We recently recorded a video interview with Joel Beeke on the topic of family worship, a spiritual discipline very close to his heart and the topic of a few of his books. We’re sharing that with you here on The Heritage Blog in case you haven’t seen it, along with a full transcript of the interview below.
We hope you enjoy the interview, and the candor and joy with which Joel Beeke speaks of family worship, especially his charge to fathers: “Man up, do it!”
Dr. Joel Beeke recently sat down for an interview on the topic of family worship with RHB’s own Dr. Tavis Bohlinger.
In this extended yet intimate dialogue, the two men discuss the how and why of family worship, the Puritan legacy of the practice, and essential resources for every father and mother wishing to lead their family in the daily reading of Scripture, prayer, and singing.
Watch the interview at the link above, or read the full transcript of the interview below.
JB: So when, when I, when I talk to you, I can use the name Tavis.
TB: Absolutely. Okay. And I can use the name, the Reverend Dr. Beeke or…
JB: Joel, Joel. I mean, you can, you can call me whatever you want. I don’t know. What’s proper.
TB: Well, I’ll call you Joel, as I normally do, unless you want something else.
JB: That’s fine.
TB: You sure?
TB: Okay. Joel thank you so much for meeting with me, sitting and talking with me about family worship.
JB: I love to talk about family worship.
TB: Yes, I know; I’ve heard this. And in fact we have a few resources that you’ve made to this end that I believe have stemmed out of your own personal practice with your family, but also your many years pastoring and your study of the Puritans. These are all the different types of things I want to talk about with you. But I think I want to start with just the basic question: what is family worship?
JB: Family worship is a daily, intentional sustained exercise of devotion of reading Scripture, of prayer, of discussing what you read and singing the Psalms or the hymns of God with your family, with the purpose of training them day, by day, by day. So that you actually end up talking with your children about every subject under the sun and bring them this whole book, the book of books, in a practical way at their level, asking questions, them dialoging back with you so that the family every day is speaking openly about the things of God.
Family worship is a daily, intentional sustained exercise of devotion of reading Scripture, of prayer, of discussing what you read and singing the Psalms or the hymns of God with your family, with the purpose of training them day, by day, by day.
TB: So you mentioned “the book,” and, and it’s a big book. I mean, the Bible takes most of us maybe a year, if not more to get through once. And those of us who are faithful maybe are quicker than that, but how in the world could one man or even one mother take that entire book to their children, especially considering the fact that a lot of times when the family is being led in worship, it’s at a time when the children are young and they may not have a full comprehension.
JB: So in a practical way, when I suggest [family worship] to parents and the children are very young, say pre- eight years old, that you do select portions of Scripture each day. There are certain Bible books that are almost full of stories that work for very young children. Genesis is a great book to do with your family, even when they’re very young, the parables, the miracles, the gospels. But I wouldn’t take a five year old through Ezekiel, for example. I would, you know, use some wisdom there, but once children are eight, nine, that area, I think with proper explanation, in using what we call the Family Worship Bible Guide, I think you can walk them through the whole Bible, remembering what J.C. Ryle said, that a whole Bible makes a whole Christian. But what is it about? So we have three editions now of the Family Worship Bible Guide. I think this Tru-Tone is the newest.
TB: And what is it about this resource in particular that, well, it sounds like you’re pretty excited about it from the discussion we had before, even just before this recording. What is it about this resource that makes it unique and why should families consider using this versus just diving into the Bible as it is?
JB: Well, if you can just dive into the Bible as it is, and as a father, you spent time preparing what you’re going to say to your children, that’s great. I mean, that’s wonderful, but my experience has been working with different fathers, working with different churches, speaking on family worship in a few dozen different countries around the world, that those fathers are very few and far between. I’m thinking less than 1% of a congregation. But I do know, I have spoken with fathers who get up early in the morning, and they spend 30, 45 minutes preparing for family worship that evening, praise the Lord. But most fathers end up quitting. And then what they end up doing is, well, they’ll read a versus from the Bible, and they’ll have a short prayer with their children. They might even sing, but there’ll be no dialogue because they don’t feel ready. What do you say after you read Ezekiel 44?
So what happened actually was about a dozen years ago I got together with Michael Barrett who then was in South Carolina and he was telling me that he just really felt burdened to do a KJV Bible study note system, because no KJV version of the Bible had notes that were actually Reformed in their theology. And I really resonated with that, but I said to him, I feel a real need to write in an actual Bible, not only the notes, but behind the notes to have a little section where fathers could read that little section to their children and have those comments conclude with a question to generate a family discussion. And so he liked that idea, but then we decided, ah, man, that’s too much work. This is going to take years and years. So I said, well, let me talk to Dr. Bilkes here at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. If you are willing to do the Old Testament, Dr. Barrett, because that’s his specialty, and Dr. Bilkes is willing to a supervise a New Testament, I’m willing to be the general editor of the whole thing. And talked Dr. Bilkes, who said he was struggling with the same thing. So it was almost like it was a God thing. You know, all three of our minds were going similar. So we produced a Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible with solid Reformed notes with family worship sections at the end of each chapter, which I think is unique in all study Bibles, I know of none others. And then what happened, were a lot of people who wanted to use the family worship section, but weren’t using the King James version.
So we extracted the worship sections and we put it in this book, the Family Worship Bible Guide, which looks pretty short, but it’s actually 856 pages. And because it’s on onion-thin paper and it gives you two or three major thoughts from each Bible chapter, that’s the goal. And usually most of them end with a question. So what we’re doing in the Family Worship Bible Guide is giving you the main takeaways from that chapter that we think would be good for you to discuss with your children. And then we like to encourage the… say if you’re the father and you’re reading those questions, those comments, we’d like to say, mom, you jump in, maybe give an answer. And then that will generate one of the other children answering, or the dad can just directly call upon each of the children and say, what do you think of this? What’s your opinion, and that type of thing. And then the discussion can go on any of many different directions and that’s good. And even if it goes off subject, but you’re still talking about the things of God, that’s good because the whole point is that, if you don’t discuss the things of God as a family, the things of God don’t tend to become real to children. But if you’re actually discussing them day by day, it all becomes real. This becomes reality. This becomes the most important part of the day, the most important part of my life and the things of God become vibrant, vital. The Puritans would say, living, breathing, and that’s what we want in family worship. We want real communion with God and real communion with each other.
TB: I know that’s something that in my own family… I’ve got three kids and married, and just reflecting on family worship, we’ve tried to do it. We’ve stopped and started so many times in the past. And as someone like myself who went to seminary and has studied the Bible for a long time I felt like I should have a leg up,and that was probably quite presumptuous of me to think that, simply because I’ve had the training. But the reality of family life, as we all know, is that it’s quite chaotic at times. And yet, as I reflected on this topic of family worship, we all have established patterns in our day to day family life, whether it’s, okay, around this time is the meal, and around this time the children are off to school. And so we set this hierarchy of priorities throughout the day, and I’m ashamed to say that oftentimes family worship has fallen away as this extraneous option. But just reading the introduction of the Family Worship Bible Guide, you are quite adamant that this is no option, right?
When you don’t do family worship . . . you’re just taking God for granted.
JB: So yeah, my whole point is that this is the most important part of your life as a father. And this is your bound and duty before God. So you don’t think about skipping it any day. The only day we don’t do it is Sunday because we go straight from the dinner table to church for a second service and we’re worshiping God all day long. But it would be good to do it on Sunday as well. But if I were not to do it, when our kids were home, if I were not to do it for one day, after we kick back after the dinner, my kids would look at me and go, what happened to you, dad? Are you sick? So, you know, any excuses we use as men to get ourselves out of it are in vain.
You know, I’ve heard men say, well, I’m so tired after supper, I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do a 10-minute family worship. And I say, oh, come on. You know, if your Savior could carry his cross all the way to Golgotha and was nearly succumbing beneath it, but went and died for you, can’t you at least live for him and living for him means, first of all, doing family worship, 10 minutes a day, you can do 10 minutes. You really can. And so you just don’t allow yourself any excuses. Other dads have told me, oh, you know, I can’t do it after I’ve just yelled at a kid, you know? And I just feel totally out of sorts. Well, that’s when you need to do it all the more, you gotta confess your guilt to God. You gotta ask for repentance in front of your children and do family worship. So it’s like brushing your teeth. It’s like going to the bathroom. It’s like you said, these habits, it’s like eating meals. You don’t skip that because, well, you just have to do these things. This is a habit. The Puritans spoke a lot about developing holy habits and this is one of them: family worship.
TB: So on the Puritans, because you’ve of course studied the Puritans (that’s an understatement); you’ve studied the Puritans extensively. This practice of family worship. Did it begin with the Puritans or does it predate them? And then the next question would be, why use the Puritans as an example of family worship?
JB: It does predate the Puritans a bit, but the Puritans were more thorough in family worship than any group before them. And by Puritans, I mean also Puritans with a small “p.” So I would include the Scottish Covenanters and Divines and German Pietists and the Dutch Reformers and the New England Puritans as well as the English Puritans. They grounded it more in Scripture. So for the four parts of family worship, for example overall, they threw in texts like Joshua 24:15, “as for me and my family, we will serve, or we will worship the Lord;” Deuteronomy 6:6-7, “We’ll teach our children daily diligently.” And then they went for specific parts. They went to Second Timothy 3 for the daily reading of Scripture. They went to texts like Deuteronomy 6 about speaking to your children when you sit up, when you lay down.
So these are daily activities, that you speak to your children about what you’re reading. And they went to Psalm 118:15 – “music was heard in the tents of the righteous.” And they said that that was family worship, singing every day. And of course, prayer is a whole bunch of texts, that we should “never forsake the assembly of ourselves together.” As a family for prayer, Thomas Brooks had powerful testimony. He said, “a family that doesn’t pray together every day is like a house without a roof exposed to all the storms of heaven.” Well, that’s a pretty frightening thing. But you know, in Jeremiah we read that the fury of God is poured out on the family that does not pray together. That’s amazing. And of course, Paul tells us in First Timothy 4:4-5, that “everything should be sanctified by prayer.” So the Puritans amass all of this together, they write whole books on it. Several Puritans wrote books on family worship and they made it their daily practice and they called it a little worship service in your home. It was preparatory for the next Lord’s day. It was a very good way of training children to sit still in family worship so that they could join the public worship at a very young age, two or three at the most. And they would not allow any interruptions during family worship because it was so sacred. So translate that into today. If the phone rings you don’t [answer], nobody bats an eyelash when a phone rings, when you’re doing family worship, because they’ll leave a message on the answering machine or they’ll call back. You’re in the audience of the King of Kings. This is the most important thing you’re doing. This is sacred time with your family.
TB: That’s an interesting statement you just made about being essentially in the presence of the King. So I feel like that’s something that’s quite overlooked in this practice of family worship, because the emphasis is so much on the man or the woman who’s leading the worship, you know, to their children. And it’s a very human-centric practice that can come across sometimes. I’ve even had discussions with people who think it’s almost legalistic to impose such a thing upon your family. You know, “maybe you should be a bit more libertarian about things.” But ultimately when we’re doing this, we’re coming before God, it’s this sense of coram Deo. [Can you] speak more about the gravity of what we’re actually doing in worship before God?
If your Savior could carry his cross all the way to Golgotha . . . can’t you at least live for him? And living for him means, first of all, doing family worship.
JB: Yeah. So the Puritans are saying fellowship time with your family is important on the horizontal level and fellowship time with your family with God is important on the vertical level. Say you have a meal together. Imagine you have the dad who said, “No one, no one can talk at this meal. No one can talk at all. We’re just going to eat.” Something’s wrong with that. There’s no fellowship in this family. It’s unnatural. So the point is, this is not legalistic. This is not a fake thing. It’s exactly the opposite when you then kick back. And at least we did that. We did family worship directly after supper, the best time of the day for us to do it. You automatically go to family worship and this becomes a holy habit. This becomes very natural and really in the presence of God, you’re then developing the vertical relationship.
And you’re recognizing the biblical balance that we need both the vertical and the horizontal, and you’re just bringing them together. It’s all very natural. Now, it doesn’t mean that in family worship there can be no laughter. It doesn’t mean that there can’t be a little bit of teasing even at times as you discuss questions or disagree with each other. It should be natural, but overall there should be a sense of, “we’re in the presence of God.” So there’s an earnestness. Moses in Deuteronomy 6 calls it diligence. So the father is diligent. This is important, this is the most important part of our day.
So if I can give you an example, that just really happened to me, literally, that underscores this for me personally, is when I was in an Eastern European country, I came out of lecturing on systematic theology, and went to my apartment flat. And as I went to close the door, two guys pushed the door open. And one guy hit me and they bound me with my hands tied behind my back and around my eyes and around my ankles and put a rag in my mouth to gag me. And they took everything from me and they kept shouting they are the mafia. And I was absolutely convinced that I was a dead man. In fact, I laid there and prayed and God was very gracious to me when I laid there by giving me promise after promise, which I didn’t initiate, but God put into my mind, that’s how I felt and all about the blood of Christ and how my salvation was secure and that blood and I was at peace for myself. I actually did not even pray that I would live. I just thought that was impossible. I was commending my children and my wife, various ministries to God. But in the middle of that, all of a sudden I thought, what would I say to my children? If I could speak to them one more time. Now, I have lots of shortcomings as a dad. And I wish I spent more time with my kids, all these things, of course. But I realized at that special moment in my life that if it weren’t for family worship, there’d be hundreds of things I would never have spoken to my kids about, but I couldn’t think of anything that I hadn’t spoken to them about already. Thanks to this holy book. Just take the book of Proverbs alone. It talks about every subject under the sun, all the temptations, all the joys, all the sorrows of life. Think of the Psalms. You end up talking with your children about all these things. So family worship is just a huge tool to help you live out your responsibility, to train your children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord in every way, shape, and form.
TB: It’s almost daunting though. Isn’t it? I mean, as a father, I think, okay; if I start the Family Worship Bible Guide tomorrow, that’s 1200 or so chapters to get through in the Bible.
TB: Yeah, well. I’m rounding up. So that’s three, four years of diligence. And in today’s world, that sounds like quite a long time. So what encouragement can you offer to families to heads of families?
JB: Well, once you get in a habit, once you do it for more than a month, it’ll become a routine. And then you don’t even think of those categories anymore. But I’ve done the math, and I’ve said that, if your child lives in your home for 20 years, from the time the baby is born to the time that 20-year old walks, you’ve got 7,300 opportunities to speak to your children in formal family worship day by day. And you’d think that’s a lot, but you blink a couple times and they’re gone. I mean, my wife and I are empty nesters now, but we’re so in the habit of doing family worship that we just continue to do family worship, just the two of us like normal. And we love it. And we ask ourselves the same questions still today. And it becomes just a holy habit. And you get used to it. We don’t want to rush through the Bible. You get used to taking 3, 4, 5 years to get through the Bible. I think sometimes it took us more than that, I’d say it probably took us five years. Because we talked our way slowly through it. And lots of times we didn’t read a whole chapter. Sometimes we just read 12, 15 verses, especially in Paul’s epistles, you know, they’re so weighty, there’s so much to talk about.
And so we went through, I guess we went through four times, maybe the whole Bible with our children, which if we rushed through it we could have gone through it 10 times, but I think it’s better to go slowly and meditatively and peripherally and talk more thoroughly than to try to read 30, 40 verses and skim over the surface. And the neat thing, the really great thing is when you, when it becomes a holy habit in your family and your children marry believers and they are believers, they don’t even think about, shall we do family worship or not because it’s been a holy habit in their family for 20 years. So they just automatically do it. I didn’t even have to ask my children, are you going to do family worship in your family?
That would be like asking them when you get married, “are you going to brush your teeth?” Well, of course they’re going to do it. So the question is what are we going to do it? And that’s what happens after you’ve done it for a month and you begin to feel the benefits of it. It’s no longer a question of how are we going to do it? The question then becomes, “Oh, God, help me to do this to the edification of my family, help me to do it well, let thy blessing be upon our meager efforts.” It’s not a matter of, just like on Sunday, it’s not a matter if you’re a Christian of, are we going to go to church? Are we not? Are we going to skip this Sunday? No, it’s a holy habit. So you go, you automatically go to the service. That’s not the point. The point is, Lord, will you bless me there? And will you help me to worship in spirit and truth there and bring the glory there? That’s the question.
TB: So it’s working through all the common obstacles. I’m tired. I’m just not feeling like it. We’re too busy, you know, dad’s gone. So we’ll skip it.
JB: Yeah. Dad’s gone. Mom does it, you know, it’s that simple and you just don’t skip it. Never. I don’t want to be mean or hard-nosed when I say this, but I think people who get in the habit of doing family worship, think to themselves, God is worthy of this. My conscience would speak like a megaphone if I didn’t do it. And so I like to tell people, just stop worrying about, am I going to skip it? I’m not going to. Just tell yourself, “I’m not going to skip it. I’m going to do it.” And discipline yourself. I mean, as Matthew Henry said, George Woodfield said something similar. It takes no uncommon ability to lead your family for 10 minutes in family worship with just an ordinary set of gifts. And now that you’ve got this Family Worship Bible Guide where the work is done for you, and all you’ve gotta do is read a bit, and then just generate a little discussion afterward. Oh, come on. You can do it. Man up, do it. You know, that’s what I want to say to people, especially to fathers: look at it this way. We tend to take every important thing in life for granted. We tend to take our spouses, granted our children for granted our parents for granted God, for granted.
And in one way, when you don’t do family worship, you are not only contradicting what the good book says in so many ways, in so many places, but you’re just taking God for granted. You mean you’re not even going to get down with your family and your knees for five, 10 minutes a day to acknowledge the God, to whom you owe everything? That seems pretty ungrateful to me. “As for me in my house, we will worship the Lord.” You know, Joshua said that when he was a hundred years old in his farewell address to Israel, and he was parting the scene, how did he know that the family was going to continue on and worship the Lord after he was gone? Well, because he set the pattern and they’re not going to drop that unless they’re blatant unbelievers.
Don’t make this a mountain above what you need to make it; take it seriously, implement it humbly, simply . . . but just do it. You can do it.
TB: So you talk about these three primary aspects of family worship that, at least the way you described in, the Family Worship Bible Guide, these are essentials. So to say it’s simply, there’s Word, prayer, music. Is that correct?
JB: Yes. And the Word is subdivided into two thoughts. Isn’t it? It’s the reading of the Word. And then the explaining of the Word. So it’s three parts, or you could call it four parts if you break the Word section into two sections.
TB: So can we talk a little bit about these three aspects? Because it seems like within each of them there are different dynamics going on amongst the members of the family who are present. Whereas at certain times you would have typically the father leading, for example, in explanation of what was being looked at that day, of what chapter was being gone through. However, when it comes to reading Scripture, you talk about introducing the children into that part of it, of course, according to their age and ability. And then when it comes to prayer, I assume that would be kind of the same thing where you allow other members of the family to participate?
JB: Yes, yes. That’s the way I did it. I mean, every father needs to find their own way there, from what I can read in the Puritans. Most of them, the father did pretty much all the praying, but I believe it’s very important that we train our children to pray, even though the Holy Spirit alone can teach them to truly pray. But as they grow up, and I’ve seen too many cases of people who haven’t prayed aloud until they get married and then the man feels very inadequate to pray. So the important thing is that the father is the head of the home and he leads the family worship. So typically I would say to my family, okay, tonight you’re reading 15 verses; tell them the verse. Everyone has a Bible on their lap. Some of them, we used to use different study notes, so we could ask each other what different notes say about a particular question and compare. But we would then each read three verses, beginning with so and so, and we go around the circle and then when we get done reading I would pray. And then we would read the Family Worship Bible Guide notes, and we discuss. When the kids were young, our discussion probably lasted three minutes. As you got a bit older, maybe five, maybe some times seven, but it’s unpredictable. Sometimes, maybe one child would stay after family worship was all over and talk with more questions. At other times the whole worship was maybe 10, 12 minutes. But after the discussion, then we would have prayer again. So most of the time I’d pray first, before I even read the Scriptures, actually.
So we bookend the family worship with prayer, but then I say to them, I said, Mary, Kelvin, Lidia, Esther, you know, whichever one’s turn it is, to close it prayer. So I found that quite helpful that I would set the tone with an opening prayer. And then one of them would close in prayer. Now what happened naturally, actually, my son was on my lap. I always took the little kids on my lap when I did family worship. Cause you want to look them eyeball to eyeball, you don’t want any distractions. And when Calvin was three years old, he’s our firstborn, he said to me, one day, dad, can I do the daddy’s prayer instead of just his form prayer? And I thought, Hmm, well, why not? So I said, okay, I’ll whisper some things into your ear. You say them, whisper a few more.
And we did that for a whole year when it was his turn to pray. And then when he was four, I said, okay, now you’re four. You’re learning to think better on your own. You start out the prayer. And when you’re stuck, you just kind of pat me with your elbow in my stomach and I’ll know you need some help and I’ll jump in. And we did that from four to seven. And then when he was seven years old, I said, okay, now you take the whole prayer. And looking back, I think, I think that was a wise thing to do because by the time they were about seven, I mean, I think, God bless us… They could handle a whole prayer on their own. I mean, once in a while you have to correct a little bit of misguided theology .
But by the time they’re seven, they were praying the whole prayer on their own. And if they had friends come over, one of our children was still a little reluctant to pray, being very, very natively shy, but the other two would pray very freely in front of their friends. And so that stigma of praying was gone. And then of course that’s not salvation. Your kids still need to be born again. Yeah. But we, we found that very helpful. And then after they pray, then we would always sing. and the beauty of singing, we would sing mostly Salters from our, from our Salter book, which has four 50 selections. When you’d do that every single day, it’s amazing how kids can memorize. And so most of the time when they were in their teen years, we didn’t even, none of us cracked open a book for the Salter.
We just, I would just start singing a certain tune and they’d all chip in or we’d say, oh, number so and so, and everybody would know what it was and we’d sing away, you know? And our daughter would move over to the piano. She was a really good piano player and play or we’d stand around her at the piano. Ah, it was great. That’s the one thing I miss about the kids not being home more than anything else; standing around that piano, singing praises to God. So those become happy times. They’re sober, but they’re sacred times. They’re conscious satisfying times and they are eternity preparing times.
TB: But what about families in which maybe there’s not so much musical ability?
JB: Oh, that’s me!
TB: Or I can imagine there are families who may come from different spheres of the Christian landscape, for example, who have no idea what the Psalter is, or they don’t use hymnals and their Christian song repertoire is quite limited. So, you know, do you have a volume two maybe with the Psalter included, or do you have some way to encourage those families?
JB: Yeah. Music, you can write heritagebooks.org, get the Psalter, or I think it’s $12 or something like that. It’s not very much, and you start singing it, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a little bit off-tune or not. I’m a terrible singer. At least everyone tells me that to me, I sound like I’m on tune, but nobody else thinks so. I mean, in family worship, our kids would sometimes joke with me. Dad, you were actually on tune there for about three notes in a row and they were all on tune. But they encourage me to sing. They say, we like to hear you sing, even if it’s off tune. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord.” It doesn’t say make a joyful noise to Lord on tune . But in heaven we’ll all be on tune. Right. So that’s a great thought for me. So yeah, I’m a terrible singer, but when our daughter got married, we missed not having the musical instrument there, but you could still sing acapella. It’s just fine.
TB: I’m really curious to know in your own experience, did this inclination, I would even call it an urgency, on your part towards family worship… Is this something that was built into you when you were young by your father, your mother; is this something that you came about through and was strengthened by your study of the Puritans? And the reason I ask this question is because it’s not common these days amongst most Christians, I would say. And so a lot of us are going to need to start from nothing.
JB: So yes, I didn’t start from nothing because my dad, you know, belonged to the Dutch tradition. So the Dutch tradition was this: you pray before the meal, and usually it’s not just a one minute prayer. Usually it’s a three- to four-minute prayer where you pray about a number of things. You start with the Acts formula: you adore God, you confess your sins, you thank the Lord. And then you supplicate; that would be typical. And my dad could pray really well. He’d often pray with tears streaming down his face. He’d pray very affectionately. And how many times I heard him pray, “Lord, we can’t miss any of our children in heaven; please, please save them all! Please save them all now!” Or he’d say, “Let our lives be nothing but preparations to meet our Maker and our Creator in the peace and in the righteousness of Christ.”
JB: I mean, he must have said that a thousand times. So there were memorable things that he would say in prayer that made deep impressions of I’m sure on all five of us siblings, but then at the end of the meal in the Dutch tradition, you always read a portion of Scripture. This is just standard for Reformed church members. They would all do that. And then you would pray again. And some dads would pray just “Our Father who is heaven” at the end, or they do it vice versa. They would have an opening, “Our Father, which art in heaven,” but then the end would be the more heartfelt prayer. But that’s it. And there’d be no talking about it. And there would be no sharing of the reading and no sharing of the prayer. Dad would just do everything. And so the kids would tune out very easily. And there’d be no singing, that’s the typical Dutch reformed background. So that’s what I grew up with, but my dad was a very godly man. So his prayers were very earnest. And so that meant a lot. But when I was three years old, when my son was three years old, then I got an assignment to speak on family worship in South Africa. That’s what changed my life. I spent the better part of a summer preparing for that address because I began to realize, as I read the old literature, wow, this was a much bigger deal in the 16th, 17th century than it is today. And I was so convicted by the time I had my notes prepared that I said to my wife, this is how we’re going to change our family worship.
So I brought in the singing and I brought in that speaking to the children, and the conversation and dialogue and the ketakeo as the Puritans called it, the Q&A where you’d ask each child one question according to their age range. And so then I went to South Africa and I spoke I think five times there. And the talk on family worship made far more impression than all the other four combined. And I went to my room right afterwards. I felt the Lord really helped me in a wonderful, unusually wonderful way. And I was very convicted of what I was saying. And I came back to the cafeteria where they were having lunch. Well, I went to my room and just prayed for a while that God would bless it. And I came back and when I got in there, it was like everybody was eating, but no one was saying a word.
It was quiet. You know what a cafeteria sounds like. So I asked the guy next to me. I said, what’s going on? He goes, well, the president of Potchefstroom University, a university of 20 thousand students, was asked to pray before the meal. And he just broke down and said, I’ve been guilty of not doing family worship. And he said, I want every minister in this conference, I want you to order this whole case of cassette tapes. I want you to order enough cassette tapes for every family in your church. And I want you to encourage family worship.
And apparently this man made so much impression with his prayer of confession that after he said, amen, nobody talked. They just were in awe. So there was a sense of the Lord’s convicting presence at that moment that I’ve seldom felt at a conference. Well, after the meal, this man came over to meet me. And he said I want you to promise me one thing. I want you to turn this talk into a book and tell people how to do it. You need to publish this. This is a missing art today, a missing spiritual discipline. I promised him on the spot that I would do that. So that’s actually how this book was born, Family Worship. So this book is the accompanying volume to the Family Worship Bible Guide, where a father can read through this in an hour and a half, maybe two hours max.
And it walks you through each part of family worship. It gives you 5, 10 different practical guides, how to do each part, and some of it is just my own suggestions, not as an authority over God’s word, but just to help you do it in a edifying way. And then I began to, when I had choice of subject, when I would go to different countries, I would speak on this a lot. And so I had something very special when I spoke at Piper conference too, about 10 years later to 1,800 ministers about family worship. John Piper actually wrote me a letter and said, I’ve heard you speak on family worship, but I want you to do it to ministers, because even ministers aren’t doing it. I want you to persuade them to go out and have their congregations do it.
And well I can easily honestly say that that talk I gave at that conference, God used, as far as I know, more than anything else I’ve ever done in my, in my entire life We had 500 copies of this book there. And after I talked, they were all gone. Within 20 minutes, people were reaching, grabbing 2, 3, 4 for their colleagues that weren’t there. And it was, it was amazing. And many of them were weeping during the talk. And I never did anything in my life where I honestly, where I got, anywhere close to that many letters afterwards, but the encouraging thing was they weren’t just letters. They were letters from people who said, I followed your guidelines. And my family worship time has been transformed. And I didn’t realize what I was missing, I just didn’t know about it.
And so that in turn encouraged me to speak more and more about it. So now I don’t know how many times I’ve spoken about it in different conferences, but well over 150 to 200 times. And I just feel like it’s a calling on me now to speak about it in many places around the world, because it’s such a blessing to families, and families just don’t realize how rich it is.
And you know, even talking to your children about the facts of life when they get to be, what, 10 or 11 years old or so, you want to beat the world, the friends, of course. And you want to be the first to tell them about it in a pure way. I was a little nervous the first time I talked to my son about that, but he wasn’t nervous, because, well, family worship. We speak about the most intimate experiences in family worship.
I tell them, if they come across a verse that was made precious to me, I tell them what condition I was in, how the Lord spoke that verse to me with power, and the most intimate, spiritual experiences. My kids know. And so to talk about intimate physical experiences was to my son, well, that was of a lesser lesser problem or a lesser intensity. So I said to him at the end of my talk, after I explained the facts of life, I said, “so if you have any other questions, just come to me anytime.” And he said, “No problem. What’s for supper.” You know, it was just very easy, but I thought it was going to be difficult, but I thought about it later. Why did it seem so easy? It’s because of family worship.
And then think about this. How many kids, when they become teenagers, tend to kind of clam up in front of their parents. Because you’re just talking about everyday things with your kids, not really about heart issues. But if you do family worship diligently every day, you’re talking about heart issues, you’re being very open. You’re being vulnerable. You confess some of your sins to your kids within reason. And so they’re not just going to turn you off when they’re 13, 14 years old because they’re used to talking to you about everything. So you just continue the dialogue. So I say family worship is like putting money in the bank for future years. For teen years as well. And it helps you in every area of family living.
A family that doesn’t pray together every day is like a house without a roof exposed to all the storms of heaven.
— Thomas Brooks
TB: But there are plenty of families who are going to see this or hear this—or I know a lot of those talks that you’ve given, you can find them online or on YouTube, which is great—but you know, some parents are going to listen to this and their kids are going to be 16, 17, about to leave for home for good. They haven’t done this at all. Maybe they’re newly come to the faith and there’s going to be a lot of conviction that, “why couldn’t I have started this when they were three years old?”
JB: So, yeah. And I answered that in some of my talks. I try to address that because I’m well aware of that. And I say to parents, don’t be discouraged. God restores the years that the locust have eaten. That’s one of my favorite texts to answer that. And so what happens, I say, what you need to do is you need to just go home. You need to get your kids around you and say children, I’ve got a confession to make. I didn’t know. I didn’t know. I heard a talk today about family worship or yesterday, whatever. And I didn’t know that I should be doing this. Or maybe you’ll have to say, I knew I should be doing it, but I’ve neglected it. But either way you confess your guilt to your kids. And then you say, “please help your dad begin this.”
I’m going to do it in a very simple way. I’m going to start out just doing it one or two minutes. We might build it up to 5 to 10, but every day we’re going to just say a little bit about the Lord. And then use this Family Worship Bible Guide. And if that 16-year old says, well, I’m not going to participate, you say, well, son, really, please, please, please cooperate with me. I feel very deeply about this and I’ve been neglectful and I want to make up for the time. And if he still grumbles, you’ll say son, you’re under our roof. And you receive physical food every day from your mother and me. And we feel called to give you spiritual food as well. And then if he still objects, you just say, I’m sorry but you will, you will participate. You’re in this household, and this is my calling. And so it’s your calling to join us and to receive spiritual food.
TB: So that’s how serious this is. Because I think I’ve heard, and you and I talked a little before this, about the fact that the Puritans would actually in some cases have church discipline initiated, if a family didn’t do family worship; is that true?
JB: Yeah, certain congregations. I don’t think it was the majority of the congregations. In the majority of the congregations, the elders would come over and visit the families. Often once a year, in the Dutch circles that always happened. They called it huisbezoek, “house visitation,” or we would say “family visitation.” Once a year, an elder in the minister or two elders would come over and see you and ask you how things are going spiritually, in your family. And they would talk to each family member, ask them how their souls are faring under the preached word and are they doing their daily devotions? And then they would look at you and say, “and how’s family worship going for you?” And if you were to say, “Oh, I have a confession make; I’m not doing it.” They would lovingly admonish you.
And then they would say, “Well, we’ll come by next year again. And if you’re not doing it, we’re going to have to warn you seriously.” Now some churches just stopped with that. Most of them, I think. But there were some churches that said, because you’re failing in the primary duty of fathering, if we come back next year and you don’t still have a track record of doing family worship, we’ll put you under what they call “quiet censor.” They wouldn’t excommunicate you for it, but they would “quiet censor,” which means that you would be forbidden from the use of the Sacraments. So you wouldn’t be able to attend the Lord’s Supper. But that was not common, but it was there. But you see the reason. The Puritans were very much oriented toward covenanting. It wasn’t just a covenant of works, covenant of redemption, covenant of grace in their theology. They also believed that marriage was a covenant. Malachi 2:14, “between husband and wife.” And they believed that you covenanted your whole life away to God who covenanted himself to you. And so as part of that covenanting concept you’d often sign a covenant to when you joined a church, that you would raise your children into the fear of the Lord and engage in family worship. That was part of the covenant you signed. So you knew it was your responsibility.
TB: So is family worship a sacrament?
JB: No, of course not. No, that’s not a sacrament.
TB: Well, the last question I have for you is this. If families were to start doing this across the board, in terms of the Christian landscape, what would be the results. On a family level, on a national level, even globally.
TB: Like what, what happens? We know it’s a good thing, but why; what occurs because of us committing to this and doing it consistently?
JB: Well, there’s lots of benefits from it, but you know, what the end result would be… I can’t say. Would the Lord bring in a worldwide revival? You know, the Lord alone knows because he’s sovereign and gracious. And I wouldn’t be surprised if that were to happen. If families were earnestly… I mean, it’s not just a matter of going through the perfunctory duties, but I mean, if families around the world, Christian families around the world where really engaging in family worship every day, the way Moses said, you should talk to your children diligently and with passion—wow. The world would certainly be a different place. There’d be a lot more godliness in the public sphere. There’d be a lot more courage of Christians to stand up for what’s right. There’d be a lot more genuine piety.
There’d be a lot more conversation between God’s people, talking about the ways of God. A lot of things like that, but there’d also be other benefits. I mentioned a couple of them, like freedom to talk to your children about anything in preparation for adulthood, children learning how to do family worship by watching their parents. And so they, from the get-go, when they get married, they set a spiritual tone to their family life. For you as a parent, you have a sense of peace of conscience. I mean, I have failed in so many things as a parent. You think of how many mistakes you make, as you know, you hold your head in shame and even in family worship, but still there’s a peace of conscience when you’ve brought your children up with family worship that you want to leave behind a legacy that can best be left behind by family worship.
One of my children went on a mission trip and there was a man who was a little bit nosy with that child and asked what it was like to live with me as his dad, as a pastor. And my son felt the question was kind of nosy. So he kind of avoided it, but the guy persisted three times, and finally my son looked at him and said, “Well look,” he said, “if you want to know the truth, my dad has his flaws and his faults, but I know he loves the Lord Jesus Christ. Cause I can feel it. Especially in family worship.” And the man, who probed, he came back to me and he confessed his guilt in trying to… He told me that story. My son didn’t tell me that, but this man told me that, that that’s what my son said.
JB: And it, it broke me. It broke me, actually I wept over it because I feel like I’ve come short in every area, also in family worship. So I want to just say a word of encouragement to anyone listening to this: don’t make this a mountain above what you need to make it; take it seriously, implement it humbly, simply, pour blessing over it, but just do it. You can do it. And yes, it’ll be with shortcomings. My wife and I get down on our knees—now of course our kids are all gone out of the home, but I don’t know how many times we pray this way at night when we go to bed—we get down on our knees together. She prays one night, I pray the next night and we would say, “Oh Lord, please bless our feeble efforts today in family worship, the eternal wellbeing of our children.”
JB: And you know, God has a way of exceeding what we do. He blesses it. He does abundantly, exceeding, abundantly above all that we can ask or think. And what a blessing it is when the children leave the house and continue to walk in the ways of the Lord. And you have to look at your wife and say, you know what? Our kids turned out better than we raised them. I mean, he’s gracious, right? And of course, God, sometimes in his sovereign deep ways, there’s a child here or a child there that doesn’t respond and it’s a cross, and it keeps parents on praying ground. But I would say even then keep pleading his covenant mercies. I had a niece who got saved about 10 years ago and she said, “When I got saved, all those family worships and church services and all the instruction, my parents gave me… it all came back to me like a flood, you know, and suddenly I could embrace it all?” So who can tell? God is a faithful, covenant God. And keep praying, come to him for forgiveness, begin family worship, look to him for blessing. It all depends on him and he’s gracious, but you use the means and you do what you’re called to do humbly, simply, faithfully, and leave the blessing to God.
TB: Thanks for this, Joel.
JB: Thank you.