First Church

Not too long ago I became a Father. It’s one of those events in your life, like getting married, where you discover a new and unique type of love. The closest kind of love I can compare it to is The Father’s love for The Son and their love for us. Truly we are created in God’s own image! (Genesis 1:27) Long before my wife and I finally decided to start having children, we had been collecting books for them. We still have a rather long list. I pray that my children will love to read as much as I do. Even more, I pray that they will adore God’s word. I’ve got some Children’s Bibles in mind. Because there’s nothing like God-breathed scripture, one of the things I plan to do is purchase some large print ESV Bibles for them as well. Apart from church on Lord’s Day, when I was growing up we never had family worship time. At least we never had consistent daily family worship time. It’s something I’d like to change for my family. However, it can be difficult to get a clear picture of what fruitful family worship looks like. It’s apparent that in the past it wasn’t limited to just reading The Bible at bedtime. What about catechizing? I grew up in a evangelical Baptist church and thought catechisms were a Catholic thing. In my search for a solid guide I came upon exactly what I needed: Terry L. Johnson’s The Family Worship Book. This book is an excellent little toolkit to find out what family worship is, why you should get started and how you can order this essential part of life.

Life has changed in the past 150 years. Information is literally at our fingertips. In our commuter society you can drive to pretty much any flavor of church that suits your palate. We seem to be as busy as ever. Yet with all this progress can we seriously look at ourselves and say that we’re better off? If we’re honest, even with all of this technological advancement, we have to admit that we’re much worse off spiritually than a few generations past. What’s missing is the first church: the family. Even when it comes to the church church, what usually passes as worship is essentially entertainment. We pride ourselves in our modernity. We know better than people in past generations. Their ways are old-fashioned. However, our innovative ways mostly end up as ineffectual fads. Sadly, family worship has become one of the many casualties of postmodernism. There’s a program or group for everything. These do have their place. However, as the family is the first church, parents are commanded provide the primary spiritual training for their children. (Deuteronomy 6:6-7, Proverbs 22:6) Johnson lays out four keys, or ancient paths to a Christian family’s spiritual health.

1. The Family Pew

The first and primary key to spiritual health is to simply commit to the weekly public services of the church. This is the believer’s life-line where we are both purged and fed. It’s where the sacraments are given to us. Most of all, this is where we are ushered into the presence of Christ. (Matthew 18:20)

2. Sabbath Observance on The Lord’s Day

The Puritans referred to the Lord’s Day as the market day of the soul. Whereas six days a week you buy and sell for the sake of the body, on The Lord’s Day we are to trade in spiritual commodities for the sake of our souls. The idea is:

This Sabbath is then kept holy unto
the Lord, when men, after a due preparing
of their hearts, and ordering of
their common affairs beforehand, do
not only observe an holy rest, all the
day, from their own works, words,
and thoughts about their worldly employments,
and recreations, but also
are taken up the whole time in the
public and private exercises of His
worship, and in the duties of necessity
and mercy.
Ex. 20:8; Ex. 16:23, Ex. 16:25-26, Ex. 16:29-30; Ex. 31:15-17; Isa. 58:13; Neh. 13:15-19, Neh. 13:21-22; Isa. 58:13; Matt. 12:1-13.

What this means is that the whole week is planned in such a way that The Fourth Commandment casts its influence over the other days. Observing the Sabbath means observing the whole Sabbath. It also means no business, shopping, housework or recreation (e.g. ballgames). All secular business for the week is wrapped up by Saturday evening so that we can rest in The Lord from our worldly cares. Jesus said, The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. (Mark 2:27) It’s a gift from God. The Sabbath is guilt-free time for your soul, the family, and a sure day of the week for rest. Truly, God promises rich blessings for keeping the Lord’s Day holy.

3. Family Worship

This used to be of great importance for Christian families. Johnson explains the magnitude of this value in past generations and gives some interesting insight.

During the 19th century, as Sunday Schools began to be introduced in North America, resistance was encountered in a number of traditional Presbyterian churches. Their argument? That as the Sunday School was established, it would result in parental neglect of their responsibility for the spiritual training of their children. Were they right?

Today there is a proliferation of Christian meetings in the church. Small groups are the norm and in many churches there seems to be one for everything. While there’s nothing wrong meetings and small groups as such, Johnson makes the case that if the consequence is that daily family worship is neglected, then the net spiritual effect of those meetings has been negative. The truth is that each family has their own small group at home. While there may be great teachers at the church, none of them have the influence that a spouse and parent has. Certainly we should not neglect meeting in groups with the church. However, these should not supersede family worship. The family is the first church.

4. Catechism

This is an ancient practice going back all the way to the early church. Interestingly, it was actually revived in the 16th century by the Protestant Reformers so successfully that even the Roman Catholics began to mimic them! Sadly, today it’s being severely neglected. Many Christians see it as archaic and irrelevant. However, it’s a superb way to teach children sound Biblical theology. In 1646 the Westminster Assembly produced two catechisms, the Shorter for children, and the Larger for adults. For generations it’s been a tried and true method of religious instruction. At one time it was taken so seriously that children could actually be removed from parents who failed to catechize their children! Catechizing is a simple way to teach children rich theological, devotional, and practical content. It also helps exercise the memory and critical thinking skills. In this age of irrationalism and general mindlessness, children nurtured on the catechism will be made formidable theologians. Johnson explains:

Memorizing logical, structured, conceptual material like the Shorter Catechism actually contributes to mental development. J.S. Mill, no friend of orthodox Christianity, claimed in his famous essay, On Liberty, that the Scots had become mental philosophers of the first order through their study of the Bible and the Shorter Catechism. Douglas Kelly, noting the work of T.F. Torrance, states that children brought up on the Catechism have a greater capacity for conceptual thinking (as opposed to merely pictorial thinking) than those who have never memorized it. It provides matter (theological matter!) for building the mental framework within which rational thought can take place. While not superior to the memorization of Scripture, this does explain why the Catechisms are to be memorized alongside of Scripture.

… Let the educational fads come and go. Concentrate on a method that has stood the test of time.

Terry Johnson goes in to much more detail on the order for family worship. He also provides several other valuable family resources including a family Bible reading record, Catechism for Young Children, The Shorter Catechism, Bible passages for memorization and various historical resources. The book even contains a family Psalter/Hymnal. It’s remarkable how Johnson was able to compile such a comprehensive guide into such a small volume! With a good Bible and The Family Worship Book, one would certainly have the tools to do the best thing they could do for their family.