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Family Devotions in the Life of the Church
At the 2017 General Synod Meeting, Rev. Matt Miller gave his testimony regarding “Family Worship.” A motion was made following the talk that it be transcribed and distributed to ministers and churches. Accordingly, it has been made available to us in print and it is now being distributed to ministers and churches by email, ARP News Update and upon request from Central Services.
It’s my privilege this morning to give a quick testimony about family worship, about family devotions, in the life of the church. I’d like to thank Moderator Lee Shelnutt for this invitation and opportunity.
It’s been said that the goal of all theological thinking is to distinguish without separating, and to unite without confounding. You can think of how that played out in 451 A.D. in the Council of Chalcedon—to distinguish the human and divine natures of Christ without separating them; to see his two natures united in his one person without being confounded. You can think of how that has played out in the last 500 years in the relationship between justification and sanctification—to distinguish them without separating them, lest it be thought you could be justified without in any way being sanctified; but also to avoid the Roman error of uniting them to the point of confounding them, so that justification becomes sanctification, and sanctification becomes justification.
You can think of how this is at the root of all ancient heresies, and even of the heresies of modern Western thought—you can think of the separation of faith and science, not just distinct but now entirely separated. Or the modern way of uniting to the point of confounding—male and female, now seen by our culture as interchangeable. A goal in all theological thinking, though, is to distinguish without separating and to unite without confounding.
I think this holds true not only in theological thinking but in Christian praxis as well. And if there’s one place where we desperately need to distinguish without separating, and to unite without confounding, it’s in the relationship between the church and the home.
Here we’ve experienced over the last century or more a distinction that has strayed into a complete separation, and this has played out even in our history of our governing documents, as you saw in the report of the Committee on Worship’s report that was submitted and you approved. It tells the story of how the Westminster divines gave us not only a “Directory of Public Worship” but also a “Directory of Private and Family Worship.” But over the centuries and especially about a hundred years ago, that “Directory of Family Worship” began to lose a place of privilege, and then lose its place altogether in our governing documents. And so you have approved a recommendation that the Moderator appoint a committee to retrieve or compose anew a “Directory of Private and Family Worship.”
This distinction of church and home straying into a separation describes the common practice in modern youth ministry, which says, “Leave the spiritual care of your children and youth to us, the professionals. You parents can bring your children and drop them off and let the professionals take care of them for you. You just outsource this task to the church.” And so we’ve built the big youth buildings, we’ve invested in the fancy vans, we’ve made it a lot fun. But the data is now coming back and the data is not encouraging—this separation of the church from the home, and of the home from the church, has resulted in losing a generation. In fact, the data shows that there is no correlation between a young person’s involvement in a youth group and whether he or she continues to walk with the Lord into adulthood.
When I became the pastor of Greenville ARP in 2008 we had a graying congregation, but we had some new young people who had joined the congregation just before I came. There were about 8 people in the Young Adults Class, and just a few children coming forward during the children’s sermon. And by the grace of God, that began to change over the years. That Young Adults Class grew from eight to more than sixty now, and we started a second Young Adults Class because the first one was, well, no longer truly young! And today we have 97 non-communicant covenant children on our role. And nearly all of them are truly involved in the life and ministry of the church.
So in 2013 our Session embarked on a journey of asking a question, and that one big question was, “How can we better transmit the faith to the next generation?” We began this journey knowing from this data, and from much of our own experience, that the old way (which is historically quite a ‘new way’) of outsourcing the transmission of the faith to “the professionals” simply wasn’t working.
That journey led us to Dr. Timothy Paul Jones, a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, who has been at the forefront of helping the church and the home remain distinct but no longer be separated, and to be united without being confounded. And we, as a Session, read his book, which I commend to you: Family Ministry Field Guide (2011, coauthored with Mark Devries). And then we engaged him in some consulting.
Dr. Jones came down from Louisville and spent a weekend with our church training us in how to have family devotions—or, as he put it, “faith talks.” And before he did that, he conducted a survey of our parents and of our families to find out how many of our families were doing family devotions, how frequently they were doing them. And of those that weren’t, what were their big impediments, what were their barriers that they had to overcome to begin this practice. So when he arrived he had a thirty-page report that was tailor-made for our church.
When we finished our time with Dr. Jones, we had three big realizations, or steps, that we realized we needed to take going forward to help our parents, most of whom – and here I include myself – did not grow up with family devotions. Such a lost practice! So we identified three big steps we needed to take to help our families at Greenville ARP.
The first realization was that if we wanted to help our families be able to take this step toward establishing family devotions, we had to deal with a big problem of ‘busyness’ in our church. Our families were simply overcommitted. Mealtimes weren’t happening anymore. And so we recognized that we needed to clear the ground first.
So we did a sermon series called “Rhythms of Rest” in 2013 that culminated in a weekend retreat at Bonclarken where that was the main theme. We talked about day and night, six days of work and Sabbath, and the need to regain margin in our lives. We needed to say to a dad, a mom, to a whole family, “If you are too busy, if you are doing so many things that you do not have time for personal and family devotions, you can be sure of one thing: you are doing more than God has called you to do. Because God would never call you to do so many things that you would be left with no time to spend with Him personally and as a family.” So we began with teaching to try to clear the ground.
The second step was realizing the parents’ sense of inadequacy, and trying to meet that with resourcing. We gave to every family a book called Long Story Short: Ten-Minute Devotions to Draw Your Family to God (2010), by Marty Machowski. The book literally provides ten-minute family devotions that can be done, just following the script. Then we gathered the husbands and fathers together once a month at a man’s home for what we called “Husbands and Fathers Night.” And we made sure that “Husbands and Fathers Night” did not begin until the father had helped put the kids down, so that mom didn’t resent “Husbands and Fathers Night”! So we said, “Arrive between 8:15 and 8:45. Whenever you put the kids down, come right after that.” And once a month we’d ask together, “How’s it going in this attempt to lead devotions in your home?” And it led to some wonderful conversations.
After doing that book, this last year we’ve been walking through Jeff Kingswood’s From the Mouths of Little Ones: A Study in the Catechism (for Very Little People) (2008). That’s a book walking children through the catechism, and once a week one of our staff members, Derek Wells, composed a weekly e-blast to all our families setting up the chapters and devotions for each week, and just encouraging them to press on in this good work of leading their families in regular family devotions.
We sought to meet the problem of inadequacy with resourcing and with structure that actually brings the fathers together for accountability.
The third problem, though – which really was a big one – was simply the problem of intimidation. Many of our parents, having never grown up with this, were as intimidated about gathering their families together for a devotion as if you were to say to them, “Come up here and address the whole court of the General Synod!” And we wondered, “What do we do about this?” Because for a while we had D-Groups on every Sunday night – when parents would come and drop their 6th-12th grade kids off at 6PM, the young people would have two hours for dinner and teaching that was age-specific and gender-specific. Parents would pick them up at 8 o’clock. The first thing that we did after Timothy Paul Jones came was to start setting aside one Sunday evening a month to not have D-Groups and encourage parents to lead a devotion in their home that night.
What we found was that once per month we weren’t having D-Groups, and only maybe a handful of parents were having family devotions in their home that night. So what do we do? We’re providing them the time. We’re giving them the resources. What’s the problem?
The problem was that sense of intimidation. So our own Derek Wells was talking to Marty Machowski on the phone and Marty Machowski said, “You just gotta kick that door down and here’s the way to do it.” So, instead of having once a month that we’d let the kids be home on Sunday evening with their families, we said, “You parents come here for Sunday evening with your family. Park your car, and all of you come in.” And so what we do is have a time of teaching, talk about how to have a family devotion, talk about some of the things that are barriers, and then say, “Now, for the next twenty minutes, parents take your kids and go find a classroom, go find a spot in the church, and go do a family devotion together. This is what you’re going to study, then you’re going to pray, and then you’re going to come back and we’ll talk about how it went together.”
So we actually had, in a sense, to force them to do it. They were willing to go along with that and we’ve seen tremendous fruit from that. As they began to practice family devotions in the church, they could then take it home, having gotten over that sense of intimidation to do it there.
These have been some significant steps we’ve taken at Greenville ARP that have been very exciting and really helpful. We have a long way to go—this is a long process of moving toward what we call a “Family Equipping Ministry” model for the children’s and youth ministry at Greenville ARP. We’re beginning to see some fruit, most of it is like the mustard seed growing into the tree, we won’t see the full fruit of it for a long time to come.
But here’s what my prayer has been, and I think a lot of the church shares this prayer. From our group of children and youth, I’d love to see at least one pastor, at least one missionary, and at least one bona fide theologian come from this group who go on to serve the Lord Jesus Christ in these significant ways. But most of all – truly most of all – what I’m hoping is that we see a generation of young men and women, many of whom, maybe most of whom, are called into marriage and into the sacred task of childrearing, who will recognize that this seemingly small, seemingly insignificant task is actually a huge calling on their lives. And my prayer is that they will be practicing family devotions in their home, singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs in their homes and in their hearts, and when their kids ask them, “Why do we do this?” they will say, “Well, because the Scriptures say that we are to bring you to the Lord, and worship him together, and . . . it’s what my mom and dad did with me. “ That’s our #1 goal.
And maybe also that we’d have a pastor who comes out of this group of young people, and not only in his preaching and in his teaching and in his ministry to the church is he talking about how we grow up in Christ, but he’s also modeling it in his home as the kids see the symmetry there between church and home, as they experience the two being distinct, but not separated.
And maybe there will be a missionary who goes on the field and not only preaches the Gospel but also teaches another nation how to raise up their children in the Lord, that one generation might recount the deeds of the LORD to the next generation.
And also there might be a theologian that comes out of the group who says, “We do family ministry in our home because it’s about distinguishing without separating, and about uniting without confounding.”