Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother”(this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Eph. 6:1–4)
This divinely inspired reflection on the commandment to honor father and mother used to attract more attention in churches, it seems. Most believers saw Christian nurture in the home as the most important preparation for congregational life—and as an essential foundation for the pursuit of the common good in the secular world.
To cite just one example, Martin Luther contended in his Large Catechism (1529)—written to help parents and other teachers ready children for the challenge of discipleship—that Moses’s commandment and Paul’s reflection suggest that “it is the duty of every father of a family to question and examine his children . . . to ascertain what they know of [the Catechism and Christian faith], or are learning, and, if they do not know it, to keep them faithfully at it.”
So this commandment pertained not to children alone, but to parents as well. As Luther urged in his Catechism section on the fourth commandment,
It would be well to preach to the parents also . . . as to how they should deport themselves toward those who are committed to them for their government. . . . [Parents] should earnestly and faithfully discharge their office, not only to support and provide for the bodily necessities of their children . . . but, most of all, to train them to the honor and praise of God. . . . For if we wish to have excellent and apt persons both for civil and ecclesiastical government, we must spare no diligence, time, or cost in teaching and educating our children, that they may serve God and the world, and we must not think only how we may amass money and possessions for them. . . . Let everyone know, therefore, that it is his duty, on peril of losing the divine favor, to bring up his children above all things in the fear and knowledge of God.
For Luther and many of the Protestant reformers, the family was a pillar of God’s providential care for the church and all creation.
For Luther and many of the Protestant reformers, the family was a pillar of God’s providential care for the church and all creation. It was one of the “three estates” by which God ruled the world: the household (oeconomia), the church (ecclesia), and the government or state (politia). God chose to order human life in and through all three estates, or “orders of creation.” When one estate falters, his design for creation is impaired.
No Wonder Kids Are Leaving the Church
To apply this teaching to our purposes today, the family altar was made to be the most important training ground for walking the way of the cross. Family worship is crucial to meeting the challenges of everyday discipleship.
Yet several recent polls (not to mention the many anecdotes known to readers) suggest fewer families are raising children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Millions of our young people walk away from the faith shortly after leaving home. This should come as no surprise. According to a Barna survey in 2021, only 42 percent of all “Christian parents”—and only 51 percent of “practicing Christian parents”—are “very” concerned about their kids’ spiritual growth.
These numbers help us understand another recent survey, in which 68 percent of Protestant youth pastors agreed that their “biggest struggle in ministry” is “parents not prioritizing their teen’s spiritual growth.”
I suspect these trends have much to do with the slow, steady death of family devotions. Too few churches help families learn to have them, and too few families make this practice a regular priority. In fact, several months ago LifeWay published “What the Church Must Do to Keep Kids—and Their Parents—Spiritually Engaged,” a study that rightly emphasized regular Bible reading but didn’t even mention family devotions.
I suspect these trends have much to do with the slow, steady death of family devotions.
It’s as if this discipline has simply disappeared. Do we assume it just won’t work—we’re too busy and, even if we did give it a go, our families are too fractured, our kids too independent, our faith too private and subjective for parent-led devotions to succeed?
Most parents I know are often frustrated by their kids’ overloaded schedules. Most pastors are concerned about the ways in which coaches, music teachers, and others have crowded out the church. But is this dissatisfaction yielding change in our families’ commitments? Or are we inured to the status quo, content to blame others for our failure to center our kids’ lives on the Lord?
We Can Begin Again
Let’s do something about this. Let’s recommit ourselves to cultivating an atmosphere at home in which family devotions make good sense again. Then let’s stand up and make the practice a priority. Let’s pray with our kids, read the Bible with them, and center our homes on the things that matter most. There are lots of good teaching tools to use: children’s Bibles, devotional books, old and new catechisms. Parents don’t have to become theologians. They simply have to show a heart for discipleship.
As Tim Keller, quoting Gary Parrett and J. I. Packer in the introduction to The New City Catechism, says: “Because we have lost the practice of catechesis today, ‘superficial smatterings of truth, blurry notions about God and godliness, and thoughtlessness about the issues of living—career-wise, community-wise, family-wise, and church-wise—are all too often the marks of evangelical congregations today.’”
What a sadness. The good news, though, is that the Lord reaches out to welcome little children when their parents persist in bringing them to him. The Spirit loves to enliven his Word in our hearts when we open it in faith. Let’s move forward, then, with fresh resolve and humble joy.