What’s the purpose of family devotions? Probably no habit or discipline is so lauded, recommended, or even commanded among Christian families than this. But what’s the point of it? What is it meant to accomplish? Over many years of leading family devotions, I have been surprised to learn that it’s both more and less than I had expected.
As Aileen and I began building the habit of family devotions, first as something that followed dinner and later as something that preceded breakfast, we assumed that family devotions would primarily be a means through which we would teach our children the Bible. When they were young we would focus on its stories and, as they grew older, we would focus on its doctrines. And, indeed, that is exactly what we have done. Where we first concentrated on the great characters and events of biblical narrative, we later adjusted our focus to Proverbs and epistles and living out the Christian life. This has, I think, proven beneficial, especially when we supplemented with helpful resources like Big Beliefs or Training Hearts, Teaching Minds. And while such things are undoubtedly impossible to accurately qualify or quantify, I’m not convinced this has proven to be the greatest benefit of all. Family devotions has proven to offer far more than the mere acquisition of knowledge.
So where else have seen benefits, and perhaps unexpected benefits? For one, we’ve found family devotions is a crucial means of declaring our family’s priorities. By turning to Word and prayer together every day (or most days, at least), we’ve modelled the centrality of these practices in the Christian life. Our children may not see how Aileen and I emphasize personal devotions each day (since I do these before they awake and Aileen does them after they leave for school), but by gathering the family for shared devotions we display the priority and necessity of hearing from God and speaking to God. And I think we also declare something about our priorities when we show that we are unintimidated to miss a day here and there as circumstances dictate—we show that devotions are not the means through which we gain the favor of God but through which we grow in relationship with the God who has already extended his favor to us. We combat the notion that God’s opinion of us ebbs and flows with the quality and consistency of our devotions.
These daily times together have also proven an important means of building closeness within our family. There are all kinds of things we can do to build relationships between the five of us. We have long since seen that shared experiences ultimately mean far more than accumulating possessions. While we continue to exchange gifts on the appropriate days, such gifts are almost always soon forgotten. But memories of vacations and occasions and other special times and events linger. Our devotions call us to a family experience each day. And while few of them are remarkable on their own, it is their gradual accumulation that adds up to something special. Eventually family devotions is viewed as more than a brief time each day but something closer to a single, enduring shared experience. Looking back, it seems more like one big thing than several thousand smaller things. And it’s one of those things—those shaping things—that we’ve shared together.
And then there is the benefit of building a habit that adds structure and stability to the family’s shared life. As we have emphasized family devotions, we have found it becomes a kind of organizing structure to the life we share together. For the eighteen or twenty years our children share this home with us, this event will continue to call us all to be in the same space at the same time for the same purpose every day—to be together with the Lord for at least a while. It is the kind of habit, perhaps like eating together and attending church together, that anchors a family. Nowhere else do I feel my son’s absence (at college) than I do when I see his empty chair at 6:55 in the morning.
Then, finally, there is this: Through family devotions we model personal devotions, for the two closely resemble one another. By relating to the Lord as a family, we teach how to relate to him as individuals. All the kids need to do to build a habit of private devotion is to begin to imitate and individualize this habit of family devotion. We have modeled how to pray and what to pray for; we have modeled how to understand the Bible and how to properly apply it. This has not been taught by lessons or seminars but by long example.
There have been many times over the years when I’ve felt like our habit of family devotions has been trite or simplistic. Though I’ve never been tempted to give up, I’ve often been tempted to add complexity, to measure success by how much knowledge our children have gained by it. But looking back on nearly twenty years of doing this together, I see there are many wonderful benefits to be had through faithful simplicity. Though our children have learned a lot, I’m increasingly convinced that some of the best and most important lessons go beyond characters, stories, and doctrines. There isn’t a singular purpose to family devotions, but a whole network that intertwine and that together add up to something far greater than the sum of its parts.