Family worship is not as essential as some want to insist

Until fairly recently, I had never come across the concept of ‘family worship’. It just wasn’t a thing that we ever did growing up. My Christian parents, except for the occasional holiday where there was no church to go to, never did it. The idea of doing ‘family worship’ on our own at home just didn’t enter into thoughts. And, to be honest, I don’t think that is particularly a problem.

Now, don’t get me wrong. My parents taught us the Bible and took us to church. They did quiet times with us each night before bed and encouraged us to understand the scriptures for ourselves. They took us to church, Sunday school, Christian youth groups, camps and all sorts. They modelled Christian living excellently to us. Evangelism wasn’t just something we heard about from a pulpit periodically “as it comes up in the passage” (nor would that have come from my Dad as he was neither a pastor nor elder), it was something we saw lived out.

I was taken out with my Dad to do open air work in town and city centres frequently, I was brought on his door-to-door visits round the local council house areas, I was taken on summer holidays that were built around the Beach Missions my parents served on. I was encouraged by my parents not simply to watch but, as a believer, to do it with them. I saw both my parents reading the Word and seeking to live it out with consistency. There was never any shadow of a doubt that they thought knowing the Word and being doers of it was important and neither was there any sense that they didn’t want that for us as their children too. It was abundantly clear to me that my parents were believers, who read and lived the Word, and their hearts desire was for me, my brother and sister to experience the same. And, by God’s grace, we all have!

But all of that was done without ever, as far as I recall, establishing family worship.

Again, don’t mishear me. If you find regularly sitting down with your family to do that a helpful practice, don’t hear me telling you to stop doing that. If that is a way you can faithfully minister to your children, and you find that a valuable thing to do as a family, I am all for you doing it. But (as I seem to have been saying a lot lately in respect to a good number of things), let’s recognise that practices we find personally helpful are not necessarily mandated or required of everyone else.

I have heard a number of people over the last few years insisting on the vital importance of set family worship. Whether that is finding time every day to do it together, or once per week, or however often. But the expectation is, first, that you definitely will do it and, second, that it is vital for teaching and training your family. If you find it helpful, have at it! But vital? I’m just not convinced.

I can hear the pushback coming already. Aren’t we taught to train up our children in the way they should go? Doesn’t the Bible want us to raise our children in the fear and admonition of the Lord? Obviously, the answer to those things is yes. We are to teach and train our children. Yes, we are to teach them the Bible and help them understand its truths. Yes, we are to model Christian living to our children, seek to lead them to the Lord and then raise them up as his disciples. All of that is true. The question is not whether we are to do that, but how?

My parents never (save for those few holidays where there was no church around to attend) sat us all down together and conducted family worship. All of us have become believers. In fact, all of us became believers as young children. Two of us have gone into full-time Christian ministry – my brother is a missionary and I am a pastor – while my sister continues to model what it is to be a godly woman in her secular workplace. It doesn’t feel that our discipleship and Christian growth has been badly stunted for never having done it. I know plenty of others who insisted on it as a vital practice whose children have not gone on to trust in Christ or who have since fallen away. Of course, if our theology is right, we will know there are never any straight lines between these things. Doing A, B and C does not guarantee X, Y and Z. The wind, as ever, blows where it wishes.

As ever, the problem seems to stem from one of Christian freedom. The Bible doesn’t insist that we conduct family worship in any particular way. But those who find the practice best for them, soon turn that into that necessarily being best for everyone. What is deemed best quickly turns into a should imperative. And then it is a short hop from should to must. But that is just what John the Baptist’s disciples did to Jesus and his disciples over the issue of fasting. We find this practice helpful, we therefore think everyone should do it, we are now affronted that you and your disciples don’t do it, which is another way of saying you must do it like us. Jesus punctured that thinking. Helpful for you is fine but you shouldn’t impose what you find helpful onto others as though it is biblically mandated. In my view, an awful lot of Christian disputes stem from this issue. Often it’s not specifically over what the Bible says, but frequently over what it doesn’t.

The Biblical mandate is to teach, train and model the Christian life to our children. As is often the case with the Bible, the specific instruction is quite broad. Though we are commanded to do it, the details of exactly how we do it is largely left up to us. That is where wisdom comes in. You might find family worship is really helpful for you and your children. That’s great! But you might decide – as my parents obviously did – that was no required, necessary or potentially even the most helpful. That’s fine too.

As ever, we continue to have a surprising problem not with what the Bible says, but with Christian freedom.