I attended a Christian university along with approximately five-thousand other students, most of whom came from Christian homes. Although I never conducted an official survey, my general impression was that very few of my fellow Christian students had grown up in homes where family worship had been regularly practiced. It seemed to be a foreign concept to most of them. I believe the general ignorance concerning family worship demonstrates just how far Christian families have departed from their Christian heritage.
Family Worship: A Household Word
There was a time in the early days of this nation when family worship was a “household word” (no pun intended). Generally speaking, Christian families understood it to be their duty to conduct in family worship in the home. For example, in 1677 the congregational church of Dorchester, Massachusetts, composed and signed a written covenant in which they pledged to faithfully carry out their Christian duties. Included among their resolutions, they promised
To reform our families, engaging ourselves to a conscientious care to set up and maintain the worship of God in them and to walk in our houses with perfect hearts in a faithful discharge of all domestic duties: educating, instructing, and charging our children and our households to keep the ways of the Lord.1
In like manner, the church in Boston, Massachusetts, whose pastor was the notable Increase Mather, made the following commitment to conduct family worship:
We promise (by the help of Christ) that we will endeavor to walk before God in our houses, with a perfect heart; and that we will uphold the worship of God therein continually, according as he in his word requires, both in respect of prayer and reading the Scriptures, that so the word of Christ may dwell richly in us.2
James Packer is correct when he informs us that “family worship was … vitally important [to the Puritans]. Every home should be a church, with the head of the house as its minister. Daily and indeed twice daily, the Puritans recommended, the family as a family should hear the word read, and pray to God.”3
Family Worship: A Forgotten Practice
Unfortunately, this Puritan commitment to family worship slowly weakened. Nearly a century later, Isaac Backus, a Baptist leader, called attention to this decline. Describing the spiritual condition of the land in 1766, he wrote
New England has formerly been a place famous for religion in general, and for Family worship in particular. But of late, the neglect of this, as well as other religious duties, has evidently been growing upon us; which has caused much grief to pious souls. But I have not heard that any discourse has been published upon this subject here these many years…. there have lately been numbers remarkably awakened in some parts of the land, who were trained up in the neglect of Family Prayer, and who are still at a loss about the Scriptural authority for the daily practice thereof.4
The nineteenth century witnessed still a further decline in the practice. In his book entitled, Thoughts on Family Worship (1847), the Presbyterian James Alexander laments
Our church cannot compare with that of the seventeenth century (the Puritan church) in this regard. Along with Sabbath observance, and the catechizing of children, Family-Worship has lost ground. There are many heads of families, communicants in our churches, and (according to a scarcely credible report) some ruling elders and deacons, who maintain no stated daily service of God in their dwellings.5
What would these men say about family worship in our homes today? I suspect that they would not be impressed. Is it any wonder that we are seeing the breakdown of the American family in our society? Is it any wonder that so few children raised in Christian homes embrace their parents’ Christianity? Is it any wonder that when contemporary Christians hear about the concept of family worship, they think of it as old-fashioned, puritanical, and out-of-style?
Whatever our contemporaries may think about family worship, I believe it’s a vital practice for the health of our families, our churches, and our society. Pastor Jerry Marcellino refers to it as the “Lost Treasure” that needs to be “rediscovered.” I agree that family worship is a lost treasure. But rather than using the word “rediscovered,” I would use word “recovered” or “restored.”6 It’s not enough that we rediscover and admire an old relic from the past. Family worship is a practice that needs to be restored in our homes. That will be the goal of this study.
Family Worship: A Definition
Alexander defines family worship as “the joint worship rendered to God by all the members of one household.”7 Certainly, that’s an accurate and concise definition. However, I believe it would be helpful if we clarify and expand upon that definition.
To begin with, let’s clarify the meaning of the term “worship.” In general terms, worship refers to “the offering of homage, honor, and praise to God.” ((Millard Erickson, Concise Dictionary of Theology, s.v.)) As we examine the Scriptures, we find two levels of worship. On the one hand, the Bible speaks of worship as a “way of life”:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. (Romans 12:1, ESV)
On the other hand, the Bible also speaks of worship as formal religious act:
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come into his courts! Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness; tremble before him, all the earth! (Psalm 96:8–9, ESV)
This is what the apostle Paul had in mind when in Acts 24:11 he speaks of having gone “up to Jerusalem to worship.” Obviously, Paul is not referring to worship as a way of life. Rather, he is referring to a specific place and a specific time in which he engaged in specific acts of worship (cf. 21:26; 24:17). Thus, the Scriptures do not merely speak of worship in a broad sense, as a “way of life,” but they also speak of worship in a more narrow and technical sense. In other words, worship in this narrower sense involves specific acts of reverence and adoration performed at specific times and specific places.
This is what we have in mind when we speak of “family worship.” We are not referring to the general philosophy or behavior of a family. Rather, we are referring to a specific occasion in which specific acts of worship are offered to God. Those acts of worship would usually include the reading and teaching of Scripture, the offering of prayer, and the singing of praise. We refer to it as family worship, because it is worship performed within the context of the home. In the days of the Puritans, as well as Bible times, the members of a household often included extended family and even servants or slaves. In our day, it usually consists only of immediate family members.
With these considerations in view, let me offer you an expanded definition of family worship:
Family worship is the occasion in which the members of a given family gather in order to participate in special acts of worship, such as the singing of praise, the reading and hearing of Scripture, and the offering of prayer to God.
In the subsequent installments to this series, we’ll consider some biblical support (Part 2), some positive benefits (Part 3), and some practical guidelines (Part 4) for conducting family worship.
1 Cited in Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints, p. 80.
2 Ibid., 85.
3 Quest for Godliness, p. 255.
4 Cited in Jerry Marcellino, Rediscovering the Lost Treasure of Family Worship, p. 2.
5 Thoughts on Family Worship, pp. 1, 2.
6 Of course, Pastor Marcellino’s burden is not merely to reacquaint God’s people with a lost practice but to motivate them to recover this practice. So though I prefer my title (“Restoring” vs. “Rediscovering”), I don’t disagree with at all with the thrust of his booklet, have gleaned a number of insights from it, and would highly commend it to my readers.
7 Thoughts on Family Worship, p. 9.
Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological Review, The Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.