How to Lead Family Devotions

We recently started doing family devotions . . . again. Mark Twain once quipped that to give up smoking was the easiest thing in the world-he knew because he had done it thousands of times.

We all know that bad habits are hard to break, and good habits are hard to make. At least for my family, sustaining a regular family worship time has been something I've begun repeatedly, only to lose steam, settle into apathy, and repent and start over again weeks or months later.

So I'm not writing this from a platform of perfection, but rather out of my own trials and errors, successes and failures.

Why Even Try? 

While I've not found it particularly difficult to sustain a consistent personal time in reading Scripture, regularly gathering my family for worship is one of the most difficult disciplines I've ever tried to establish. I'm sure there are many reasons for this, ranging from the obstinacy of my sinful flesh to the frustration of trying to keep preschoolers quietly corralled long enough to do or say anything meaningful.

And I don't think I'm alone in this struggle. In fact, I once heard a pastor I greatly respect say that he gave up altogether and decided to just disciple his kids one on one. So why even try?

Don Whitney, in his helpful booklet Family Worship: In the Bible, in History & in Your Home, states, "The Bible clearly implies that God deserves to be worshipped daily in our homes and by our families" (Gen. 18:17-19; Deut. 6:4-7; Josh. 24:15; Psa. 78:1-8; Eph. 6:4); and "the lives of Christian heroes testify that God deserves to be worshipped daily in our homes and by our families." [1] (He provides examples from the lives of Martin Luther, Richard Baxter, Matthew Henry, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, and others).

Although this should be reason enough, Whitney also asks us to consider these reasons, which have helped motivate me to try again:
  • What better way to evangelize your children daily?
  • What better way to provide a regular time for your children to learn the things of God from you?
  • What better way to provide your children with an ongoing opportunity to ask about the things of God in a comfortable context?
  • What better way for you to transmit your core beliefs to your children?
  • What better way for your children to see the ongoing spiritual example of their parents?
  • What better way to provide workable, reproducible examples to your children of how to establish a distinctively Christian home of their own?
  • What better way for getting your family together on a daily basis?
  • Isn't this what you really want to do? [2]


Assuming you are sufficiently motivated to make family devotions a priority, the next big question is, "How?" There's room for a lot of diversity here, since approaches to family worship will vary, depending on schedules, the parents' temperaments, and perhaps especially the number and ages of the children.

My wife and I have three children eight and under. Our initial attempts were less successful. For a while we contented ourselves with a Bible story and/or prayer at bedtime, which was fine; but we've recently found a routine that is working well for us. It includes the following:

1. Reading

We usually begin by reading a story from The Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones. Out of all the Bible storybooks we've seen for children, this is our favorite. We love it not only because it is well written and beautifully illustrated, but especially because it consistently points children to Jesus. It rightly connects the many familiar stories of the Old and New Testaments to the overarching grand narrative of Scripture-creation, fall, redemption, new creation-and actually portrays Jesus as the hero of every story. As the subtitle of the book says, "Every story whispers His name."

2. Catechism

This may be surprising, but one highlight of family devotions for our children is learning a catechism. We use John Piper's edited version of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Our oldest son loves it, and we're amazed by his ability to quickly memorize long, complex answers. We can now ask him, "How do we know there is a God?" and he will rattle off, "The light of nature in man and the works of God, plainly declare that there is a God; but his Word and Spirit only do effectually reveal him unto us for our salvation"!

Of course, at eight years old he doesn't understand the theology, but we hope that memorizing it will give him a theological foundation to build on for his future spiritual growth. Even our smallest children enjoy the catechism and know that "God is the first and best of beings" and that "the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever."

3. Singing

Our children love singing even more. Since the little two aren't reading yet, we repeat songs often to help them learn the words. We use children's songs such as "Jesus Loves Me," hymns such as "The Doxology" and "In Christ Alone," and contemporary worship songs such as "You Are My King."
Their current favorite is "Nothing But the Blood," which we sing almost every day. We also try to make it fun, usually singing the last chorus as fast as we can. We were delighted a few weeks ago to hear our almost-three-year-old daughter singing to herself, "This is all my hope and peace, nothing but the blood of Jesus."

4. Prayer

Finally, we join hands and recite The Lord's Prayer. After just a couple of weeks, our four-year-old son had it down word for word. (Our daughter still just sits with her eyes tightly closed.) They really enjoy praying together, partly because they like the closeness of everyone holding hands, and partly because they can participate. This is not only teaching them to pray, it's helping them memorize Scripture by hearing it repeatedly. In the future I plan to vary this and daily recite 1 Corinthians 13, the Beatitudes, and the Ten Commandments.

Keep It Simple

So, that's what we do. It's nothing particularly deep, fancy, or sophisticated, but the simplicity is actually helpful. I think perhaps one reason fathers are so easily demoralized in leading family devotions is that it seems complicated; they don't know what to do.

Keep it simple. Develop a routine. Then do it again. And again. And again. Your children will quickly adapt to the predictability and, by God's grace, begin to participate.

Whitney suggests three reminders for practicing family worship:
  • Brevity. Be brief, or the experience can become tedious. It's always easy to lengthen the time if the occasion seems to be especially meaningful.
  • Regularity. Try to have a regular time each day for family worship.
  • Flexibility. Whatever time you choose, consider the wisdom of adapting a time when the family is already accustomed to being together, rather than trying to create another routine gathering during the day. [3]

Persevering with a Gospel Perspective

I want to reiterate the importance of persevering in family worship with a gospel perspective. The gospel reminds us that our acceptance with God doesn't depend on our personal discipline or our parenting effectiveness. If you feel like you have to be a perfect parent to keep a right relationship with God, you'll quickly be overwhelmed with guilt and probably just quit.

As I said at the beginning, I've had to start over many times with family devotions. Sickness can throw everything off. So can vacations or visits from relatives. If you're trying this for the first time, expect setbacks-but don't be discouraged. God is very patient and loves us in spite of our mistakes.

When you fail, remember the gospel, apply it to your own heart, repent, and start again. After all, isn't this what you really want to do?

Helpful Resources

Finally, here are several helpful resources on family worship:

J. W. Alexander, Thoughts on Family Worship (Soli Deo Gloria Ministries, 1998)

Joel Beeke, Family Worship (Family Guidance Series) (Reformation Heritage Books, 2002)

Nancy Ganz, Herein Is Love: Genesis (Wapwallopen, PA: Shepherd Press, 2009). This is the first of a series of commentaries for children. See for other titles in this series.

David R. Helm, The Big Picture Story Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004)

Kent and Barbara Hughes, The Disciplines of a Godly Family (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007)

Sally Lloyd-Jones, The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name (Grand Rapids, MI: Zonderkids, 2007)

Carine MacKenzie, My 1st Book of Questions and Answers (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications)

Starr Mead, Training Hearts, Teaching Minds: Family Devotions Based on the Shorter Catechism (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2000)

John Piper, A Baptist Catechism (Minneapolis, MN: Bethlehem Baptist Church)

Donald S. Whitney, Family Worship: In the Bible, in History & in Your Home Shepherdsville, KY: The Center for Biblical Spirituality, 2006)

John A. Younts, Everyday Talk: Talking Freely and Naturally About God with Your Children (Wapwallopen, PA: Shepherd Press, 2005)


[1] Donald S. Whitney, Family Worship: In the Bible, in History & in Your Home (Shepherdsville, KY: The Center for Biblical Spirituality, 2006) pp. 3, 9.
[2] Ibid., p. 23.
[3] Ibid., pp. 18-19.

1 comment:

The Shepherd Family said...

Thank you for your article, Brian. Well done! I have posted a link to you article on a site I am creating called Blessings! Scott Shepherd