A Conversation with Donald Whitney about Family Worship
Dr. Allen: It’s a joy to host in the Spurgeon Room today Dr. Don Whitney, who serves as professor for Biblical Spirituality at Southern Seminary and associate dean of the School of Theology. He has been a friend of mine for many years. We share many passions and interests. It’s just a joy to have you in the Spurgeon Room today, Dr. Whitney.
Dr. Whitney: It’s an honor to be here.
Dr. Allen: We want to talk today about family worship. That’s a topic that you and I both care deeply about. That’s a topic that you have given yourself to, and your family to, for more than 20 years. It’s a topic I give myself and my family to as well. With five children, it is of urgent importance to us. It is a topic that you have written on—a booklet on—and I have written on in the way of essays before. I’ve been looking forward to this conversation for some time and hop in and talk about it. Take us back to your earlier years. What prompted you to begin leading your family in family worship?
Dr. Whitney: It was not a practice that I had even seen before. I was married. I don’t think I saw anyone practice family worship for many years after I was married. I don’t think I encountered it. I can’t remember reading anything about it. There came a time when certain writers that I was familiar with—Puritan writers, Spurgeon, Jonathan Edwards, people like that—would make reference to this. It began to be more on my radar screen. I began to see similar pieces written on it even by contemporary writers. It just began to be something that I sensed was historically part of the faith, and I had been ignorant of it. It had been absent in my life, so I began to pursue the subject a little more.
Dr. Allen: When we talk about family worship, that can be a foreboding phrase for the typical church member, even for many pastors. It sounds heavy; it sounds like it requires a lot of prep work. It could sound like something that is a daunting task to do with regularity. Let’s unpack what all is in that. What does family worship consist of?
Dr. Whitney: The essence, I believe, is simply put in three syllables of read, praise, sing. Read the Bible, pray together, and sing together. It’s not just what I think is a good idea.
One, there is a historical precedent. I have research that was done on the early church where in the first generation of Christians-people who actually heard the apostles-we have record of them reading the Bible, praying together, and singing together.
Even more so from a biblical perspective, I take the view of worship that we should only do in the worship of God that which God reveals in Scripture. Among those things, there are certain elements that are public by nature, like the Lord’s Supper is a public ordinance; it’s not family, it’s not individual; it’s in public. Preaching, of course, is a public sort of event. There are three things that you can do in worship that the Bible says to do in worship, whether you are alone, with the family, or in the church.
So, I want us to read the Bible. I Timothy 4:13 says, “Give attention to the public reading of Scripture.” Certainly, individually we are to get into the Word of God for ourselves so we can read the Bible in the family. To sing psalms, hymns, spiritual songs, you can do that by yourself, with the family, or in the church equally and easily. To pray together, obviously we are to pray as individual Christians; we are to pray with the church; so clearly it would be in that middle sort of relationship there with the family. Read, pray, sing. Without preparation, no preparation is necessary. Ten minutes, again assuming your children are old enough to understand. So very simple, read the Bible, pray together, sing.
Dr. Allen: There are many things that you can add to that. Those are the three key, central ingredients, elements of it. Then as your kids get older, you have margin of time, more or less, different nights of the week that can unfold. So, there are times in my life with a young family, when family worship may be less than 10 minutes. There are times when it goes on for maybe a half hour, where it is unpacked, and we begin to talk about life observation, seeking to apply the Word of God in that context. We will have conversations about, “Does anyone have anything they need to repent of tonight? Have we sinned against one another in some way?” It’s interesting to throw that out there are see what surfaces. To see, even in elementary ways, how the Holy Spirit is beginning to reveal sin, to convict of sin in the lives of our children.
We may incorporate reading The Chronicles of Narnia. One thing we do, and I love to do, is the old Moody radio series on great Christian lives. Our kids love to listen to those. We want to always get in the Scriptures, want to always pray, and want to always typically have some measure of singing, and then we kind of build upon that.
Another aspect for us, that I have found especially enjoyable, is just doing simple Bible exposition. Now what I mean by that is oftentimes we have used a children’s storybook Bible, given the different ages of our kids-with my oldest child now who is eleven, my youngest is five, so they’re pretty compacted. Still, I have to be very mindful of what I say to whom, and how we bring that lesson to bear. We have used different storybook Bibles over the years, but in the most recent season-our current season-we are turning to passages of Scripture. I am just doing mini expositions. Maybe it is just five or 10 minutes. Whether it is a parable or on who Christ is, the I Am sayings in the Gospel of John, the Sermon on the Mount, we are working through it. You must be able to bring in a very simple way an exposition of Scripture. I’ve seen our kids really light up to that and enjoy that. It’s more interactive than say reading a paragraph storybook Bible. It’s really been very helpful for our kids.
One of the things people say to me often by way of concern or by way of how one goes about practically facilitating family worship, they say, “Should I have worship if my child is only two, or my child is only three?” We have sought for all our children to engage in family worship really from birth. Obviously, a one month old isn’t perceiving anything. However, we have found and we have been often surprised how the very youngest of age is often perceiving; they are hearing; they are overhearing; they are forming memories; they are making observations; they are beginning to soak in concepts often that really exceed what we think they can take in at that age.
I’m curious from your vantage point, how you have led family worship over the years. Your daughter now is 20, but she wasn’t always 20. As you interact with other families, what do you say to those with very young children that are wondering if it is worthwhile to be having family worship with a two or three year old?
Dr. Whitney: You have addressed three things there that I would like to respond to. First of all, the age, I agree that from birth they should be involved. It was pretty easy when they were that little to involve them, of course; they just sit there. Even when they get to be toddlers, maybe they don’t even understand what you are saying most of the time. I’m talking about 15 months old. They don’t know what you are saying, but they are beginning to grasp this. To put it in adult language, they are thinking, “I don’t know what we do every night. Dad reads from this leather back book. I have no idea what is going on. We sing together, I like that. They close their eyes and talk. I have no idea what’s going on there, but whatever it is, it must be important because we do it every night.” They are learning that even if they don’t understand the words you are saying. They understand that is normal. That’s what you do. I want to teach that.
Dr. Allen: Very good. You said there are a couple of other things that you wanted to mention.
Dr. Whitney: First of all, you talked about other activities. As time permits, family worship is a great time because you finally get the family together. It may be the only time all day, so there are a lot of things that you want to do in a family can be added to that like reading books together, like catechizing, like Scripture memory if your kids are in Awana or something like that. It’s a great time to do that, or if they are in a Christian school or maybe just as a family to work on Scripture memory.
There are a lot of those things as time permits, so what we would often try to do catechizing, and if time permitted, we would maybe do some Scripture memory. We would read a Christian book together, like you said. That is when we read the Chronicles of Narnia or so forth. Then if time permitted, we would also do some general reading. When our daughter was little, we read through the Little House of the Prairie series. The last ones that we read together took us a couple of years or more were the complete Sherlock Holmes. She really enjoyed that. But if time didn’t permit, then we didn’t read Sherlock Holmes. If times does not permit, we don’t read Chronicles of Narnia. If time does not permit, then we don’t do anything but read, pray, sing; that’s the essence.
On those occasions when you come in from somewhere past their bedtime and they really need to go to bed—school is tomorrow and maybe you’re actually carrying them up to bed because they are falling asleep—at the very least we knelt at her bedside and prayed together. She went to sleep with that memory. The goal is read, pray, and sing.
The other thing you mention is Bible expositions. I wholeheartedly endorse that. I think that is wonderful. In 24 years of pastoral experience, it’s taught me that a lot of guys, first of all, they have the impression that you just talk about family worship. They think it means that you have to put together a devotional, something like a Sunday School lesson. Since they aren’t teachers and they have never done that, they think they can’t do that so family worship is not for them. If someone is able to do that sort of thing, they are someone worth sitting here on the grounds of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. If someone has that ability to do that great, but a lot of laymen would say, “I can’t do that.” That’s where, number one, a Bible storybook or devotional book could help.
Secondly, they don’t have to do that. That’s why I said no preparation is really necessary. I never prepare. Open the Bible to the bookmark where we finished last night, read that, pray together, sing. Anyone can do that, even if they feel themselves to be that their wife is the spiritually superior one in the marriage. She knows more about the Bible; she’s been to church more; she’s just more spiritually mature, not where his wife is spiritually. Nevertheless, he can read the Bible, pray, and sing, lead the family spiritually in family worship.
Dr. Allen: That is so very helpful. One of the things that we have learned in our own setting is the basic expectation of frequency. I’m not super legalistic about it. Any given week of the year, there is a night for some reason we haven’t done it, maybe more than one night. We want to make sure it is a regular pattern in our life. As a pastor over the years, the two nights that have been most challenging frankly are Wednesday night and Sunday night. You come home from church late on Wednesday night. You have two kids asleep in the car or I’m later getting home. My wife already put the kids to bed. It is the same way with Sunday night. Even if it is just a brief tucking the kids up, prayers as they are lying in bed, trying to put a spiritual capstone on the day in some way that you’re doing something.
I try not to speak this so directly and with such a sense of expectation that folks feel like they are failing if they have family worship four nights a week. Well, truth be known, four nights of the week are four nights more than most everyone else on the planet is having it. Do your best faithfully. Cultivate it as a pattern. If there is not a certain patterned nature to it, then it can become very sporadic.
Dr. Whitney: I’ve found there tends to be, with most things, ditches on both sides. As you’ve indicated, the greater problem by far is inconsistency or no family worship whatsoever. As you said, if it’s just two, three, four times a week, that is far more than almost anyone else has done. There are those handful of guys who get committed to it, and they’re going to ramrod it no matter what. I think wisdom teaches you at certain points where you say, “Ok, I could probably force this and make it happen, but they would resent it.” It would be what Ephesians talks about exasperating your children. Most of the time, I’m going to lean into the fact that we can always find an excuse not to do this, but we need to discipline ourselves. Let’s sit down for a few minutes and do this. There are times that you realize, “If I push it now, I’m going to be crossing the line.” Whatever the circumstances are in the family that night—somebody is not feeling well or somebody is in a bad mood—there are times when you say not now or not tonight.
Dr. Allen: Right. Under the circumstances, you can always do it the next morning over breakfast. There are different ways to get at this. That is a very helpful word. I want to come back to the concept or the phrase, “Family Worship.” In churches that I have served and interacting with ministers all the time, again there is something about that phrase that sounds more daunting than it should. I have a friend of mine that pastors a large church, and he has told me that one of the ways he sought to introduce, and really not introduce, but to instill family worship as a congregational awareness. He actually, in one service—not sure if a Sunday night or Sunday morning—had his kids, a large family, come stand on the stage at the end of the service during announcement time, and he did a little five-minute family worship with his kids. He did Scripture reading, a hymn, and prayer. He had preached on it before and then he said, “I want you to be able to participate with us tonight.” His kids came up; he did it; it lasted seven, eight, 10 minutes and folks understood family worship actually means reading a storybook Bible with your kids and praying with your kids. Even the most illiterate Christian can flip the pages on a storybook Bible and can utter a prayer, and then can sing “Jesus Loves Me.” You are building up from there.
Dr. Whitney: To get the expectation before people like that, it is very important. I had a class one time with 115 students—seminary class—where we were talking about family worship, and I asked the guys to raise their hands if they were raised in a home where there was consistent family worship. Now, the majority of these students weren’t raised in a minister’s home, but a lot of them were. Out of 115 students, seven raised their hands saying they were raised in a home where they had practiced family worship. I said, “The rest of you, how many of you have ever visited in a home where you had seen it?” Zero raised their hands. So what’s the likelihood that these guys, who had never even seen family worship, are going to lead the men in their church to practice it? I think I would say, especially to those pastors, but anyone who is trying to propagate family worship, if you have guests in your home, plan to have family worship before they leave for the purpose of modeling it if nothing else. No matter how brief it may be or whatever else, let them see it and see how realistic and doable it is.
The other expectation that I have discovered is when you talk about family worship, we think of a worship service. People tend to think that it is more consistently inspirational than is real. Somehow, they get the impression that quite frequently our family, if I were to report on it, I would say that we were on our faces before God and so forth. It never was like that, never. In fact, almost every time it’s more like, “Would y’all put your phone down please?” “Would y’all listen?” That is the way it is almost every night in reality, but the consistency that leads up.
When our daughter graduated from high school—a traditional Christian school—the graduates would address their parents, and the parents would say something to the graduates. One at a time, they are doing this. I still have the text of what Lauren wrote. She never got through it because she wept harder that I have ever seen her in my life. I have a picture of this, and it is my favorite photograph of us. When she addressed me she thanked me for family worship and for some of the things we read, the Sherlock Holmes book and some of those sorts of things. It was so moving to her that she couldn’t finish. It was really the consistency. I thought never once was it the kind of thing where it was dramatic, evident moving in her life because of tears or anything else. Yet cumulatively God apparently did a great deal.
Dr. Allen: That’s to borrow a metaphor from the sports world, so many parents in our churches—to borrow a football analogy—they are looking for the deep pass. They want to get a good youth camp when they are 13, or have some other big emotional experience when they are 15, and they are looking for that deep pass to bring them home spiritually. Praise God occasionally that happens, but for most parents in our churches it is faithfully running off tackle. It’s reading the Bible and praying, read the Bible and praying. You are accruing spiritual knowledge;, you are accruing doctrinal depth. You are accruing a firm grasp on great spiritual realities of heaven and hell, and one’s sin and righteousness, Christ’s substitute, and all those things are being instilled. That’s building, building, building.
One other comment, I’ve taught biblical spirituality for many years as well in classes. I often ask classes just like you do, “How many of you grew up in a Christian home?” I had a student once who was a student from Africa, and he grew up in a Christian home and his father was a minister. I believe, if my memory serves me correctly, it was in Angola. He said that his father had him and his siblings get up every morning. They were a large family of seven or eight siblings. They had family worship every morning seven days a week from 5 to 6 a.m. Get this, it gets better. His father preached for an hour every morning, and to make sure that they were not dosing off, they had to stand up the whole hour. I’m surprised this kid is still a Christian, much less in ministry. These things would break dramatically one way or the other. He actually spoke in a very warm way: “It was rigorous, but for 20 years I was taught that.” It is interesting to see how these things take effect. That is very much an extreme. We are not an hour every morning; we are 10 minutes most nights. You still see a similar effect.
Dr. Whitney: In a way, one of the things about this consistency is you know your kids see you at your worst. They see you when you are angry with one another. They see when you are least like a Christian. So, family worship helps them to also see you at your best. even when it’s not inspirational. They see you as a sinner also saying, in effect, “Despite the sin in my life, despite the inconsistency, I do also want you to see that this home and my life is centered around Christ and the Bible.” Also, this makes it a key time for confessing sin to one another as you said, restoring things, and asking for forgiveness. It is a way of saying, “Look, you have seen me at my worst. I also want you to see that I put this house centered around Christ and the Bible.” That accomplishes something even if it’s not so-called “inspirational.”
Dr. Allen: That’s very good, and one other practical side of it that we do is try to be constantly framing and reframing for our kids our life narrative. From the logistics to say, “Hey, guys, I want to remind y’all that next Sunday daddy is going to be preaching in Houston. I have to leave Saturday. Here is what we are doing between now and then to make sure we are getting adequate family time together.” “Now, our trustee meeting is coming up in three weeks guys, so that is going to be a busy week for us. Let’s be ready now.” To be talking through those things…
Just to put a bit in this conversation, one other aspect of this that really means a great deal to me is I made a practice over the years to read great Christian biographies. I’ve read scores and scores and scores of Christian biographies. I am by no means a great Christian man. I know that, and anyone who knows me knows that. So, I am not confusing who I am, but I have sought to-in my own way-incorporate the practices of great Christians. One of the things that I have noticed in reading biographies, whether it is Spurgeon, Luther, Edwards, Lloyd Jones, it’s not biographies, but knowing their testimonies-John Piper’s, John MacArthur’s. Those men led their families in family worship. I know that just because I lead my family in family worship doesn’t mean I am going to be a great champion of the faith, but I also know this, if I don’t lead my family in family worship I will never be a great champion of the faith. Have you made that same observation?
Dr. Whitney: Yes. In this little book that I wrote on family worship, the subtitle is Family Worship in the Bible, in History, and in your Home. The first part is a biblical survey and the last part is the practical “how to.” The middle part, “In History,” I start with the early church patristic study and systematically come all the way up to the 21st century and show all these illustrations that all the heroes that you mentioned-all the people that we quote from the pulpit-they all practice family worship. We are the ones who are the anomaly, so much so that I will have a majority of students who never have even seen it before. It is important to get the historical perspective that it has been practiced throughout history, and we are the ones for whom it is an anomaly.
Dr. Allen: That’s so helpful. For someone listening to this conversation or reading the transcript from it, and they want to access your booklet on family worship, how can they get that?
Dr. Whitney: It is self-published right now, and they can go to my website which is www.biblicalspirituality.org. There is a store that goes to the family worship book. I think they can get it through Amazon, that order eventually comes to us anyway but through Amazon or www.biblicalspirituality.org
Dr. Allen: Thank you. Your book is a tremendous contribution to this topic and to this conversation, even as we talk today. Thank you so much for your friendship and for sharing this conversation with me on family worship.
Dr. Whitney: You’re welcome, and thank you for the honor of speaking to it.topicsSpurgeon Room Conversations
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