Podcast: How to Do Family Worship During the Holidays (Don Whitney)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Creating a Family Practice of Worship

In this episode, Don Whitney, author of Family Worship discusses how to help your family not lose sight of God and the gospel during the holidays. He explains why it's worth it to prioritize family worship with your loved ones (whether or not you have kids), shares practical steps for actually doing it even when the kids are little and won't sit still, and offers advice and encouragement for single moms or women whose husbands aren't Christians.

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Family Worship

Donald S. Whitney

This short book offers parents practical guidance for leading their families in daily worship of God through reading Scripture, praying together, and singing songs. Includes an accessible discussion guide to use with the whole family.

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Full Transcript

01:24 - Welcome

Matt Tully
Don, thank you so much for joining us today on The Crossway Podcast.

Don Whitney
Glad to be with you, Matt.

01:30 - Christmas Traditions

Matt Tully
Thanksgiving is now officially behind us and the Christmas season is here in full swing. I think many of us recognize that this season is a great opportunity to refocus our hearts and our minds on what God has done for us in Christ in this amazing event two thousand years ago when God took on human flesh. What are some of the traditions that you have developed in your family over the years aimed at helping you focus on the real reason for the season?

Don Whitney
Nothing that I think would be new or exceptional for your listeners. I mean we have the same stresses and busy schedule—we are extremely busy—at the end of the year that your listeners would have. So I guess I might disappoint you there in one sense. It’s pretty ordinary.

We do try to have family devotions using resources that focus on the birth of Jesus during at least part of the month. We read the Christmas story from Luke 2 on Christmas morning. We have biblically related Christmas decorations and manger scenes and so forth around the house and explain them on repeated occasions to the grandchildren, and did so to our daughter when she was young. So I feel pretty ordinary as far as that goes, and you probably could get better success with someone who has spent a lot more time and writing on this than I have.

03:16 - Keeping It Simple

Matt Tully
Especially in special times of year like the Christmas season, we can sometimes feel a little bit of pressure to do something more significant or more extravagant; but it sounds like you’re saying you guys have just sort of done the simple, basic stuff and that’s kind of been your model.

Don Whitney
Yeah, Matt. For this time of year, with the once-a-year office parties, class parties, school parties—a number of things that happen just once a year—you add those into your schedule. It’s a big victory for us if we do at least one thing that’s focused in the right way at that time of year, one thing beyond the ordinary, because we’re fighting to keep our heads above water, by and large, just with regular life. And so the intentionality to say, Hey, we’re going to try to do one thing that’s really going to make sure Christ is at the center of this. I think that would be a victory for most people—I know it is for us.

Matt Tully
It is interesting how sometimes we have these grand intentions and we try to do too much, when really we’d have more success if we just made it simpler than that.

Don Whitney
I mean, as a goal we’re gonna do at least one thing. And you can always add to that. It’s like a Bible reading plan at the beginning of the year—which I practice and I endorse—where you have a Bible reading plan that’s so unrealistic for most people and never gives them a day off. You get sick, the kids get sick, things happen, you get a day or two behind and you just throw the whole thing out the window and say, It’s impossible. I’ll never get caught up.

So I advocate Bible reading plans that have a little bit of flex in them, a little bit of extra day or two in the month. Same with Christmas. If you can accomplish one significant thing that’s out of the ordinary and then build on top of that if you have time, that’s the best plan for us. I mean, kudos to the family who can rearrange their whole schedule and devote several things every day for the entire month to prepare for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. That’s terrific. And I’m sure there are families out there that do that. But this is not a time in life for us when that seems to be possible. And so one small victory is progress.

05:57 - Where to Begin

Matt Tully

If there’s a family listening right now and they would like to do something different this holiday season and not be carried away by the busyness and stress of the season, and want to do that one thing, what would be one practical suggestion for what that could be?

Don Whitney
I’d suggest that it be to begin family worship, if they haven’t done that, because that’s a practice that can not only benefit this holiday season, but for the rest of their lives something that they they can continue. So by that I mean the intentionality of reading the Bible, praying together, and, if possible, singing. This is a great time of year because even the younger kids know the Christmas carols. So to read a section of the Bible, pray together, and sing a Christmas carol—that would be a terrific way to start, and then that momentum could easily carry on into the rest of the next year and the rest of their lives.

And I would suggest that people not lock themselves into only those evenings when they can do it before bedtime. That may be the ideal time most of the time, but as I’ve already noted we’re all so busy. I mean, in our family we have to have family worship sometimes in the van on the way to an event. Maybe you have it at noon that day because of things going on in the evening. Flexibility is something that needs to be emphasized. But if people would just spend ten minutes or less, no preparation, just break out the Bible—pick up where you finished reading last night—and read a section of the Bible, pray together, and sing together, it would be a huge victory and momentum would be started that could carry over into the next year and the rest of their lives.

07:51 - Fighting Materialism

Matt Tully

I think one of the things that many of us feel in our own hearts—and if we have kids it’s also a very acute feeling—is that, as we’ve already discussed, the Christmas season can be so stressful, so busy, and for kids it can be so easy—well, actually if we’re being honest probably for all of us—it can be so easy to get focused on the material things that surround us. It’s such a materialistic holiday in our culture in so many ways. So thinking specifically about that issue, what have you found are some effective ways to sort of combat that and keep our hearts more aware of the great spiritual blessing that Christmas is actually all about?

Don Whitney
One might be setting a budget so that you don’t get too focused on just more and more and more and more, but you have limits and discuss these things in advance. We’re gonna spend this much on this person, this much on this person. Of course, that’s that’s an external thing. But nevertheless, I’ve found that it can help.

Also to make sure to prioritize the church events that are going on, because they’re designed to be aimed at a spiritual emphasis. And so don’t neglect those. For some they find that a specific service project at that time of the year that’s unusual, it helps them to prioritize serving others and meeting spiritual needs and physical needs and not being into just materialistic things and especially receiving, but also for giving to others.

Without some sort of self accountability—Matt, I’m speaking personally here—it’s hard for me to do those things that I’ve just suggested. It seems to be the swirl of activities that just gets bigger and bigger like a hurricane. And so if I have something—I can journal, some sort of to-do list—where I keep before me the reminder and put it on a calendar to plan something in advance, to be intentional. Maybe right after hearing this podcast would be a time to do that, before the hurricane hits. And before the unexpected, the unanticipated parties and gatherings, and responsibilities, and the forgotten Christmas presents we have to go get, before all those things come crashing in on our lives—to have the intentionality to say, I want to do this and I’m making a plan to do it on this day. So that it doesn’t get forgotten, overlooked, or just crowded out.

10:32 - A Mistake Families Make

Matt Tully
So then taking a step back a little bit to the idea of family worship more generally, you’ve kind of hit on this already but I think many of us—and I can speak for myself on this—we might feel unsure at times about what that should actually look like, what it could actually be like in our family especially if we’ve never really attempted it before. Or maybe we’ve tried to do some kind of regular family worship in the past and it just hasn’t gone over well with somebody, whether a spouse or child, or maybe it’s just sort of fizzled out after a few days. In your experience, what is the biggest mistake that Christian couples and families make when it comes to how they think about or even attempt family worship?

Don Whitney
I think pretty much every family feels like a failure when it comes to family worship. Either they failed in being consistent, or they failed in the quality of it, or they failed in the fruitfulness of it. I mean it’s even worse in a personal devotional life. I don’t know that many people who feel like they’re really nailing it in their personal devotion life. They think, I guess something’s wrong with me. It should be more exhilarating than this on a more consistent basis. Well, that’s even multiplied when it comes to family worship. It’s very simple. It’s got to be simple if we’re going to be consistent with it. And I would argue that those three elements are just three syllables: read, pray, sing.

Read the Bible. Regardless of how much or how little we’re talking about, that’s the heart of it. You read the Bible.

You pray together. And that might be just the husband or father praying, it might be him designating someone else to pray, it could be everybody prays. There’s many, many ways that prayer could be a part of this.

You read, you pray, and then I would advocate—I think I can defend biblically—the idea of singing. And that can be as simple as the doxology, the first verse of a hymn, just a chorus; but singing together.

And the whole things taking ten minutes or less on average. You can always extend the time if some people have questions, if there’s something you really want to share. And I would remind listeners too that we’re talking about no preparation. Some people get the idea that you have to prepare some sort of devotional for family worship and they say, Number one, I don’t have the time to do that. Number two, if I did I wouldn’t know how to do that. Matt, I’ve never prepared. Sometimes there are things I’ve read somewhere I want to share with the family. We we often use a devotional book like Spurgeon’s *Morning and Evening", or the annotated Psalter that Crossway puts out—the ESV Devotional Psalter—that’s a great resource for this. But I just read the Bible, pray, we sing—no preparation—maybe ten minutes, maybe even less if you have very, very small children. And that’s it.

13:44 - Benefits

Matt Tully
One thing that could be going through someone’s mind is just that that does sound simple. It sounds in some ways low prep, like you’ve said, but what kind of difference has that made in your family’s life? You’ve been doing this for a long time. Speak to the profound benefits of something that seems so simple on its face.

Don Whitney
Well, this will also draw me into expectations. In my little book on family worship—in fact, we just reprinted it and added four pages and a photograph that contains the story I’m about to tell. When my daughter graduated from a little classical Christian school high school, the tradition they enjoy there is the parents give the diploma to their child who is graduating and say a few words of encouragement. And the graduate says some words of thanks to the parents and so forth.

Well my daughter had thanked my wife very profusely and then she turned to me and she began first of all by talking about what family worship had meant to her. But she never got more than a couple of sentences into it before she broke down and began to cry. And I know what she was going to say because these were prepared remarks and she gave me a copy and gave me permission to use them. Now when I say that she began to cry, I mean she wept harder than I’d seen her since she was a preschooler. She fell on my shoulder and someone took a picture of it and it’s my favorite picture of us together, and it’s in the back of the book. She was sobbing on my shoulder, just trying to explain what family worship had meant to her.

Now Matt, before anyone gets a wrong impression, in the thousands of nights that led up to that photograph, not one time—not one time—would I have walked away from family worship saying, Oh, the Spirit of God came in great power on our home tonight. His presence was atmospheric in our home. No. That never once happened. Almost every time I walked away thinking, Was that a total waste of time? Did anything good come out of that? Why are we doing this? I felt that way nearly every night. And that’s how I think most couples and families feel with family worship. There is very little perceived value. There’s very little observed fruit in the moment. Because families are going to do what families do in the family room, whether you’re watching television or you’re having family worship. Three-year-old is going to roll around on the floor when you’re trying to be very serious there’s going to be a burst of uncontrollable laughter, the family pet is going to come in and barf on the carpet. Real life is going to happen right in the middle a family worship. And then when you’re done they explode away from the scene and you think, Did that accomplish anything? But Matt, the Bible says that we’re growing oaks of righteousness. And you don’t grow an oak by an occasional spectacular exposure to the elements. You grow an oak by a consistent exposure to the right elements and changes occur imperceptibly over long periods of time. But that’s how an oak is grown. And in the same way with family worship you rarely see any kind of measurable progress, but the word does its work. You expose your family consistently to the right elements that glorify Christ and magnify the gospel, and the word of God does its work. Now that’s no guarantee all your children will be converted and turn out well. But these are the elements God is pleased to use when he wants to transform a life and bring someone to himself.

17:42 - Letting Go of Expectations

Matt Tully
I wonder if something that many of us struggle with is—we probably will never say it explicitly—maybe almost a pressure that we have to do the work in our kids or in our spouse. That we are responsible to sort of create this change, this spiritual growth that maybe we’re aiming for. And it sounds like you’re kind of pushing back against that and just saying, Let’s put ourselves in the path of God’s word and God’s grace and he’s gonna do the work.

Don Whitney
Exactly. I mean, what parent doesn’t feel like a failure? What parent doesn’t feel like that even when they’re trying to teach their children to say thank you. How many hundreds, thousands of times do you have to say to them, Say thank you. Say thank you. Say thank you. And you think, Are they ever gonna get it? And then some day at church you know one of the greeters hands them a piece of candy and they look up and say, Thank you. And you go, It took! They finally got it! But the night before it would have looked like they had not made a bit of progress. Finally the penny falls, but until that point you say, I’m a failure. I cannot get them to remember to say thank you.*

So every parent feels like a failure and that’s gonna be multiplied when it comes to spiritual things. They’re gonna feel ill-equipped, they’re going to feel like a failure in their own right spiritually by and large, and much less equipped to bring up children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. But we trust the Lord to do his work through his means of grace. And in the home it’s the word of God.

19:30 - For the Couple without Kids

Matt Tully
What could family worship look like for the couple that doesn’t have kids, for whatever reason that might be?

Don Whitney
Yeah, I’m glad you brought that up because the stereotype of family worship is a couple with two or three small children in the home. And indeed, it’s right to think about that. That needs to be an emphasis at that point in life. But there are a couple of passages in the New Testament that refer to husbands, and not fathers. “Husbands, love your wives,” for example. And then a few verses later it’s going to say, “Fathers, don’t exasperate your children.” And over in 1 Peter 3:7 it says, "Husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way." And it goes on saying that if you don’t, your prayers will not be answered. And “the prayers” there, I didn’t know until a few years ago, are referring to mutual prayers. Peter assumed that Christian couples pray together. And so he’s saying, if you don’t treat your wife right, when you guys pray together God’s not going to hear it. And so my point there is while some passages speaking about spiritual life in the home refer to fathers, at least a couple of them refer to husbands.

And therefore, family worship is for couples whether they have children in the home or not. And that means newlyweds, that means couples who don’t yet have children, that means empty nesters. That means as long as the couple is together, family worship should be a part of that.

So you know, it’s awkward if you’re just now beginning family worship and it’s just the two of you and especially you try to sing and one or both of you doesn’t feel like you can sing very well. You know, we may do that. It’s kind of awkward. We made the transition to being empty nesters and it’s very different family worship in that scenario. But you know, there’s no situation that millions of Christian couples haven’t faced and conquered over the years. We all want to say, Well, my situation is unique. I work nights, my wife works days, we have a wide range of age among kids, we have so many kids, or we have no kids. Everybody thinks, Well, our situation is unique. We can’t do this. Well, where there’s a will, there’s a way. And throughout history Christian couples have successfully navigated every scenario anyone can imagine.

22:00 - Advice for Single Moms or Wives to Unwilling Husbands

Matt Tully
On that front, I think it can be easy for us to have this ideal picture of what family worship looks like in our minds, but it is just that. It’s this ideal, and the reality of our lives is often quite different and it often feels more challenging than that. So one example: Scripture, as you’ve alluded to, paints this picture of men leading their families spiritually; and yet there’s likely some women listening right now who would love to see their husbands lead their family in that way, but they either aren’t Christians—their husbands—or for whatever reason they’re not willing to lead in the way that Scripture would seem to prescribe. Or maybe they’re single moms and they aren’t married. What advice would you offer to women in that situation?

Don Whitney
In the case where the mom is the one who is a Christian and/or she is the one who is more spiritually mature, I found that many men—even those who are unconverted—are very happy to at least participate in family worship, at least read the Bible to the family. They only had to be asked. And so I would encourage the Christian moms to, in the right spirit, to ask if they would join in family worship, if they would read the Bible in family worship. And the mom can say, Well, I’ll take care of the rest. A lot of men, whether they’re Christian or not, feel the need for the family to get together more. And if the rest of the family comes up with a solution to this problem, he’s often very happy to go along. Now there are some cases in which the men won’t participate under any circumstances. In that situation the mom should initiate and lead family worship, being very careful to do so in a way that doesn’t turn the children against their father or cause any resentment there. And the same is true when is no husband in the home. The responsibility falls to the mom to bring the children up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. I would encourage those moms to make them like a Lois and Eunice, the mother and grandmother of Timothy who were credited with transmitting the knowledge of the Scriptures to Timothy, who became a great hero in the faith.

24:26 - Advice for Parents of Young Kids

Matt Tully
What about families with really young children? You kind of mentioned that as a common scenario for us. I know that’s my situation—three young kids at home—what does it look like to do family worship when the kids will hardly sit still for more than two minutes?

Don Whitney
You emphasize discipline and patience and you proceed. The discipline is something like, Look, sit here by mom. You sit here on this rug. And the patience is you proceed with family worship when they don’t. And I understand that’s most of the time. We have a three-year-old grandson who’s often in our home and we have family worship when he’s here. And for him to be still for two seconds is almost impossible. So that’s the way it is. Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child. We understand that’s the way they are. But first of all, let me talk about my granddaughter, who’s a year old. Well, if we just start family worship in her presence, then that’s a year too late. We need to be doing it from the beginning so that their earliest impressions visually are of the family worship. So let’s say you have a fifteen-month-old who doesn’t even know what you’re saying in family worship. If we could put their thoughts into adult language it might look something like this: You know I don’t know what we do here every night. Dad/Granddad reads from this leather-bound book and then they close their eyes and bow their heads and talk. I have no idea what they’re doing there. And they sing. I like that part. I have no idea what we do here every night, but it must be really important because we do it every night.

So they’re learning that, even if they don’t know what you’re saying, family worship is important in this family. This is a part of who we are. And you realize you’ve reached the threshold when maybe some night they’re three years old and you think, We’re not going to do family worship tonight. I think everyone’s too tired. Which usually means I’m too tired. And so you just don’t say anything about it. Things go on, you’re getting ready for bed, and your three-year-old runs up with the Bible and says, Daddy, Bible? And you realize they didn’t forget. Well, even though this arrow of conviction comes into your heart, that’s a great victory, Matt, because you’ve established the routine and your children realize This is who we are. This is what we do. Now, they don’t understand the motivation yet. But nevertheless they have realized this is a part of the fabric of this family. So you’ve succeeded. You’ve taught them that this is a priority. This family centers itself around God and his word and they’re beginning to pick up on that. So that’s why you proceed even when you know they’re not understanding what you’re saying because they’re still learning. And the younger they are, the more you’re going to think of a very short period of time. You’re going to use narrative passages of the Bible. You’re going to want to use children’s resources—Crossway has a number of great children’s resources with Bible stories and so forth that you can use at that early age. And then as they get older you set a goal of reading the whole New Testament, eventually the whole Bible. But you meet them where they are in terms of understanding. So you start with those narratives of the Bible and get some helps.

27:48 - Is It Too Late?

Matt Tully
So what would you say to the person listening right now, whether they’re a parent or not, who knows that he or she hasn’t done a great job consistently prioritizing family worship and maybe their kids are five or six or fifteen, or maybe they’ve been married for a number of years now and this has not been a priority for them. They hear what you’re saying right now and just feel discouraged. Just feel like, Man, I am already so far behind. I haven’t made this into something that kind of centers our family and that everyone is expecting. And they just kind of feel like, What could I do now? It’s too late. What would you say to them?

Don Whitney
Proverbs says, The righteous man falls seven times and rises again. And so this is the pattern of the Christian life. We fall, we repent, we get up, we start over. And so that’s a very common scenario. And the difficulty is that first step, especially for a man, because to say to the family what you just said is an open admission that somehow I have failed. I have been wrong. And that’s the hardest thing for a man to ever own up to. But you know he says, Look, I’ve just realized that this is what we need to be doing as a family. I know I failed before but I want to try to do the right thing. Will you help me? And especially I think the spouse will be thrilled to hear that. The children might not be so much if they’re older, but nevertheless this is the way forward. And we do what we can. There may be consequences in terms of the children accepting that or not, but we move forward. And let’s take another step, Matt. Let’s talk about the empty nester who says, You know, here I am at fifty-five—I’m sixty years old—where was this when my children were young? What can I do now that I’ve totally blown it? No. First of all, just between husband and wife you start where you are now. And second, you’re a parent all your life. You’re an example all your life. And so when you’re able to say to your adult children, You know what? I’ve just learned about family worship and this is what mom and I do together every night. I should have been doing this when you guys were at home, but I didn’t know about it then. I failed then. Please forgive me. But I want you to know we’ve started now and this is what you ought to be doing in your home with our grandchildren. And we’re going to do this when our grandchildren are in our home. And so you’re still an example. You’re an example to your adult children saying, We still learn the things of God. We haven’t outgrown learning from the Bible. We are still an example of repentance and what that looks like, and so we’re still an example to you. And so you pick up where you are and you move forward, even though there may have been years where there were failure. But the Lord is able to restore what the locusts have eaten, the Bible says.

31:12 - 3 Practical Steps

Matt Tully
That’s such an encouraging reminder that God can use us and will use our faithful obedience even when it comes late. So what would be then three practical next steps for someone listening to us right now who wants to get started with family worship today and not miss the opportunity to see their family grow spiritually, especially as we enter into this holiday Christmas season? What would be three practical next steps?

Don Whitney
Three. OK, well I’ve already said long ago and then we’ve unpacked it: begin family worship. Just whenever you can do it during the day. The more consistent the time the better. But you read, pray, sing. Maybe it’s less than ten minutes, no preparation. Start there. And in your own devotional life, which again most people feel like failures there, but something that you do there that feeds these things. Maybe you use a journal where you just write down—maybe it’s just your regular to-do list—you say, Tonight. You put it on the list, you put it on the calendar: Tonight 8:00: family worship.

32:27 - Closing

Matt Tully
Well, Don, thank you so much for taking some time to share from your own experiences and your own wisdom related to leading your family in worship on a regular basis, especially in the holiday seasons.

Don Whitney
Matt, it’s always good to talk with you. It’s an honor to be on the podcast. Thanks a lot.

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