. So does discipleship. Your example and testimony can be powerfully used by God in the lives of others who witness it.

Here is a great gift to give to your children--a memory of always worshiping God in their home. What a blessing to bring a child into a worshipping family! His or her earliest memories will be framed by this God-honoring practice. Children blessed with this gift will never have a memory of a time where this was not a regular part of your family's life.

If your children are older and you are just now beginning this practice, turn it into a marker of God's grace in leading your family. Let this start be the beginning of deeper faith, deeper hope and renewed repentance in your lives and interpret it that way for your children. Don't live in regret for the years of neglect, but trust the Lord to use your fruits of repentance and faith to strengthen your family.

I would encourage husbands and dads to resist with all of their strength every tendency to justify not leading their family in regular times of worship. No excuse is acceptable. If you have God's Word and God's Spirit, then no matter how inadequate you feel, you have what it takes to go forward in this area. Every thought that would suggest you are not qualified or that you are exempt is from the pit of hell. Declare war on your pride, humble yourself, and make a serious attempt for one month to lead your family in this way. Don't be afraid to seek counsel and encouragement from other men. The opportunity is too great and the stakes are too high to neglect this responsibility.

Finally, I would encourage single moms to lead their children in family worship. It is hard, but everything that you are doing in trying to care for your family without a dad around is hard. Ask your church leaders for help in knowing what to do and how to begin. The Lord has particularly declared His concern for the widow and fatherless and though you and your children may not technically be classified as such, you can be sure that the Lord has compassion for those in your situation. He honors those who honor Him. So make it a priority to worship the Lord in your home with your children.