Teach Us to Pray

A Journey with Family Worship

Family Worship. Ask for a one-word response to the idea of worshiping together as a family, and the responses are telling: “Intimidating.” “Impossible.” “Important.” “Covenant.” “Bible.” “Wish.” “Regret.” And“How?!”

The “How” of Family Worship

How, indeed! Four years ago we were asked to work together to create a prayer book that could help families―—even families with young children!— worship together.

We each brought different gifts and backgrounds to the table. Elizabeth had been shaped by contemplative prayer, spiritual direction, and Lectio Divina and longed to share these riches with families. Lora had grown up in rhythms of daily family prayer and Saturday family worship that made use of songs, actions, objects, and blessings to flesh out Scripture. Both authors have been enriched through participation with children and worship.

As we worked together, we identified several shared priorities for this family worship book that we believe are helpful regardless of what resource you use—or whether you use any at all:

Simple: “And a little child shall lead them,” Isaiah 11:6 promises. Children learn by doing—in fact, by leading. We desired to keep the worship time simple enough that any of the seven children represented in our two families (all under the age of thirteen) could engage the worship and lead portions of it. And they do!

Dialogic: Dialogue has a vertical and a horizontal reference for us. We wanted our family worship time to reflect the larger dialogue God has with his people in corporate Sunday worship. God speaks; we respond. We also wanted to create space in the worship time where family members could share and respond to each other.

Multisensory: We remember the power of a lit candle in worship, or a waving palm branch, or a parent’s hand on the head in blessing. We aimed to fill up our children’s senses in multiple ways with worship and wonder.

Repetitious: We desire deep grooves of worship to be etched in our children’s hearts. Deep grooves come by repetition. For this reason, we used a similar structure each day, repeating the same opening and closing sentences from Scripture for weeks at a time. These Scriptures become hidden in the heart (Ps. 119:11).
We also felt it important to include:

  • Times of quiet
  • Times of singing, wonder, and reflection
  • Exposure to different types of prayer
  • Exposure to the whole canon of Scripture
  • Exposure to the sequences of the Christian year

So working out of these priorities and with help from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, we created the tool Teach Us To Pray, a family prayer book meant to assist families with the “how” of worship.

The “Why” of Family Worship

But let’s be real. Our list of priorities above look so neat and orderly. Family worship is not.

Family worship is not about perfection; it’s about love. It’s about gathering around the center of our family—God Himself—and admitting we (together) live by his gospel of grace.

At one point in Lora’s life, a peek into her family worship time might reveal a three-year-old who keeps squirming to get down, a four-year-old who whines she can’t see the candle, a nine-year-old who can’t hold “it” any more, and an eleven-year-old who interrupts the Jonah story with a fact about the mating habits of whales. There’s a spouse looking so tired from work that he’s glazing over, and there are dishes to load, homework to do, lunches to pack, and a project deadline to meet. The beautiful list of priorities flutters to the ground, and in its place comes a powerful urge to raise the white flag and say, “I give up! I can’t do this. I don’t have any power for this.”

That white flag brings us to one lesson we’ve learned about family worship: If we’re just trying to recreate a Norman Rockwell feeling or an attractive liturgical tradition, we’re going to run out of steam quickly. There are too many social and personal currents working against us for our own moral muscle to swim against it for long. We’ll burn out. We need more than a desire for a feel-good family moment. We need more than good intentions and a beautiful priority list. We need to acknowledge that even in this we need the grace of the gospel. That gospel becomes the engine on which family worship runs.

Unless otherwise indicated, Reformed Worship subscribers are always able to make copies of articles or insert them in their newsletters as long as it clearly notes that it is reprinted/taken from Reformed Worship and includes the issue number, date, page and author(s).

We especially encourage you to copy this article and share with families in your church to encourage a new or continued commitment to times of family worship.

The gospel says that the mess of family worship is in the context of a God who, in Jesus, took our place so we and our squirrelly kids could pull up chairs and take our places among his family of love. Family worship is not about perfection; it’s about love. It’s about gathering around the center of our family—God himself—and admitting we (together) live by his gospel of grace. That means some days the grace will simply look like a discipline, with all the dazzle of a daily two-mile run. But there’s grace in that. And other days—yes, there will be other days!—the grace will show up in family worship becoming electric and alive: a teenager singing at the top of his lungs, a quiet time full of shared peace (the only thirty seconds of absolute quiet the family experiences all day), or prayers by a six-year-old that take your breath away with their sincerity and trust.

At the Advent time of this writing, I (Elizabeth) have been experiencing some of this grace in a fresh way. As a family, we’ve set an extra chair and place setting at the table each night in preparation for Jesus to come, and we’ve ended up having all sorts of conversation about the chair. My three-year-old has taken to asking, “Is God coming tonight for supper?” We’ve had earnest debate about whether someone can sit in “Jesus’s chair” or whether we should put food on Jesus’s plate. While my girls, 7 and 9, may take forever to decide who gets to read out loud, and while our singing may cause some to cringe, somehow in the midst of all this the Holy Spirit comes, and grace abounds. Somehow, this becomes my favorite part of the day.

We know firsthand that the “how” of family worship is not easy. But the “why” is becoming increasingly easy, increasingly clear: We, as a family, need these encounters with grace. It is our prayer that God may use our offering of Teach Us to Pray as a help for families looking for the same.

The devotion found on p. 35 comes from “Teach Us to Pray: Scripture-Centered Family Worship Through the Year” by Lora A. Copley and Elizabeth Vander Haagen. Copies can be purchased at worship.calvin.edu/resources.

Lora A. Copley is blessed to be a wife, a mother of four children and an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church. She teaches at Rehoboth Christian School and in a pastoral leadership program on the Navajo Nation.

Elizabeth Vander Haagen is a pastor at Boston Square Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan.