As I said in Part 1 of this post, the discipline of family devotions can be a hit-or-miss, or even flat-out neglected part of our family life because it mystifies us—we don’t know exactly what it is, or should look like—or because the ideal we have created in our head is simply unattainable. So we don’t try.
The aim of the next two posts is to bring family devotions back down to the level of real life, where so many variables are at play, wrecking our routines. With God’s help, it is possible to break through those variables and keep them going by simply exercising a kind of “flexible faithfulness” and working diligently with the time God has given you on any given night.
As an aside, one of our biggest (and most pleasant) surprises has been the enthusiasm our kids have shown toward family devotions. Since it has become such a mainstay, they count on it. They ask when we are going to do it. They enjoy it. We consider it a great mercy of God that the kids are actually asking us to do it, especially on those nights when we are extra, extra tired.
So at the risk of being cliché, here are five out of ten things I want to encourage you to keep in mind as you embark on a more consistent and meaningful family devotions time in your home:
Find a window of time that is most predictable in your home for family devotions. For us, it’s between 7 and 8pm — after dinner and bath time, and right before the kids go to bed. For families where a parent(s) may work second shift, that golden hour may be 10am, and so on. When you do family devotions is the least important thing, as long as you find a time that is relatively predictable for everyone in your household.
Don’t demand their undivided attention. “What??” you say? Yes. While we would all prefer that our kids make eye contact with us and nod in agreement at the things we say in family devotions, we have to realize that toddlers and school-age kids are quite adept at listening and even retaining information while being busy with their hands.
I use the word “demand” very intentionally here. Make no mistake, we should “request” their undivided attention. But most “demands” we make point to an idol in our heart. The idol of feeling entitled to respect can cause us to make harsh, angry demands that exasperate our kids, which can turn them away from us, and from enjoying family devotions. We must lead in such away that fosters a climate of healthy, glad respect and submission from our kids during these and all other occasions, with very reasonable expectations of what they can do.
Biblical truths—and a real sense of God’s greatness—can be communicated to kids while Legos are being built, cars vroomed and dolls stroked. While I encourage the kids to pay attention, I only pause to give correction when their voices or their activities escalate to a level that makes them a distraction to their siblings.
If a child persists in distracting behaviors during family devotions, whisper gently to them 1 on 1 as you are tucking them in bed that you want them to do better next time, or there will be consequences. I have found that these gentle yet firm reminders in private are more successful than spewing harsh public demands.
If you do nothing else, pray. Some nights, if it is well past the kids’ bedtime, I simply say that I am going to pray before I tuck everyone in bed. Family prayer is such a precious time. A parent’s simple prayer can give children a sense of God’s magnificence and “declare His mighty acts” like nothing else.
Pray prayers that exalt God above all things. Thank Him for being in control of clouds and bugs and runny noses and flowers and ponies and bunnies and planets and trees and elephants. Earnestly ask Him for help with small things and big things. Thank Him for loving the world so much that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him will not die, but will live forever and ever and ever. Tell Him you love Him, and thank Him for loving us first. Thank Him for a cool (or warm) and dry place to sleep, and for soft beds and blankets and pillows. Thank Him for being the giver of every good thing. Thank Him for His promise to never leave us or forsake us.
If you only pray, you have left them with a keener sense of God’s greatness than they had before, and therefore you have blessed them greatly.
Share prayer requests, majoring on thankfulness. So many passages in the Bible make a heart of thankfulness one of the hallmarks of a true believer. So to cultivate the habit of having a thankful heart, we ask each child to share something he or she is thankful for, in addition to sharing prayer needs. We have done this ever since they were able to talk, and sometimes the comments have been quite humorous. But hearing a toddler express things for which she is thankful is a rare and precious gift.
We also have the kids share prayer needs, or requests. I have found that once a prayer request is introduced to young kids, it sticks like glue. For example, we support two missionary families in Turkey. And every night for the past several months, the kids have prayed for this family without any prompting from us. What a marvel that night after night, this family has been lifted up by a 4, 6 and 9-year old with astounding consistency — more than any adult (including me) could ever hope to maintain.
Give everyone the opportunity to pray. Some believe that, because young children who have not expressed belief in Jesus are unregenerate, their prayers are null and void and there is no value in having them pray. But I would callon John Piper to refute this notion better than I could ever say it:
“I think we should teach our children to pray as soon as they can say anything. The first words they should say are, “Dear Jesus, thank you.” … practically, it seems right to put the vocabulary of prayer into a child’s mouth from the very beginning. That way, when his faith is born, he has a whole vocabulary, orientation, and habit that the Lord can use … Build the disciplines of the Christian life into your children from the beginning, all the while praying that they are going to grow up and mean what they say.”
— excerpt of John Piper: Should children be taught to pray even if they haven’t professed faith?
Some of the first prayers of a toddler are as simple as “Dear God, thank you…” and that is OK. I am simply exhilarated as I hear the words of our kids today, who have been praying since age 1. Their prayers are an ongoing source of encouragement to us. When we hear them break out of learned, routine word patterns and express unprompted, spontaneous words of thanksgiving and praise to God, I get a joyful sense that God is indeed answering my never-ending prayer to help them finally “mean what they say.”
My next post will give five more tips for your own family devotions.