Scripture Reading in a Night Refuge by Gustave Dore, 1872


My poor family endures my leading them in devotions


. This article originally appeared in the September, 1980, issue of Decision.



John W. Cowart

Family altar!

Once, the picture that sprang into my mind at those words was that of an Old Testament patriarch cutting a squirming goat on a pile of smoking stones while the patriarch's numerous offspring knelt in devout adoration like plaster shepherds in a nativity scene.

Now the words "family altar"  -- that’s a time of worship as a family in your own home --bring to mind a rich, warm, fun-filled, pleasant experience with my wife and children.

It wasn’t always like that at our house.

When we began a family altar, I expected my five children (then ages 2 months to 19 years) to be still and reverent.

Not a chance!

They wiggled, squirmed, kicked each other under the table, argued over who was to pray first, and acted like energetic, healthy children, I tried to force them into a reverent demeanor and only achieved sullen sulking. Perhaps children did not need the same kind of concentration that we adults need in order to absorb devotional material. When I realized that my stern insistence on silence created only tension and resentment, I relaxed letting them color and such during devotions. And amazingly they thrived in this more casual atmosphere.

Another feature I needed to back down on was strictly scheduling the time for our devotions. I thought that we should have them every night without fail. But one Saturday, Donald, aged 6, observed, "No use having prayer tonight. Jesus is probably watching the Muppet Show."

We skipped devotions to watch the Muppets.

Since then, if we happen to miss a night, it's no tragedy. The fact is that we have grown to enjoy our devotions so much that we hate to miss this time together. I view that as a mark of success, and here are some of the things that have contributed to that success:

First off, the only way to start family devotions is to start.

You can establish a tradition quickly.

For instance, if you watch one television program for three weeks and then try to switch to another channel the fourth week, your children will protest, "But we ALWAYS watch that program!" The same principle holds true for a family altar; it also quickly becomes a habit once you start. The best time for us is after supper before anyone leaves the table. Chose a time and start.

Every member of our family takes part, no one is strictly audience. Each of us has a turn picking a song, reading the Bible, holding the baby, or leading the prayers. Our toddler has the privileged responsibility of bringing the Bible from the desk to the table. The best remedy for boredom in devotions is active participation.

Variety is another key ingredient to successful family devotions. While the basic structure of our devotions remains consistent, we introduce many changes into that structure. Occasionally we walk to a nearby park after supper and hold our devotions seated on the grass.

Sometimes we use devotional time for a family conference where we discuss practical burning issues such as the conservation of toilet tissue, the cleaning of bedrooms and cost-of-living adjustments in allowances.

Occasionally we vary the format of our devotional time by having a question night. Each person answers three suitable Bible questions for the reward of a special dessert. The questions range from "Who built the Ark?" for our smallest child to "Explain the meaning of celebrating communion."

Sometimes we reverse roles, and each person gets to ask me questions. My most common answer is "I don't know." But question nights give all of us a chance to think, to express ourselves, to communicate.

Although this concept may offend devotional purists, at least once a month we have "Joke Night". After a brief prayer, each member of the family gets to tell three jokes. If nothing else, this practice teaches parents the virtue of patience. Eve, aged 4, has told "Why did the chicken cross the road?" 87 consecutive times. Laughter and joy belong at every family's table; fun makes the more serious elements of devotion even more special.

We have found that portions of Scripture filled with action are best suited to our needs. The secret of making children want to hear more is keeping the passage short.

Your family will read an amazing amount of Scripture if you consistently cover a short passage each night. We prefer to read all the way through complete books, but other families may like to skip around. Also we prefer to read from the Living Bible but learn our memory work from the King James Version.

Since we started devotions our entire family -- even Eve -- has more or less painlessly memorized the Lord's Prayer, the 23rd Psalm, and Psalm 100; now we are working on the Ten Commandments. Keep it fun and pressure-free, and do only a little at a time every night.

Our children consider singing the most important feature of our devotions. Every night each person gets to pick one song for all of us to sing. Although Virginia and I encourage the more "meaty" hymns, we sing Christmas carols all year long and Sunday School motion songs are also nightly fare.

Our prayers are complex and varied, but sometimes we fall into a rut. Recently I realized that we had been praying for a lot of sick friends when I asked Donald to pray for someone and he questioned, "Why pray for him? He's not sick." I don't want the kids to grow up thinking that you only pray when someone's sick, so we began emphasizing prayer for missions and thanksgiving.

I feel that it is important that each member of our family hear me pray for and give thanks for him or her by name. The only time I recall hearing my own father pray for me was the day I left home for college; that was a wonderful experience and I covet that same feeling for my children.

One recurring problem in our family prayers that we haven't decided what to do about revolves around -- "Lisa".

Lisa is the imaginary playmate of our four-year-old daughter. During prayer request time she solemnly informs us that we need to pray for "Lisa" because she's going into the hospital dying from cancer or she going to Africa as a missionary or she's pregnant! I'm not sure if praying for imaginary people is acceptable -- but we do it.

Come to think of it, I suspect a lot of the "real" troubles we all worry over in prayer aren't just as imaginary as Lisa.

Often appeals for donations and newsletters arrive in our mail from evangelical missionary organizations. When these come in, we read portions of them at devotions, pass the pictures around the table and use this matter as a springboard for discussion and prayer. then we post the brochures on the refrigerator door as a constant reminder to care.

For us a more successful missionary endeavor has involved trying to follow our Lord's instruction in Luke 14:12-14

"When thou makest a dinner or a supper, call not thy friends, nor thy brethren, neither thy kinsmen, nor thy rich neighbors... But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind".

We occasionally pick up hitchhikers, derelicts and others and invite them into our home for supper with us.

Because of this practice some great saints of God as well as some fascinating sinners have graced our table and joined in our devotions. Our visitors have enriched our meals, bringing us many blessings and opportunities for witness. Our children have not only met some truly magnificent saints who were in need, but have also seen the results of drug addiction and alcoholism firsthand at our own table. I hope they have also seen a small amount of the love of Christ lived as well as talked about in their own home.

According to the bumper sticker, "The family that prays together, stays together." Maybe so. But such a family also may have some real dog-and-cat fights at times.

Like all normal adults, my wife and I occasionally become angry with each other. It teaches me a tough lesson when I have to say, "Son, would you lead devotions tonight; I'm too mad to pray."

It's an experience in love to hear our little Jennifer pray, "Help mama and Daddy not to be so grumpy."

Such experiences humble us in our own home.

They should.

But while they  teach us humility, they also emphasize that Christ is in our everyday life and problems.

 Every devotional time we have -- whether praying for missions or enjoying Joke Night --   removes the concept of family altar away from a quaint old-fashioned practice and reinforces its practical value to our family as we  struggle to live as Christians in the modern world.

The above was a picture of our family altar back in 1980.

Now that all our children have grown and gone to establish homes of their own, Ginny and I still maintain the practice of family altar we started over 20 years ago. Now it’s not as elaborate as it used to be; it’s just a matter of Scripture reading and prayer for us after supper most evenings. Much calmer than when the children were home.

That’s ok.

But the prayer time I get the most out of, the one I look forward to, comes each morning before work.

Before we dress for the day, Ginny cuddles in my lap in an overstuffed chair, big enough to hold us both.. We pet and I hold her and stroke her hair. I give thanks for her and pray for her safety and for her to have as smooth a day as possible. We each pray silently as we kiss. It’s often the highpoint of a hectic day.

Sure beats cutting a goat open on a rock!

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