John Newton’s Advice on Family Worship

I occasionally pick up Letters of John Newton and remind myself how much wisdom is contained therein. In the 1960 Banner edition, letter XV is entitled ‘Family Worship’ where he addresses a question that appears to have been asked regarding the specifics of how, what, where, and when.

What I love is Newton’s realism – he recognises, presumably from his own ministry, the realities of life. He is initially reluctant to lay down much at all in the way of prescription. He says the following:

“The circumstances of families are so various, that no determinate rules can be laid down, nor has the word of God prescribed any; because, being of universal obligation, it is wisely and graciously accommodated to suit the different situations of his people. You must, therefore, as to circumstantials, judge for yourself. You will do well to pursue such a method as you shall find most convenient to yourself and family, without scrupulously binding yourself, when the Scripture has left you free.”

Everyone’s family life and routine is different. So don’t play comparison games, and don’t beat yourself up if it’s a struggle at the moment. For us, there are times when someone is elsewhere, or sick, or tired, or grumpy, and we miss. There are other times when, mid-prayer, one child omits an astonishingly long and loud flatus with all effort causing everyone to descend into laughter with family Bible time blown (literally) to smithereens. Life happens. Think direction of travel rather than arrival at perfection.

None of us are perfect. But we can keep encouraging one another in our humble efforts.

Having been reluctant to lay down specifics, he does suggest (most of) the following things, which I’ve paraphrased and expanded upon.

  • Do it often – daily if possible
  • Keep it brief (Newton: “If you read and sing, as well as pray, care should be taken that the combined services do not run into an inconvenient length”).
  • Keep it simple – Newton advocates using simple prayers of thanks for the day past or prayer for the day ahead. Nothing too long or grand. Simple prayers that all can follow and understand.
  • Do what you can – read a bit of the Bible, pray, and use music if you like (Here’s Newton again: “sing a hymn or psalm at discretion; provided there are some persons in the family who have enough of a musical ear and voice to conduct the singing in a tolerable manner; otherwise it may be better omitted.”) So maybe don’t sing!!
  • Use resources if it helps (“Helps may be procured” where there is a lack of confidence to do your own thing – either in reading or prayer). There’s loads of great resources available. We’re currently using David Helm’s Big Beliefs. It’s short and consists of a Bible reading and short devotion. Our kids are at an age where they can read either, and often argue about who gets to read, which we’re not going to discourage 😉
  • Music can help. Newton advocates singing a hymn or psalm. In our day you may enjoy putting on some favourite music – use YouTube or Spotify or whatever medium you like really. Our kids love taking turns to choose their favourite church songs for us to listen to. We often do this just after dinner using a smartphone and YouTube to find songs.
  • Keep it enjoyable. (“the great evil to be dreaded and guarded against in this exercise of every duty that returns frequently upon us is formality”). I don’t know if Newton would put it quite like this, but keep it fresh, change it up, try different things, see what works.
  • Find the time that works. Newton cautions against times that are busy or inconvenient, where it may be easily interrupted or children are too tired or distracted to participate. For us that means tea time generally works better than breakfast due to the madness of the school rush. That’s just us. You may be different.
  • Here’s one more, which Newton doesn’t mention, but I’m sure would agree with. Don’t feel guilty. If you struggle with this, or miss days, don’t beat yourself up with legalistic guilt. Get back on the horse and give it another go. I suspect most of our kids, in the long run, won’t remember the times we missed. They’ll more likely carry a general impression that as a family we read and prayed together. And that taught them that our faith isn’t just a Sunday formality, but something that affects everyday. And however failing and faltering we may be, that would be a good thing, right?
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