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Psalm 127:4 likens children to arrows. Arrows begin as unformed wood, knotty and rugged. They need reforming and refining if they are to fly straight and hit their target. Children—spiritual arrows—need the sanctifying truth of God’s Word so their souls can soar toward the goal of the Christian life: conformity to Christ (Rom. 8:29).
How can parents mold their children after God’s character? Regular feeding on Christ in Lord’s Day worship is the proper starting point. Constant prayer is required. Instructing children along the way, through life’s typical joys and sorrows, is also most necessary.
But let’s not forget that other long-established exercise of godly parenting: family worship.
As a father of six young children, I’m always looking for family-worship tools and tips. Children’s Bibles are useful, catechisms are invaluable, and hymns are wonderful teachers. Yet nothing is better than the milk and meat of Scripture.
M’Cheyne’s Zeal for Family Worship
In the pantheon of Bible-reading plans, Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s scheme is an oddity: half of each day’s reading belongs to family worship. The priority is perhaps more notable when you discover M’Cheyne never married. What, then, did family worship look like for him?
While ministering at St. Peter’s Dundee, M’Cheyne’s older sister, Elizabeth, lived with him. Liza took care of his domestic affairs with such care that Robert called her “my own deaconess and helpmeet.” A few beloved servants were also constant companions. After rising at 6:30 a.m. and spending two hours in prayer and meditation, M’Cheyne sat for breakfast and led family worship. He read a passage, discussed its key points, and then guided a time of prayer. He aimed to lead similar devotions every evening as well.
Let’s not forget that long-established exercise of godly parenting: family worship.
M’Cheyne’s passion for family worship led him to write articles in church-sanctioned volumes. He routinely offered applications to family worship in his sermon. For example, in a message titled “Family Government,” M’Cheyne explained that family worship “is more needful than your daily food, more needful than your work.” On another Lord’s Day, M’Cheyne told St. Peters, “You may not know that an elder who does not keep worship in his family may be suspended from that office.”
It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that M’Cheyne’s reading plan encourages families to feast together on God’s Word.
Using M’Cheyne’s Plan in Family Worship
When M’Cheyne “sat for breakfast” each day and led family worship, he did so from 8:30 to 10:00 a.m. Such a leisurely rhythm is unrealistic for many people today. So how might we use M’Cheyne’s plan for family worship in our contemporary context?
I have several ideas. First, though, a pastoral prompt: don’t take any of the ensuing encouragements with the force of law. Every family has different abilities and personalities. Turning the suggestions into demands will be miserable; receiving the encouragements as a heavy yoke will be burdensome. “If this be the case,” M’Cheyne reminded, “throw aside the fetter and feed at liberty in the sweet garden of God. My desire is not to cast a snare upon you, but to be a helper of your joy.”
Here are four suggestions that adapt M’Cheyne’s original advice for using the plan in family worship.
1. Worship Strategically
Have a fixed time. For some it will be over a meal; for others it will be before bedtime. Pick the time when your family is most likely to be engaged.
The plan usually calls for two chapters to be read in secret and two as a family. M’Cheyne directed family members to read all chapters before family worship. Such an intention might work for your home. Another idea is for the family leader to select just one chapter from the plan to discuss. Pick a child who can read and have him or her read the passage aloud. Heads of families can come prepared with simple questions to aid interpretation and application.
Also, be flexible. M’Cheyne knew some parts of Scripture aren’t as easy to generate discussion, while other parts open conversation as quickly as the sun begins the day. Thus, when a secret reading is more suitable for the family reading, the leader can swap the texts to ensure the family gets the choicest portion.
2. Worship Prayerfully
Reading Scripture tends to fuel prayer. It also gives language to our longings. Prayer in family worship shouldn’t feel tedious or difficult. Select one verse from the reading and have each member of the family pray in light of that text. Or read a portion and ask, “What sins should we confess? What praises can we raise? Who do we know that needs this promise?”
3. Worship Musically
M’Cheyne was a gifted vocalist. People remembered his melodic voice long after his death. Not all of us have such skill in song. Nevertheless, let’s offer a faithful noise to the Lord. He has commanded us to sing his Word (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16)—why not sing it as a family?
Snuff out mere duty or drudgery in family worship. God’s Word is sweeter than honey and more precious than gold.
Remember, the Psalms are a staple in M’Cheyne’s diet of Scripture. Help your kids learn to sing God’s Word by singing his songbook. Grab The Book of Psalms for Worship, The Trinity Psalter Hymnal, or The Psalms in Common Meter.
If your church uses a hymnal, buy a couple of copies. Let the children pick a hymn that corresponds to a theological theme in the reading. Another idea is to build a personal “Family Hymnal” full of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.
4. Worship Joyfully
Snuff out mere duty or drudgery in family worship. God’s Word is sweeter than honey and more precious than gold. May we model this in our homes, letting our kids see us cherish the truth and lead with gladness.
M’Cheyne even exhorted smiles in family worship: “Do it in a spiritual, lively manner. Go to it as a well of salvation. There is, perhaps, no means of grace more blessed.”
Family worship is no sacrament, but it’s an ordinary way the Lord blesses households. Devotion to gather around his Word strengthens our unity and deepens our love.
Let’s lead our families to the green pastures of God’s Word, thriving in the great aim of Christianity: communion with the triune God.