It wasn’t until I was working on my book Formed for the Glory of God: The Spiritual Practices of Jonathan Edwards (InterVarsity, 2013) [review] that I started digging into the Puritan practice of conferencing. I had heard of it before, but my section on conferencing gave me the space to think with more depth and clarity. I was captivated. I was on the leadership team of my church and had a nine-month-old little girl whose presence kept my mind on my family’s spiritual life. I wanted to start thinking early about family devotions, and my book project was a great excuse.

Conferencing, in a nutshell, is something of a mix between accountability partners and small groups. You would conference with your pastor, your friend(s), and your family at least once a week. While the format was fluid, conferencing was guided by two fundamental questions: 

  1. Was the pastor right on Sunday?  
  2. What did your heart do when you heard that sermon?

Notice the balance. First, Christians were expected to have a deep and growing knowledge of Scripture, forcing congregants, families, and friends to search the Scriptures together. Even if you did believe the pastor was right, you had to use your own means to prove it. Second, you had to talk about the truth of your heart in relation to the Scripture and the doctrine of the sermon. 

Learning to Navigate Little Hearts 

There are several things I love about this format: it’s simple, comprehensive, and it presses for pastoral care at every level of the church family. It recognizes that the formation of a people demands deep knowledge of the heart. In Puritan culture, fathers were seen as the pastors of the household, and so they needed the biblical knowledge to guide discussion and the ability to navigate the little souls of their children. This turn to the heart wasn’t looking for formulaic answers, but called for a careful attention to the movements of a child’s deepest longings. This entailed real wisdom.

I remember when my four-year-old turned to me as I was tucking her in to bed one night and asked, “We won’t die, right, Dad?” Immediately I knew I could get out of this question if I wanted. I was tired and wanted some time with my wife before we needed to go to sleep. But I also knew I had a fragile little soul voicing deep concerns and questions from her heart. I knew there were temptations on both sides—to ignore the question on the one side and to turn too quickly to the hope of the resurrection on the other. I knew she needed to feel the weight of sin and death before she could experience the hope Jesus offers. I needed to know how to navigate her heart, speaking truth into her life, but with the wisdom to know what to speak and when to say it.

As we think about family devotions, I think conferencing provides parents with a good model. The goal isn’t handholding, but imitation. We need to press our children beyond their current knowledge by helping them grasp the breadth of biblical revelation, but we must also help them learn that the Lord is sovereign over their hearts as well as their minds. We need to create a context where our children can be angry with God, and lament the reality of this broken world and God’s seeming absence from it. And we need to avoid simple and clean solutions when they’re not justified. As my mentor used to frequently remind me, what we do with our children in the intimacy of their deepest questions will teach them how to pray. Prayer isn’t taught to a child simply by teaching them what to say in prayer. Prayer is a way of relating to another, one who knows their heart and can handle their sin. If a child has never known this intimacy with their father and mother, prayer will turn into a place to hide from God rather than be with him. My mentor’s words still resonate with me: “Prayer is not a place to be good, but a place to be honest.” Conferencing is a time to put this into practice, training our families by taking the movements of their hearts as seriously as we take their knowledge of Scripture and doctrine.

Entering Their Emotions 

I think the biggest mistake we make here is to judge the emotions and reactions of our children. Most of us have never had this kind of training in our own homes, and so we often turn to highly edited and cleaned-up versions of Christianity. It can be hard to hear our children’s rejection of prayer, Bible reading, or church. It can be hard to hear that when they sat in their Sunday school class they were scared, sad, angry, or afraid. It’s easy for us to jump in with the goal of making them feel better, rather than entering into that emotion with them. On the other hand, it can be easy to pass along a false spirituality to our children, which teaches them that if they sing the right songs, say the right prayers, and feign excitement at the right times, then Mom and Dad will be satisfied.

So as I sat with my daughter in bed, I knew there was only one thing I could do. I knew I had to enter into her pain. “Yes, my love, we will die. Everyone dies.” And as she wept, I sat and wept with her. All I could utter was, “I’m sorry . . . I’m so sorry.” I would point her to the hope of Jesus later. But in this time, in the raw experience of the harshness of death, she needed to feel its weight.

Attending Our Own Hearts 

I think we can learn a lot from the Puritans. I continue to learn about conferencing, and as I continue to think through family devotions, I find myself always coming back to it. Conferencing forces us all to be accountable to the sermon, Sunday school, Bible study, or whatever else we’re doing. If everyone at church knew they were going to be frequently asked throughout the week about the sermon and if the pastor was right, then we would all listen differently. But we would also listen to the sermon Christianly. We wouldn’t simply mine it for information, but would have one ear in our souls attending to the movements of our hearts. To help our children navigate their emotional life and to help guide them in wisdom, we first must attend to our own hearts (and what makes us angry, frustrated, elated, or fainthearted).

What the Puritans offer, I think, is a people who can navigate the deep questions of the Bible and deep currents of the heart. This is a people not “tossed to and fro by the waves,” but anchored to the rock of Christ. May the Lord guide us in this way!