Family devotions have not always come easy for the McWhites.
I certainly don’t claim to be any sort of expert on the matter, but to the extent that we’ve learned from our failures (and they have been plentiful), we have by trial and error figured out what works—for us, anyway.
And that, by the way, is part of the difficulty of figuring out what to do for family devotions: Like personal devotions there isn’t really a one-size-fits-all formula for creating a fruitful and consistent family devotional life in the home. My personal devotional life won’t adapt well for everyone else, and it has always morphed slightly from year to year. The same is true for family devotional life.
That said, I certainly hope that you can learn from what we’ve learned, since I sincerely believe family devotions to be a critical and indispensable facet of healthy, gospel-centered, Christ-focused family life. Here are some thoughts:
1. Determine to make it work even if it takes a while to learn how to make it work.
There is no doubt that Scripture lays the primary responsibility for the spiritual development of the family not with the church, not with the Children’s Pastor and his staff, not with a Sunday school teacher or a Christian school (valuable as all of these things can be), but with the parents. Parents should not think of family devotions as extra credit or as something only super-Christian parents do. The intentional spiritual development of the family is an imperative for the husband and wife, and therefore it is necessary to decide together at the outset that you are going to make family devotions work even if you stumble out of the gate (or stumble for a long time!). Don’t assume that you’re on the same page on this. Have a conversation about this together and agree that this is good and right and worth pursuing diligently.
2. Be consistent, even when it isn’t going well.
Both consistency and quality are important in family devotions. But you can breed consistency even when you’re still figuring out how to get quality. And, in general, quality is a product of consistency. Make the decision to have devotions every night, and then work toward making it a more and more fruitful time. Moreover, when and if you have seasons where devotions don’t go as well, established consistency will be valuable in helping you press on and pull out of the slump.
3. Make family devotions part of a larger routine.
Routine breeds consistency. Have your family devotions at the same time and in the same place every day. Right now, our son Owen just knows that the evening routine is dinner, wrestle with Daddy, bath time, pajamas, family devotions, story time, bed. It has become second nature to all of us, and so no one (including Owen) ever says, “Should we have family devotions tonight?” It’s become just as natural to us as ‘deciding’ to have dinner.
4. Men: Lead. Women: Contribute—and lead when he’s not there.
The husband and father bears primary responsibility for the spiritual development of his family. He should call the family together to have devotions, and he is primarily responsible for figuring out how to do devotions (with his wife’s wise input, of course). Leading well, as in all areas of home life, does not mean that the man needs to do everything. In fact, it’s important that children see their mother contributing and providing wise input and guidance for family spirituality—especially for daughters, who need to learn from their mother what it looks like to be a strong, wise and Christ-centered woman who nevertheless follows the leadership of her husband.
So, practically speaking, I call the family together for devotions and I read the Bible for us. Every other component of our devotions might be led by either Leslie or me. We feel this sends a subtle but strong signal that ‘Daddy leads with his strength and wisdom and mommy helps him with her strength and wisdom.’
That said, if I’m away at a meeting or something after dinner time, Leslie leads devotions anyway. We hope this will instill in our children an impression of Leslie’s strength and wisdom, as well as the understanding that a strong, consistent devotional life isn’t dependent on circumstances. Communion with God is an essential priority even when ‘life’ tries to get in the way.
5. Keep it age-appropriate and err on the side of the younger family members.
Family devotions can be simple without being simplistic—particularly if you find the right materials to use. For example, as I’ve mentioned previously, Leslie and I were blessed and taught ourselves by The Jesus Storybook Bible. Keep the ‘main course’ of family devotions simple enough for the younger family members to grasp, and then you can build in more complex elements for the older family members, such as Scripture memorization or theological catechism.
6. Keep it brief enough for the youngest family member to stay interested.
Be realistic about attention span. Owen starts to get antsy after a few minutes, and this isn’t due to lack of discipline or ADD or something. He’s a little kid! They have short attention spans. So, tailor your family devotions to this reality. This is yet another reason I so appreciate some of the better children’s Bibles—they pack a lot of truth into brief narratives. That said, you can expand attention span by changing activities. Owen’s attention span is brief, but because we do four different things during devotions (Bible reading, memory verses, singing and prayer)—none of which lasts more than a few minutes—we’re generally able to keep his attention for the entire 10-15 minutes of devotions.
7. Choose an age-appropriate Bible to read from.
The Jesus Storybook Bible and The Big Picture Story Bible are both excellent, excellent choices for young kids and if you have them both you can rotate through them for a long, long time. There are enough chapters in both of them that Owen isn’t even close to being bored with the stories (and neither are Leslie and I!), so I anticipate getting years of mileage out of these two. That said, you can certainly read from ‘adult’ Bibles (see #8), but if this is the ‘main course’ of your family devotional life, I would suggest spending more time explaining what you’ve read or even acting it out while you read.
Owen is getting close to the age (he turned 2 in August) where we’ll start asking him simple comprehension questions (e.g. “So, Owen, who made the world in that story?” “Who did Saul see on the road to Damascus?”). Once he’s a little older we’ll start asking him slightly more complicated comprehension questions—questions that begin with “why” (e.g. “Why did Zacchaeus go up in the tree?” “Why did God send the flood?” “Why did Jesus have to die for us?”). The aim in questions like this isn’t to quiz, but to encourage Owen to engage in what we’re reading.
8. Always read or recite Scripture itself in addition to any other reading you do.
My advice in #7 certainly does not mean that I think the actual words of Scripture should be avoided until children are old enough to comprehend them. On the contrary, I think the actual words of Scripture absolutely should be built into family devotions. The Word of God is living and active and possesses a power to sculpt hearts and minds that no children’s Bible has. Do not confuse children’s Bibles (excellent as they can be) with Scripture. The way we weave the Bible into our family devotions is that we memorize short segments of Scripture together and recite them every night. It is truly mind-blowing how much young kids can memorize. Owen had 1 Cor. 10:31b (“Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God”) memorized almost as soon as he could speak.
We began doing this as soon as Owen was able to repeat words after us. We say one word at a time, allowing him to try to pronounce them after us, and we repeat the verse 2 or 3 times each night until he has it. We avoid pressuring him, which means we don’t reprimand him when he gets it wrong and we cheer loudly when he gets it right. We want Scripture memorization to be something he thinks of joyfully, not loathsomely. He generally is able to recite the entire verse without help after 4-5 days. Every night, then, we work back through each of the verses he has memorized. Once he has too many to do all of them, we’ll start picking 3-4 each night to help him keep them fresh. Our goal here is to help him “hide God’s word in his heart” and to develop a natural, second-nature practice of memorizing Scripture as part of a devotional life.
9. Worship together!
This is absolutely my favorite part of family devotions. We sing hymns together every night. It almost brings tears to my eyes to hear Owen learning the songs and singing them without thinking about it even when he’s by himself. Just the other day he was playing with the new firetruck he got for Christmas and I heard him softly singing parts of “Jesus Paid It All.” I’ll admit that I’m a softy, but man was I choked up.
This was also perhaps the hardest thing to integrate into family devotions, however, because neither Leslie nor I are… um… excellent singers. So, we had to swallow our pride a little bit. But we’ve gotten over that now and both love this part of family devotions. We began with simple songs like “Jesus Loves Me” and “Doxology,” but now we’re singing “Jesus Paid It All,” “Come Thou Fount,” “Crown Him With Many Crowns,” etc. We learn them one verse at a time—sometimes using a hymnal if Leslie and I don’t know them perfectly by heart, and Owen learns them and sings with us within about a week.
We now let him choose at least one of the songs we’re going to sing each night and we always sing 2 or 3, making sure to sing one he doesn’t know well or a new one. The goal, as with Scripture memorization, isn’t to learn as many as possible, but to start weaving the words deeply into his heart and mind through lots and lots of repetition.
10. Pray together and for each other.
We close with prayer. Right now usually I just pray, but I pray briefly for each of us. Soon we’ll ask Owen to pray. I also try to tie my prayer to the Scripture or story we read at the beginning so that Owen begins to learn to root his prayer in Scripture and prioritize the priorities of Scripture in his prayers. So, we pray less about “God blessing us and keeping us safe and healthy,” and more about “Thank you for dying for our sins, Jesus. Help us to love and honor you and each other….” I’ve recently begun asking Owen what we should pray about and what we should give thanks for before we pray. He always says, “Jesus!” but I’m sure he’ll eventually start expanding on that a bit. In the meantime, that’s an excellent answer.
These are sweet, sweet times for our family. It’s the most important 15 minutes of our day and now that we’ve figured out how to do it well, I cannot imagine not having this time together. If you have other ideas, I’m sure we’d all love to learn from them. Let’s create a conversation in the “comments” section.