Family devotions are times “when family members come together for spiritual encouragement.” Patrick Kavanaugh, now retired director of the Christian Performing Arts Fellowship made this observation nearly 15 years ago in a little book titled Raising Children to Adore God. I encountered the book in 2007, just after our second daughter was born. Around that time, I also began my first full-time ministry job—working with kids. As a young dad and minister, Kavanaugh captured my imagination. He compared having family devotions to sitting down for a meal. Here’s what he wrote:
Obviously, a family meal is a time when the members of a given family eat together. Notice the many thousands of possible variations in a family meal. To begin with, the food will presumably vary day to day. The meal may be a massive Thanksgiving feast or it may be a quick bite. Someone in the family may not be present. At other times, friends or relatives may join in. Still other times will find a family at a restaurant or relaxing around a campfire. The only two factors that a family meal must contain are: (1) members of a family and (2) food. Everything else is quite flexible. So it is with a family devotional.
Kavanaugh’s parallel of eating together with practicing family worship rings true to me. I’d say the analogy is distinctly biblical. God wants us to nourish our faith just as we nourish our bodies. When God rescued Israel from Egypt, he gave them laws, ceremonies, and sacrifices to help them remember his great rescue. At the heart of this instruction was a meal.
When you read Exodus 12:26-27, it’s clear God expected families to recline around the Passover table together. The kids are there asking, “What is the lamb for, daddy? Why are we eating these bitter herbs and matzo?” God tells the Hebrew moms and dads to stand ready with the salvation tale on their lips (Exod. 12:27). This connection between physical and spiritual nourishment doesn’t end with the Passover festival. It’s likely Moses had in mind reclining to eat a meal when he told Israelite parents to teach while the family sat together at home (Deut. 6:7).
Family devotions are times when family members come together for spiritual encouragement.
But it wasn’t merely the truth of Kavanaugh’s analogy that captured me. The image of family worship times as “devotional meals” is also incredibly practical. It helps me remember the importance of teaching my kids, and at the same time, maintaining realistic expectations. Here’s what I mean.
- Our families need regular spiritual meals. We all need to eat. If we’re going to feed our kids’ souls as well as their bodies, we must make regular times of family teaching a priority. This will look different in each family, because family schedules are as different as the families who set them. Some parents will pray and read the Bible with their kids each night. Others will have family devotions around the table—during the family meal. In other families, a parent will meet with their children individually to teach the Bible one on one. Whatever the format, consistency is key. It’s better to gather the family once per week than to exasperate your kids with failed attempts to meet every day. Young children respond best to a planned routine—something like Taco Tuesday that they can count on and look forward to.
- Meals are made for families, not families for meals. While family devotions should be regular, they should also fit your family’s life and personality. Some families will have an hour or two to sit down, read and reflect on a psalm, memorize a catechism question, and sing a hymn every week. But for most of us, that kind of feast is rare. I’m thankful the Bible’s vision for training our kids includes teaching them “along the road” (Deut. 6:7). The most consistent part of teaching my own kids has been the practice of quick prayers while we’re waiting in the carpool line or singing along (sometimes loud and silly!) to Seeds Family Worship and PROOF Pirates while we drive down the highway on a road trip.
- Make sure it’s digestible. The Bible gives us a developmental vision for growing up in faith. Christians move progressively from basic things to deeper truth—from milk to solid food (Heb. 5:12-14; 1 Cor. 3:2). It’s especially important to remember this when teaching young children. Two and three-year-olds typically have an attention span of two to three minutes. Their vocabulary is limited to 200 to 1500 total words. Like a parent cutting up their child’s food into digestible chunks, it’s important to help our youngest kids learn a beginning vocabulary of faith—basic Bible words like sin, promise, prayer, and the name of Jesus—before moving to more abstract concepts like forgiveness. Many Bible storybooks are written with these developmental considerations in mind. If you’re just beginning a family worship time with your toddler, consider Ella Lindvall’s Read-Aloud Bible Stories, David Helm’s Big Picture Story Bible, or my Beginner’s Gospel Story Bible.
- Vary the menu to stretch your family’s palette. Just like family meals, family devotions have thousands of possible variations. Sometimes when I hear what other creative families do during family worship times, I feel overwhelmed and guilt-ridden, thinking, “I should be doing more!” I’m tempted to adopt practices that would be a bad fit for our family dynamics. But my wife is really encouraged by families who are a step ahead of us. She sees concrete ideas as an opportunity to stretch ourselves. Adding variety to our times of family worship helps them become times of discovery. So, don’t get stuck in the rut of simply reading stories. Act them out. Draw and paint. Let a sock puppet tell the story. If the lesson is about serving others, find a way to practice serving right away—like making cookies for your neighbor. You may find that mixing it up helps to keep your kids’ interest as well.
The best meals involve grace and laughter around the table. So it is with family devotionals. They’re an opportunity to model a life that craves the pure spiritual milk of the Word (1 Pet. 2:2), one that helps your kids to taste and see that the Lord is good (Ps. 34:8). So, make a practice of inviting your kids to come to the table to feed their souls, along with their hungry stomachs.