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I am a believer in family devotions. So are most of you, I’m sure. But when I talk to other Christians, and especially to men, I find that this little family tradition is the source of a lot of regret and frustration. Many Christians feel that familiar sense of guilt whenever they stop to think about it. For something so simple family devotions sure are hard.
I think the best way to learn family devotions is by example: Find out what other people do, and imitate them as your starting point. So let me tell you how we do family devotions and, if you have not yet developed the habit, at least consider beginning here.
There are 2 stories to be told: How we imagined we would do family devotions and how we actually do them.
We imagined that family devotions would be a significant time set apart each day where we would gather as a family to enjoy each other and to enjoy God together. Maybe we would ring a little chime or something, and then everyone would come downstairs, gather in the living room, and we’d sit and soak in the Word, we’d enjoy deep conversation, we’d learn catechism questions and answers, we’d pray together. Maybe we would even find that one of us could sing well enough to lead a psalm or hymn. It all sounds so wonderful.
The reality has been just a little bit different.
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For the first few years of marriage we did nothing at all. I wasn’t much of a leader back then and somehow almost never got around to calling the two of us together for devotions. I regret that a lot today. I had been raised in a Christian home, so I knew better than to let it slide. (Aileen had not been raised in a Christian home so did not know the habit.) It was probably a couple of years after our first child was born that I finally got serious about devotions and decided that it was time.
Since that day we have done quite well. We have varied our timing and structure a little bit based on the season of life and the external circumstances. But generally this is what we do:
We wake the kids at 6:55 AM (since they need to be out the door by 7:45). They come stumbling downstairs and by 7:00 or 7:05 we are all in the living room. I have been up for a couple of hours already and am feeling good. They have been up for a couple of minutes and are feeling not-so-good. They are either curled up on the furniture or draped over it in some strange fashion. But they are awake and are able to be attentive. Mostly. Most of the time.
I read a section of the Bible, usually working through narrative passages but, increasingly as the kids get older, epistles as well. I rarely read more than 15 or 20 verses. I read slowly and expressively with just enough drama to cut through their early-morning fog. I pause to tell my daughter to remove her hands from around her sister’s neck, and keep reading. When I have come to the end of our passage I briefly explain something from the passage (and by “briefly” I mean a minute or less). Sometimes I have to cheat by quickly consulting the study Bible notes so I’ll have something worth saying. Then I try to come up with a question or two I can ask the kids—a question of comprehension or of application. And I explain why calling your brother “a stupid idiot” is inappropriate during a reading of 1 Corinthians 13. And that’s our Bible reading.
Then I pray. Hopefully I remember to ask the kids how I can pray for them in the day ahead. I pray simply and briefly, thanking God for another day of his care and provision and asking him to bless us through the day ahead. It’s not unusual to have my prayer interrupted by one kid slapping another or by the dog going into some kind of “Oh my gosh there are actually people near me” fit. Then I snap at someone and have to add an extra prayer of confession.
And then we are done. It’s 5 or 10 minutes. That’s a lot less than it could be, but it is something. It forces us to start our day together and it allows us to start our day together with the Lord.
Some days I go into work early and am gone well before the family is up. On those days we do the same format, but after dinner instead of before breakfast. Some days we just plain forget to do family devotions all together. Some days we have great intentions but life throws a bit of a curveball and we get distracted. On a few occasions we have had unbelievers in the home and I have allowed shame to keep me from doing our devotions. On a few more occasions I just haven’t felt like it so have made some flimsy excuse. For some reason we never do them on Sunday.
But by and large, on most days, under most circumstances, we begin our days together with the Word and prayer. It’s the simplest family habit, but I believe it is the most beautiful as well.
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I think family devotions is like a lot of things in the Christian life: We have made it bigger than it needs to be, and therefore live with a sense of failure, a sense that we are not measuring up. Through many years of success and failure Aileen and I have realized that there is no good way to measure the success of family devotions except by this: Did we do it? The thing is, we are building for the long-term here, not the short-term. A single episode of family devotions can so easily seem like a complete waste. But I am confident that when we measure by the hundreds spread over the 20 years the children are in our care, we will see that God worked powerfully in the hearts of our children and their parents. And I am confident we will see that he worked through the commitment we made to such a simple, wonderful tradition.