We don’t have little kids around here anymore. In fact, most of the time we now just have one kid around here, and she’s well beyond the little years. We’ve moved past parenting tiny children and into parenting young adults. Toilet training, bike-riding, and grade school drama have given way to navigating graduate programs, assessing romantic relationships, and even planning wedding ceremonies. Our family life has changed dramatically.
But one habit that has stuck is the habit of family devotions. Whenever two or more of us are under this roof, we stumble down to the living room first thing in the morning to read and to pray together. It’s a habit we developed when the kids were tiny, and it’s one that has endured through all the years, through all the change.
I was recently challenged with this question: What’s the point of family devotions? Though the question was asked in the abstract, I thought about it through the lens of my own experience. While I can’t speak to how it may function in someone else’s home, I can tell about the purpose it has served in ours. And maybe in its own way, that will prove helpful to someone.
Before I do that, though, I ought to be honest about a few things. We have never really attempted to do family devotions more than five days a week, so it’s not an every day habit. Sometimes when routines are disrupted we’ve neglected it for weeks at a time. The kids have often been far less than enthusiastic about participating (and sometimes the parents haven’t been a whole lot better). And we’ve rarely been successful at making devotions much more than simply reading and praying together. We have pretty much stuck with a simple formula of dad reading a passage, dad explaining that passage for a minute or two, then dad praying for the family. We’ve kept it consistent and consistently simple. So if I’ve got any authority or expertise to offer, it’s the kind that’s related to experience—to having done this thing many thousands of times.
So what’s the point of family devotions? I wonder if it would be helpful to first consider the purpose it hasn’t served in my family. Family devotions has not been a means through which we have obeyed a specific law or fulfilled an explicit command. There is no commandment in either the Old Testament or the New that tells Christian families they must spend time reading and praying together each day. So we haven’t prioritized it for that reason.
It also hasn’t served as the primary context in which we’ve discipled our children. It has been a context for discipleship, to be sure, but not the context. In fact, we’ve consistently found other avenues far more significant for discipleship purposes. Family devotions has often surfaced important subjects and generated key questions, but our kids’ most spiritually-significant moments have rarely come during devotions or even in a way that is related to devotions.
And then family devotions has not been a kind of panacea that delivers a joyful, loving, united family that is free from sin, strife, and relational discord. Devotions itself has sometimes devolved into sinful chaos when one person or another has been rude or grumpy or resentful.
So again, what is the point of family devotions? While we have appealed to our kids to take seriously their personal relationship with God and to build habits of personal devotion, we’ve also wanted to gather before God as a family, to hear the same words from God and to pray the same prayers to God. As time has gone on, as kids have begun to move on, this has come to mean more and more to me—the simple joy of relating to God as a family. When my older kids are away at college, I look forward to their return so they can once again plunk themselves onto the couch with us and join in to this simple but sweet time.
Another important purpose has been to display the importance of prioritizing God in life. There are many activities families can and will do together. But by establishing family devotions as a shared habit and by calling us to gather for it every weekday morning, we meant to show that time together with the Lord is a priority. We are modeling together the importance of deliberately relating to God. In fact, one of the reasons we prefer to do family devotions in the morning is that it makes our relationship with God our first priority. (Also, more practically, we found that as the kids got older, we could count on them being available in the mornings but not the evenings.)
A third purpose has been to slowly but deliberately drip the truth into our children’s minds and hearts. By reading and re-reading the Bible together, we have introduced them to its primary themes, its main characters, and its central truths. By explaining the Bible as we go, I’ve been able to teach them how to personally apply the Bible’s truths. We aren’t just reading history or poetry together, but hearing divine truths that are meant to change the way we think and the way we live. This “truth drip” has also ensured our children are consistently encountering the Bible in those times in which they neglected their personal devotions or stubbornly refused to build the habit altogether. It has ensured they are getting some Bible intake beyond Sunday services.
I suppose there are many other points and purposes I could list, but these are the ones that come to mind at this stage of life. While family devotions is nowhere explicitly commanded in Scripture, it is surely commendable as one way a family can pursue God together. I’ve often thought that it is one of those habits, one of those disciplines, that delivers more than the sum of its parts. Its simplicity belies its significance.