“Family Worship” by Donald Whitney
We devote time in our lives to the things we believe are worthy of it. In the introduction of Family Worship, Donald Whitney notes that while many Christian families neglect daily family worship, it is of utmost importance. Family worship is not only vital because it works to re-form what the world forms in us from week to week, but because, “God deserves to be worshiped daily in our homes by our families” (14). Much can be said about the formative influence of the world around us, and how Christian practices should serve to reconfigure our hearts and minds to the Kingdom agenda, but Whitney’s chief aim for readers of this book is God’s glory in our homes and our lives. Whitney addresses the topic of family worship by first showing its presence in both the Bible and church history (Chapters 1 & 2). Then he lays out expectations for household worship while addressing common excuses for not engaging in it (Chapters 3 & 4). He concludes the book with a few stories about how God can take our broken times of faithful family worship and make significant and lasting impacts on the lives of our children (Chapter 5).
Family Worship Across Time
Whitney notes at the outset of chapter 1 that, “While there is no direct, explicit commandment in Scripture about family worship, the Bible clearly implies that God deserves to be worshiped daily in our homes” (15). It may be tempting for some to think that since there is no explicit directive for family worship in the Bible, it doesn’t need to take place in our homes. Whitney counters that from the start by a biblical ethic of obedience. One that demands the devotion given is proportionate to the magnitude of that which is received. Since God and his grace are that which is received, we should rightfully be seeking to organize our lives in a way that will bring him the most glory, honor, and praise. And a regularly scheduled time of family worship is certainly more glorifying to God than an unwillingness to do so.
Pulling stories and teachings from the Pentateuch, the history books, the wisdom literature, and New Testament epistles, Whitney demonstrates in small space the big theme of family worship that runs all through the Bible, particularly family, father-led, worship. Moving from the Bible to church history in chapter 2, he shows how early church theologians, like Tertullian in the second century (29), all the way up to modern-day pastors and theologians like Don Carson and John Piper (42), have taught and emphasized the importance of father-led family worship. Whitney even points out that two influential confessions of faith for Presbyterians and Baptists (Westminster Confession of Faith and the Second London Confession of 1689, respectively) include statements explicitly prescribing family worship (31-33). He makes his case emphatically that while there is no command for family worship, its uniformed prevalence among God’s people across time is overwhelming evidence in favor of its practice.
Elements and Excuses
Next, Whitney moves into what worship elements ought to be incorporated into these regular family rhythms of worship. In chapter 3, he concludes that the three aspects of reading the Bible, praying together, and singing together ought all to be present (44-46). At first glance, this list may seem simple and slightly arbitrary, but he goes on to show how he arrived at his list. His first appeal is to an account covered earlier in the book, where Lyman Coleman describes the earliest record of Christian family worship containing only these three elements (28-29). His second appeal, and the argument I found most persuasive, is that these three elements are the only things the Bible prescribes for worship that are “equally as appropriate in family worship or in private worship as in congregational worship” (47).
For instance, some might argue that preaching ought to be added, but preaching requires both a preacher and hearers. Hence, it is unlikely that this can be performed appropriately in private, or even the family setting. Further, some might say communion should appear in a family worship setting, but Jesus gave the church, not individual Christians or families, the Lord’s Supper. Thus, as Whitney puts it, “the New Testament pattern for the bread and the cup has never been one of Christians serving communion to themselves in private, nor of families keeping the ordinance in the exclusivity of their own home…[but] to celebrate together with the church family and as an expression of communion with the body of Christ” (47). Thus, Whitney’s list of Bible reading, praying, and singing stands the test of what the Bible prescribes and is equally applicable to the private or family setting.
Whitney also encourages families to incorporate other elements into their family worship times—but not to the neglect of the three elements previously prescribed. If time and family context allow, he encourages families to integrate catechesis, Scripture memorization, and reading other books together into these times (48-49). These can all be beautiful ways to supplement the work of the Word in the hearts and minds of our families. Finally, he suggests family worship should be brief, regular, and flexible (50-51). One clear message of the book is faithfulness over a long period of time, expecting God to use these small pieces to do a great work in the lives of our families.
Few Christians leading their families in worship will argue against the appropriate inclusion of the three practices Whitney prescribes of Bible reading, prayer, and singing. He expects that the real pushback is going to come from those that believe their situation is so unique that it exempts them from this practice. For this purpose, Whitney dedicates chapter 4 to answering what Whitney expects to be common “what if…?” questions. Questions like, “What if the father is not a Christian?” (52), or “What if there is no father at home?” (53-54), or “What if the children are very young?” (54-55). These questions (along with others covered) are legitimate, and Whitney over and over again communicates answers that expect God will be at work when we are working to bring him glory. Tackling legitimate questions, concerns, and excuses, he offers in response a more substantial weight of hopeful anticipation for God to work in the hearts of those worshipping his name.
Don’t Wait Any Longer
In keeping with his main argument of the book—we ought to worship God daily in our homes because God is worthy of our daily worship—Whitney concludes the book with a final chapter encouraging us to this work by showing us that it is what our hearts really long for. If you have neglected to start this practice, feel ill-equipped, or maybe tried in the past and didn’t stick with it, Whitney’s encouragement is simple: start today. “The Lord will help you. He does not call his Spirit-begotten sons to this task without giving them the power of the Holy Spirit to accomplish it. The same Father who gave you the gospel and who drew you to Christ will strengthen you by his Spirit to put on this badge of godly manhood” (65). Or, as my pastor often says, “What God requires, God provides.” He’ll be right there with you.
With this work, Whitney gives readers a biblical, historical, and replicable family worship rhythm to adopt and begin using today. I would highly recommend Family Worship to you. Spend an afternoon reading it and thinking about its implications, allow it to inform your own family or individual worship times starting today, and be encouraged that God is at work in the hearts of our families even when we can’t see how.
Matt Boga is the Associate Pastor at Reality Church of Stockton in Stockton, California where he lives with his wife and two boys. In his free time, Matt enjoys reading, building with his hands, and playing basketball. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattboga.