Gathering together as a family to worship god in the home through prayer and engaging with the bible is an important part of Christian parenting, why then, Gareth Crispin asks, do so few people do it?
I’d just sat down after giving a review of a book on family worship. The next guy speaking was an Anglican bishop who shall remain nameless. He said: “Thanks for that, it will come in really handy next time I have to do a family service.”
Apart from the nagging suspicion that he simply hadn’t really been listening, my overriding thought was actually how common and understandable this misunderstanding is. There is of course the basic problem of the similarity of the language involved: family worship? Family service? But beyond that it’s simply not on some people’s radar. So why is worshipping as a family so neglected today? What are the causes of this neglect and are there ways that we - as parents and churches - can reverse it?
Do parents want to pass on faith?
One key reason why some parents do not actively pass on faith within the home is because they remain unconvinced that it is their role to do so. The European Values Survey revealed that a strikingly low number of Anglican parents saw children acquiring faith as important. Even when adjusting for nominalism, the percentage of parents who viewed children acquiring faith as important was only 28 per cent (for parents who attend a service at least once a month) and 36 per cent for the more committed parents.
Recent research by Theos had as many as two-thirds of parents from more committed Christian families wanting to effectively pass on their faith, but even then that still leaves one-third of parents who are not on board.
More research is needed in this area, but possible reasons for this reluctance include the professionalisation and fragmentation of modern society. From the industrialisation and urbanisation of the 19th century, life has become increasingly fragmented, professionalised and consumer choice-oriented. Work happens in the office or factory, education in the schools, healing in the hospitals and worship… that must happen in the church, right?
Reinforcing the impact of fragmentation, the process of professionalisation has meant that in each of these spheres specialists rule and the main issue faced by people is which expert to choose. Parents choose which expert to entrust their children to in each separate field. So maybe it’s no wonder that when we talk of family worship some might think of church services rather than… well, rather than what?
What does it even look like?
Even when parents do see family worship and discipleship in the home as their responsibility, it still can be neglected due to a lack of awareness of what it actually involves. A well-respected theologian from a theological college once remarked to me that because he had not been raised in a Christian family he had not seen worship in the home modelled and so had no picture of it in his mind. He struggled to even imagine what it might look like.
The Bible Reading Fellowship’s (BRF) Faith at home survey indicated that even when parents did see the home as a central focus of discipleship of youth and children, they felt under-equipped for the task and under-supported by their churches, and the Theos report noted that while 67 per cent of parents felt happy and confident to share their faith with their children, for most the issue “simply never came up”.
In addition to convincing parents of the importance of family worship and discipleship in the home, it seems that we have a fair way to go in the support of parents once they have been convinced.
Life has become increasingly professionalised: work happens in the office, education in the schools, healing in the hospitals and worship. . . That must happen in the church, right?
Do parents have the time and energy to do it?
In 2016 a friend and I interviewed 15 families for a practical book on family worship; by virtue of selection, those interviewed were already convinced of the importance of family worship and felt able, at a minimum, to have a go. However, out of our interviews more prosaic issues emerged as to why people might not worship in the home.
Time and energy
It seems as though busyness is a fact of life for most modern families. Most of the parents we interviewed cited lack of time as a major obstacle to family worship. However, what is more interesting is how they often ended their comments relating to time, for example:
“It’s getting to the point where there is so much going on with the kids that we have to just stop and make the time - we will never get it back.” “With both of us working and with after-school activities for the boys, if we did not make this a habit, it simply would not work.”
Parents spoke of making time and making it a habit. It’s one thing to recognise the difficulties faced in balancing time and tiredness in modern life and quite another to shrug our shoulders and simply say it’s out of our hands.
To pursue a conversation on these issues, we’ve started a podcast on family worship and faith in the home. We’ve used the issues raised in our 15 interviews as a springboard to talk to people in the field of faith in the home, ranging from church and parachurch workers to academics. One of our podcastees provocatively compares family worship with brushing our teeth. We’d never leave our homes without having brushed our teeth, so why leave without having worshipped as a family? It isn’t always as simple as that of course, but those we interviewed for our book were obviously convinced that the time issue was as much about our hearts and priorities as it was about our diaries.
Different ages, learning styles and lack of interest
A number of our interviewees noted the difficulties of worshipping together as a family given the different ages and stages that children are at, as well as their different learning styles and varying levels of interest on any one day! They made comments such as:
“The challenge is meeting them where they are and finding ways of engaging them.”
“Our elder daughter is getting a bit old for what we’re currently doing, so we’re thinking about how to change things to adapt to that; we know things can’t stay the same.”
As with the issues of time and tiredness, what was key to the ongoing family worship of these families was the heart of the parents, their desire to continue and willingness to act out of necessity and to adapt to a changing context.
This attitude is summed up when one parent explained: “Whenever we open scripture, even if our child is throwing carrots across the table, God wants to speak to us.”
What are the implications for parents?
In light of the above, here are five top tips for parents thinking about starting or looking for help continuing with family worship.
Depend on God
As with any spiritual issue, we need God’s help. If parents are not asking God for his help to worship as a family and if parents are not themselves feeding on God’s word regularly, then family worship will either not happen, or become simply an empty religious practice.
Think about your daily and weekly family rhythm; when might be best for you to gather together? What are your children like? How do they learn? What are you capable of and what support might you need and from whom? Planning is essential; as one of our interviewees stressed: “We plan everything else in life so we should definitely plan family worship. If we don’t protect it and prioritise it, then life will simply take over.”
Just start and keep it simple
Just as with any other beneficial practice little and often is best. Sometimes the biggest hurdle is simply starting. But if you just start and start simple you’ll be surprised, on one level, how straightforward it is.
If your children don’t like craft, don’t do the craft; i f they like singing, do more songs
Use resources but not slavishly
There are now lots of resources explicitly for family worship, not to mention the huge range of youth and children’s materials that can be used with whole families. But adaption is the name of the game. If your young people and children don’t like craft, don’t do the craft; if they like singing, do more songs.
Seek support from others
Your church family is there to help. Your minister, youth and children’s worker, other parents and older Christians are all potential sources of ideas and encouragement. One of the main things respondents to the BRF survey thought would most help and support them was some form of parents’ group or forum to help discuss issues around faith in the home.
What are the implications for churches?
To recover family worship, we also need to recognise the important role that churches play in encouraging and supporting family worship in the home.
For those parents who, for whatever reason, don’t see family worship as something they want or need to do, there is a place for gracious teaching (from the front, in small groups and one on one) on the role of parents in family discipleship. The first step is to establish with parents that this is something that is essential to Christian parenting rather than optional. This should include the biblical mandate (eg Deuteronomy 6:7 and Ephesians 6:4) as well as the sociological data on the significance of the home in faith development.
The second step is to begin to provide support and encouragement for parents through prayer, ideas and resources and possibly setting up a forum for parents to speak openly and honestly about these issues.
Of course, if the church leader has children at home, this may require some form of modelling and openness on their part. But no one is called to be perfect; a minister or church worker honestly sharing their difficulties in family worship may well help lift a culture of ignorance or shame around this area, allowing for more constructive conversations.
Do our church structures work to help or hinder family worship? Do we pack so many things into our church programmes that we simply increase the time and energy pressures that are working against family worship? In creating age-specific ‘expert’ run programmes, do we implicitly support (unconsciously of course) a fragmented, consumer, professionalised view of life which can potentially undermine parental self-understanding as disciplers in the home?
The wider church
Given the time and energy issues associated with modern family life there might be a place for the wider church to help create space and time through practical help. But even if that proves to be unworkable, as a minimum the wider church can be praying for and verbally encouraging parents in their ministry of discipleship in the home.
Join the conversation
Excitingly, there are an increasing number of organisations and people getting involved in thinking about family worship and discipleship in the home, and this can only be a good thing. With more time being devoted to the subject and with more resources being created, now is a good time to join in the wider conversation by starting a local conversation in your church and community. Whether you’re a church minister, youth and / or children’s worker, parent or church member, why not bring this onto the agenda? If parents aren’t doing family worship, gently help them explore why. Is it that they don’t see it as their role? Or do they want to have a go but simply don’t know where to start? Or is it more about lack of time, energy or support? Don’t forget that the issue doesn’t always lie with the parents; the wider church has an important role to play too. Let’s pray that in working on this together we can reverse the trend in the neglect of family worship.