The Little Parish

Daniel R. Hyde
Thursday, May 3rd 2007
May/Jun 2005

"Therefore it is the duty of every father of a family to question and examine his children and servants at least once a week and to ascertain what they know of it, or are learning and, if they do not know it, to keep them faithfully at it." These were the words of Martin Luther to German Protestants in the Preface to his Large Catechism. The practice of families praying, reading, and discussing Scripture together is a holy exercise that God's people have performed since Old Testament times. It is also a practice that needs to be recovered in our day.

Many of us have been in a church environment that may have sung, "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord" (Josh. 24:15). Perhaps we even put these words on a nice plaque on our mantle, went to the annual family church retreat, and gave our kids their own "Student Bible." For the vast majority of American evangelicals this is what training our children in "the discipline and instruction of the Lord" (Eph. 6:4) has come to mean. But ask yourself, just how much "service" (that is, worship) does your house actually offer to the Lord as a family? With all our talk about focusing on the family, fathers rising up to become promise keepers, and the myriad of family night programs in our churches, it still remains true that many Christian families have no consistent time together in family prayer.

How Did We Get Here?

This problem of fathers not leading their families in prayer and study of the Word stems both from entertainment-driven and convenience-oriented priorities. Instead of praying with our children we give them Christian music; instead of helping our children memorize the truths of the faith we pop in a Christian video; instead of reading about the great deeds of God in Scripture, we buy them "witness wear."

American Protestants can go back 150 years to the mid-nineteenth century to get some perspective. The German Reformed theologian John Williamson Nevin identified two competing religious systems in America in his treatise The Anxious Bench. He did this in order to break Protestants out of their culturally conditioned Christianity and to bring them back to their historical and biblical roots. These two systems were the "system of the bench" and the "system of the catechism." The system of the bench was championed by the revivalist Charles Grandison Finney. One of his "new measures" to produce a deeper spirituality was the "anxious bench," upon which a person would sit and be worked upon by the preacher during a revival meeting. This system of the bench, according to Nevin, emphasized the individual, sought "conversions," and produced a mechanical view of conversion in which a person would "get saved" by walking the aisle and praying the prayer.

In our day this system is still alive and well in many of our Christian practices. Some of our assumptions about ministry, revival, and family life are directly linked to this system. We view ourselves as individuals in the church, have an individualistic piety, and are encouraged to practice individual Bible reading and prayer. If your idea of a family serving the Lord is participating in such spiritually necessary activities as Christian scouts on Mondays, youth group on Tuesdays, segregated men's and women's Bible studies on Wednesdays, a couple's study on Thursdays, family night on Fridays, and supplementing all of this by separate men's, women's, and youth retreats, then you are a product of the system of the bench. Sadly, though, you may not even realize it. Even worse is the fact that these are things that have been peddled to you as keys to spiritual growth.

On the other hand, the system of the catechism emphasized the corporate nature of Christianity, sought discipleship, produced heart-felt conversion through a genuine knowledge of one's guilt and God's grace, and led to the family pew in public worship, family piety, and family prayer. This system, anachronistically, was that on which Timothy was raised. Although he lived in a spiritually divided home (Acts 16:1; 2 Tim. 1:5) he was made wise for salvation (2 Tim. 3:15). The means? His believing mother and grandmother, Eunice and Lois, who lived godly lives before him (2 Tim. 3:14) and consistently catechized him, that is, instructed him in the faith: "from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings" (2 Tim. 3:15).

How Do We Begin Family Reformation?

In order to genuinely reform and revive the place of the Christian family as the primary place to instruct our children and model godliness, we need to return to the forgotten "program" of family prayer, which is simple, biblical, and time-honored.

This is the prescription because Christian families are families of the covenant. And since our children are born into Christian families and are members of the covenant family (the church), we as parents, especially fathers, are responsible to treat our children not as "vipers in diapers," but as children of the covenant. This means that we need to teach them the necessity of daily repentance from sin, belief in Jesus Christ alone for justification, and the call to discipleship in Christ.

The Pattern of Scripture

In moving from identifying the problem to implementing the prescription, we are aware that as Bible-believing Christians, we want our entire lives to be reformed by the Word, including our daily devotional activities.

In the Psalms we get a glimpse of the spiritual life of God's people. We see first of all that they prayed daily: "Every day I will bless you and praise your name forever and ever" (Ps. 145:2). These praises of the Lord were found upon the lips of the people of the Lord every morning: "O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you and watch" (Ps. 5:3). The covenant people also raised their voices in prayer in the evening: "I said, 'Let me remember my song in the night; let me meditate in my heart'" (Ps. 77:6). Other psalms bring these together and speak of praying to the Lord morning and evening: "But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night" (Ps. 1:2); "It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night" (Ps. 92:1-2). Other psalms speak of praising God three times a day (Ps. 55:17) and seven times a day (Ps. 119:164); at minimum, then, the people of God raised their voices to the God of heaven when the sun arose and when it went down.

In the Shema, the basic confession of faith of the Israelite church ("Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one" Deut. 6:4; esv), the Lord instructed his people to recite this faith and teach it to their children, "when you lie down, and when you rise" (Deut. 6:7).

We also see another aspect of daily worship in the public morning and evening sacrifices that were offered daily at the tabernacle and temple (e.g., Exod. 29:38-42, 30:7-8; Lev. 6:19; Num. 28:3, 6, 10, 15, 23, 24, 31, 29:6, 11, 16, 19, 22, 25, 28, 31, 34, 38). These sacrifices were interpreted as the "sacrifice of praise" (Ps. 50:14; Heb. 13:15; cf. Mal. 3:3-4; 1 Pet. 2:4-10). What is interesting is that just as circumcision, Passover, and the Sabbath of the Old Covenant were fulfilled in baptism, the Eucharist, and the Lord's Day in the New, respectively, so we are led by the New Testament to understand that the daily morning and evening sacrifices were fulfilled in the daily public and private prayers of the church. In the book of Acts we learn that the early church gathered at the temple and held public prayer services there as well as in their homes. In Acts 2:42 the members of the church "devoted themselves … to the prayers," as Luke uses the definite article "the" before "prayers" to speak of specific, set prayers which were said at the temple. Then in Acts 2:46 we learn that the believers also gathered and prayed in the privacy of their homes (cf. Acts 1:14, 4:23-31, 12:12-17). This is also shown in Paul's words about prayer. When Paul says, for example, to "pray without ceasing"/"continually" (1 Thess. 5:17; cf. Eph. 6:18; Heb. 13:15; Rom. 12:12; 1 Tim. 5:5) he is speaking in an Old Testament way. The daily morning and evening sacrifices mentioned above were called the tamid offering, that is, the "regular"/"continual" offerings. This is brought out in the King James/English Standard translations of 2 Timothy 1:3: "I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day" (2 Tim. 1:3; cf. Rom. 1:9-10; 1 Cor. 1:4; Eph. 5:20; Phil. 1:4, 4:4-6; Col. 1:3; 1 Thess. 1:2-3, 2:13, 3:6, 10; 2 Thess. 1:3, 11, 2:13; Philem. 4). What this means is that Paul is telling us to offer up the "sacrifice of praise" (Heb. 13:15), as Israel, in the morning and evening.

This practice of daily prayer is also witnessed in the practice of the ancient church (ca. 100-500) with what was later called matins and vespers, "morning" prayers and "evening" prayers. Church fathers such as Clement of Alexandria, John Chrysostom, and Tertullian of Carthage speak of families praying and singing Psalms at meals together.

Unfortunately daily prayer devolved in the medieval period of the church into a practice only done by monks, the "professionals." Thankfully, the practice was restored to the people during the Reformation in such places as Strasbourg, Geneva, and throughout England. In places such as the Netherlands, this was not feasible as the Reformed Christians were sorely persecuted and had no cathedrals nor chapels in which to meet. By the end of 16th century, the daily prayer services shifted from corporate services to family prayer in the home. Thus, the 1566 Psalter of Petrus Dathenus contained several prayers including both "Prayer Before Meals," and "Thanksgiving After Meals," as well as "Morning Prayer" and "Evening Prayer." This practice of daily family prayer was a staple of the Puritans, who understood the references in the New Testament to "house churches" (e.g., Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15) as family prayers and who spoke in the Westminster Confession of Faith of prayer "in private families daily" (21:6).

Getting Family Prayer Started

So how do we apply this biblical and historical practice to our families? The first thing to do to get family prayer started is to make a commitment to start. As a family, discuss some of the Scriptures above or some of the resources to follow.

Second, be consistent. It has been said that "repetition is the mother of skills," as regularity develops ability. Set a consistent time, place, and pattern of family prayer. Also, don't give up when you miss one (and you will miss). If you are able to sit down for breakfast and dinner, do it then as it is a built-in time when all family members are available. If you can gather only in the evenings, it is better to do it once a day consistently than not to do it at all.

Third, keep family prayer simple. It doesn't have to be elaborate or difficult. A simple outline like this is a good place to start:

[Meal, if at breakfast/dinner]
Scripture Reading
Discussion/Instruction (i.e., Catechism)

Let me say a few words about each of these "elements" of family prayer. In singing together, begin with songs you know and are familiar with. As time goes by, begin to emphasize the singing of the Psalms. Why the Psalms? Because they are God's Word. Singing God's Word is yet another way to learn what the Word teaches. And when we sing the Psalms we are singing what have been called "an epitome of the whole Scriptures" (St. Athanasius), "a compendium of all theology" (St. Basil), and "a little Bible" (Luther). The Psalms also unite us to our covenantal past in Israel as they have been the praise book of the covenant people of God for 3,000 years. They also speak of the breadth of Christian experience. As Calvin said, "I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, 'An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;' for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror."

In reading the Word of God with your family, a good rule of thumb is to read the New Testament in the mornings, especially emphasizing the Gospels. Read as much as one chapter, but adapt the length to the age(s) and knowledge of your family members. In the evenings the great stories of the Old Testament or even a Psalm per night are wonderful ways to end the day.

After reading the Word, discuss what it says by asking questions. This is what is called "catechism." It is an ancient method of education by asking the student questions which they are expected to answer. It is a word and concept used in Scripture (cf. Luke 1:4; Acts 18:25; Rom. 2:18; Gal. 6:6). In Exodus (12:26, -27, 13:8, 14) and Deuteronomy (6:20-25) we read of the questions and answers surrounding the Passover and redemption from Egypt. In Deuteronomy 6:1-9 Moses commanded Israelite parents to catechize their families. This practice continued into the New Covenant church and is the reason for Paul's exhortation to fathers (Eph. 6:4; cf. Prov. 3:11-12). This time of catechism is also a great time to learn, review, and apply the basic foundational tenets of the Word. Learn as a family the Lord's Prayer, then the Apostles' Creed, then the Ten Commandments, and then begin to delve deeper by memorizing and discussing one of the great Protestant catechisms such as the Heidelberg Catechism or Westminster Shorter Catechism (Reformed), Luther's Small Catechism (Lutheran), or The Catechism (Anglican).

In doing this the head of the household always should be prepared. Plan the order of prayer, text selection, questions to ask children, and points of discussion; and have ways of applying what is discussed. Even if you haven't prepared, it is better to "let the show go on" than to have no show at all. Also remember to be clear in what you ask and say. Every person in your family has a different capacity to learn, depending on age, grade, and development. This is no time to pull out Berkhof or Pieper or Hodge! Let this also be a time of participation, by asking for questions, prayer requests, and song selection. And remember, be joyful! You've been forgiven, and the amazing grace of Christianity is a drama, not a boring monologue.

Finally, a word about prayer. In singing the Psalms your family will learn how to pray. You may also follow the famous acronym ACTS as a useful guide for prayer: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. Also, praying the Lord's Prayer together at the end is a great way to learn this prayer as well as to summarize all that you have prayed for.


It's been said that the family that prays together stays together. This may or may not be true. What we do know, though, is that we are to pray; parents, especially fathers, are to lead their children in prayer and instruction; and this is a biblical and venerable practice we need to revive. In a time in which soccer moms and dads do their utmost to train their children to participate in sports, play music, and engage in other important activities, we as parents need to learn to train our children to pray. After all, prayer and worship is the only thing we get to do for eternity.

1 [ Back ] For more information or other resources on the subject of family prayer, Rev. Hyde suggests consulting the following: Robbie Castleman, Parenting in the Pew (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993); Marva Dawn, Is It a Lost Cause?: Having the Heart of God for the Church's Children (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997); Terry Johnson, The Family Worship Book (Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publications, 1998); and Donald Van Dyken, Rediscovering Catechism (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2000).

Rev. Hyde's research on the church fathers Clement of Alexandria, John Chrysostom, and Tertullian of Carthage is taken from Matthew Henry, Works, pp. 704ff, and Heinrich Bullinger, Decades, V, pp. 198-201. Petrus Dathenus's prayers may be found in the 1959 and 1976 editions of the "blue" Psalter Hymnal (Grand Rapids: Christian Reformed Church). The quotation from John Calvin is from Commentary on the Book of Psalms: Volume First, ed. The Calvin Translation Society, trans. by James Anderson (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), p. xxxvii.
Thursday, May 3rd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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