A Review of Donald Whitney’s “Family Worship” Jonathan Watson, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Christian Studies

February 24, 2016

The phrase “family worship” is a term that was unfamiliar to me until a few years ago. I grew up familiar with the term “corporate worship”—the gathering together of believers to study God’s word, celebrate the ordinances of the church, and sing praises unto God—but “family worship” was new. “Family worship” simply refers to the Christian practice of worshipping God together as a family within the home.

As a husband and father of three children (soon to be four), the phrase “family worship” holds practical significance for me as I seek to fulfill the biblical charge to love my wife sacrificially, washing her with the water of the word (Eph 5:26), and to bring my children up in the “discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). The manifold testimony of the Scriptures indicates that Christian parents should lead their families to study the Scriptures and worship God together daily (cf. Deut 6:4–7; Psa 78:5–8; 2 Tim 3:15). Further, dereliction in this duty has disastrous consequences (e.g., Judges 2:10). For these reasons, I hold the conviction that family worship is good and right. However, holding a conviction about the goodness of family worship is not the same as developing that discipline. A host of practical issues and obstacles must be navigated.

To the end of moving from conviction to practice, Donald Whitney, professor of biblical spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisvile, KY), has done the church an admirable service in his recently released book Family Worship. Writing with the perspective of 24 years of pastoral experience, Whitney laments,

I am persuaded from my own ministry experience in hundreds of churches that so little family worship regularly exists in Christian homes today, that even in most of our best churches, most of our best men do not even pray with their wives (and children if they have them) much less lead them in ten minutes or so of worship as a family (13; emphasis original).

Whitney argument is simple: “God deserves to be worshiped daily in our homes by our families” (15). He concedes that the notion of “family worship” as he is developing it is not directly commanded in the Scriptures, but he contends that it is clearly implied. For example, in Deuteronomy 6:4–7, we read,

[4] Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! [5] “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. [6] “These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. [7] You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up (Deut 6:4–7; emphasis added).

These verses command and describe a lifestyle of engagement and worship together as a family. Such a lifestyle as Whitney argues should involve the intentional worship of God within the home as a family. In fact, parents are commanded to write the words of this command “on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut 6:10).

Family Worship is a quick read at just under 60 pages (excluding the front and back matter). The book is divided into an introduction, five chapters, and a short discussion guide for small groups. In the first two chapters Whitney lays a biblical and historical foundation for the practice of family worship. In these chapters he succinctly surveys key biblical texts and highlights notable instances of family worship in the lives of men from John Chrysostom (c. A.D. 347–407) to D. A. Carson (1946–Present).

The biggest obstacle I have encountered in my years of attempting to lead family worship is the difficulty of developing a clear picture what family worship looks like. What elements should it include? How long should it be? When is a good time to schedule it? How do you adjust it for little ones? How do you keep it from being too formal?

In chapter 3 of his book, Whitney answers the most foundational of these practical questions: what elements should family worship include? His outline is simple:

  • Read
  • Pray[1]
  • Sing

While he notes other elements can be added (e.g., Scripture memory, catechism, etc.), he maintains that these three elements are the basic building blocks for family worship. In chapter 4 he offers a number of valuable insights for overcoming obstacles to family worship that various family situations may involve such as “What if the father is not a Christian?” “What if the children are very young?” “What if there is a wide range of ages among the children?” (among others).

In the final chapter, Whitney encourages the reader to take action. “Regardless of what anyone else does,” he writes, “let every husband, let every father, let every Christian challenged by these words commit himself to this: ‘As for me and my house, we will serve the LORD’ in family worship (Josh 24:15)” (67). This call to action is accompanied by several powerful biblical and historical examples of men who led their families well in this regard (the story of John G. Paton’s father is particularly moving; 60­–63).

Evaluation

Whitney’s book has much to commend it. Two major strengths should be noted. First, the foundational premise of the book is simple and compelling: “God deserves to be worshiped daily in our homes by our families” (15). In the book of Revelation we find “a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues” as well as angels and elders bowing on their faces before the throne of God in worship “saying . . . ‘blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen’” (Rev 7:12; emphasis added). Surely Whitney is correct that such worship is due our God not only in the future gathered around His throne with the saints but also in the present around our tables with our families.

Second, Whitney offers a straightforward, practical plan for starting the family worship. I suspect many readers will find the idea of family worship unfamiliar as I once did. Regardless of one’s previous exposure to the idea and practice of family worship, readers are likely to find Whitney’s approach readily applied to their own family situations.

Finally, the tone throughout the work is pastoral. Whitney seeks to shepherd his readers to see the value of family worship, and he attempts to identify potential pitfalls to implementing the practice. As a father who has struggled to implement family worship in my own home (with three children currently under the age of 7) I can testify that there are pitfalls (sometimes there are literally falls—as in, we are reading the Bible story and someone falls out of their chair at the table). However, Whitney offers profound insight for even the difficult situation of family worship with little ones. He writes,

Even if you have a child who is fifteen months old and doesn’t even know what you are saying, be assured that the child is learning. If we could put his or her infant thoughts into adult language, they might be something like this: I don’t know what it is we do here every night—Dad reads things I don’t understand from a big book, then everyone closes their eyes and talks, and after that everyone sings (I like that part)—but whatever it is, it must be important, because we do it every night. In other words, even when a child cannot grasp the content of what you read, pray, and sing, at the very least the child is beginning to learn that family worship is an important part of the rhythm of your day (54–55; emphasis original).

In the end, Family Worship is best thought of as a blueprint. The book is not a sourcebook for family worship. Rather, Whitney provides readers with a simple plan for implementing family worship in their homes.

On the merits of its profundity and brevity alone I believe that Family Worship is an book that should find wide readership within our churches. Readers from across the spectrum of life circumstances (married/non-married, children/no-children, young/old) interested in a brief introduction to the foundations, history, and practical considerations of family worship should take up and read this accessible and thoughtful little book. Whitney is right: “God deserves to be worshiped daily in our homes by our families.” May it be so.

For a video introduction to the book visit https://www.crossway.org/familyworship101/

Donald S. Whitney. Family Worship. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016. 79 pp. $7.99. Paperback.

[1]Whitney offers some helpful thoughts on letting the Scriptures read during the first part of family worship to inform the content of the prayer time. Readers should note that Crossway recently released another book by Whitney called “Praying the Bible,” in which he develops these thoughts further.

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