How to Deepen the Spiritual Life of A Congregation

6197577060_b11c9d1ddc_mAt 26 years of age, Richard Baxter was pastor of a church in Kidderminster, England. It was the 17th century. Upon arrival he found himself in a community of well-to-do, respectable townsmen where the church was not well attended and worship services lacked spiritual warmth.

In response to this state of affairs, he wrote: “The way to save this church and the community is to establish religion in the homes of the people and to build the family altar.” Accordingly he spent three years visiting the people in their homes with the determination to establish a family altar in every home in the community.

Family altar is the simple practice of gathering the members of the family together at a set time each day to read the Bible and pray together. Baxter believed this would be the primary way to renew the spiritual life of the congregation.

Family altar is a historic practice for families deeply committed to the worship of the living God. Three centuries after Baxter, I recall, as a young lad in Saskatchewan, experiencing the energy and worth of family altar. My Mother carried the burden faithfully for this exercise. Family altar was held at the close of the evening meal for one older sister, a younger sister and me. Occasionally our father sat in.

We formed our chairs to face each other in an open part of the kitchen. Mother took down her well used Bible and usually read a whole chapter. Then we sang a portion of a hymn. Mother knew about a half dozen “favorite” hymns by heart so we cycled those six again and again. After the hymn, we knelt at our chairs and Mother prayed. At the close of her earnest prayer we recited the Lord’s Prayer together.

As we children developed proficiency in reading we began to take turns at reading a paragraph or so and offering our own prayers. Sometimes what was read in the Scriptures prompted childhood questions about God or about such basic moral issues as telling the truth or getting along with playmates. Occasionally, if things had gone poorly in family relationships they were corrected. In a nutshell this daily exercise helped to develop a God-consciousness which attends us for life.

Family altar has much more competition today than in my childhood. For us there was no television, iPads, smart phones, or electronic games to commandeer our time and isolate us from one another. Today the very pace of modern life might require a simplified version for family altar, but need not choke the exercise out of existence, and will always require parental diligence.

Like Mother, we see its value and my wife and I continue the practice. At 90 years of age, we sit down in our family room after breakfast each morning and read the Bible, one chapter a day. We discuss what we’ve read and then take time for prayers. As a wholesome breakfast nourishes our mortal bodies family altar gives deep sustenance to the spiritual dimension of life.

God says to us, ”Draw near to me and I will draw near to you” and human wisdom tells us “where there’s a will there’s a way.” For newcomers to the practice, to get family altar started a parent or parents may need to gather the family together and seek agreement that at a certain time each day family life would be enriched by giving a few minutes to this spiritual exercise.

If there are young children and the NIV is the family’s favorite translation it should be used. If not, the New Living Translation is a good useable version, both reliable and readable. For small children the Picture Bible is recommended as a good choice. Whatever version is chosen it is good to make the Bible itself the text for family devotions. It’s the book we hope our children will live with for a lifetime.

Were Richard Baxter’s efforts successful? History reports that his project was so successful that in every home of his congregation there was a family altar, church attendance increased to fill the sanctuary, and public worship went from bland to spiritually warm and deeply nurturing.

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Photo credit: Skara kommun (via flickr.com)

A Tribute to Fatherhood

Father and son
Yesterday Kathleen and I attended the funeral of a longstanding friend, Al Hill. During our trip home, we pondered his life as it informed the term, fatherhood.

It was evident that Al had a large circle of friends; the church was packed. He had also distinguished himself as a churchman and educator. Yet, it was his success as a father that lingered with us.

It was obvious that Al and Grace had raised three stalwart sons, all now in stable marriages with children to bless them and their grandparents. All this stayed with us as we drove.

One son’s tribute stood out. He said that his father had insisted that under all circumstances he and his two brothers respect their mother. The point was made repeatedly while they were growing up. The three boys were apparently reminded even in adulthood to “look after your mother.”

This reminded me of an episode with one of my own sons who in early adolescence had begun to show moments of veiled disrespect for his mother. I spoke to him about it. “She is not only your mother,” I told him sternly, “she is my wife, and I insist that my wife be respected.” The message given in that novel way registered. Today, this son and my other two children could not be more loving and solicitous of their mother’s well being.

Fatherhood should be more elevated in our world than it is for a variety of reasons: it is a divinely ordained assignment, a role deeply rooted in history, a widely-used positive metaphor, an honorable title, an art, a crucial social role — and a joy.

I will remember Al for his churchmanship. I will remember him for his good ideas. I will never forget the favor he did for our family when, as a school principal, he facilitated our daughter’s return to Canada to teach.

But, after the tributes we heard yesterday, I will honor him foremost in my memory for the way he embraced fatherhood as a sacred trust. And he did it well.

(More next week.)

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Raising Kids for Christ

I have now had the pleasure of observing from their earliest years the traits first of children, then grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren. I’ve noticed that if you observe carefully you can see their dispositional tendencies from the start.

Before they can talk or even walk they show on their faces and by their responses their reactions to people and life in general. And those traits tend to carry over to some degree when they arrive on the shores of adulthood.

One child has a sunny disposition from the start; another is unusually shy around all but close relatives. One child is full of self-confidence; another takes considerable encouragement to embrace new challenges. One tends to be defiant against all orders; another is easier to convince to go along. They all seem to share to one degree or another the ability to manipulate, to deceive, even that wretched impulse to punish parents who are supposed to regulate their lives. Likewise, they all at times have flashes of loving generosity toward parents.

If I could run my life back two generations to the time when our children were small I know I would study each one separately much more carefully than I did. I see even now how different they were in temperament.

I’m not a trained psychologist but I have gleaned from my child-raising experiences one truth that I find myself repeating over and over again. It’s that every child comes into the world with a “package,” one that their parents have to work with. They do not come as a blank sheet to be written on.

In the Bible, Esau was an outdoors type; Jacob was more for the indoor life. Esau was a man of appetite in the moment; Jacob was a cunning trader who could hold for the long view. But they were twins, both from the same mother and father. Each came into the world with his own package.

As our children were growing up, my wife, Kathleen, and I tended to pool our insights regarding how we would handle difficult situations. We had slightly different perspectives on what to do, and that was good. In fact, God made us to bring a male and female perspective to a parenting situation. But because of our shared values we agreed fully on the outcomes we were working and praying for.

We wanted our children to know Christ as we have known him. And character-wise we wanted them to be honest, respectful, obedient, and accountable to us even as they matured and went farther afield.

It pleased us to see them become resourceful and enterprising as they grew up. Perhaps some of this came from parental example and encouragement, but I think a fair portion of it came from the genes. They hustled and got their own odd jobs, saved their money, and bought some of their own clothes, or a bicycle, or fish tanks, or other things they were left to themselves to provide.

They were not without their squabbles. For siblings, fighting for territorial rights and jockeying for favor go with the territory. Sometimes it was tiring to us as it is for all involved parents. Those issues seemed to recede with the coming of adulthood and the children became staunch supporters of one another. And when they bring their spouses home, the mutual support among them all is a joy to see.

I feel for young parents who are bringing children up in today’s environment. There are so many external anti-family lures to contend with -– sitcoms in living color, often with subtle anti-Christian biases, cell phones, the whole perilous world of the Internet, texting (and sexting), early access to automobiles, a movie industry that can’t always be monitored, and even some educational influences in school that contradict family values.

Yet, I believe when properly administered, good family influences are stronger than all the counter influences. What are some of the things parents can do to increase the likelihood of winning the children to Christ and to adopt family values? Here are nine:

(1) Read the Bible and pray with them daily. Make it a family time.

(2) Take them to a church regularly where the preaching is biblical, clear, and anointed and leads to the growth of community.

(3) Make sure you attend a church where Christian Education for all ages is taken seriously and encourages discussion.

(4) Keep alert to the friends they choose. Invite them into your home.

(5) Don’t be shy about keeping track of what they are seeing and doing on the Internet; you are their guardians.

(6) Have fun times with them on their level.

(7) Take them for a treat occasionally one-on-one. In this case, it will not be the size of the treat that counts, it will be the exclusive attention of a parent.

(8) Be sure they get to Christian camps where their activities are properly supervised and they are invited to give their lives to Christ or to follow him.

(9) Model consistency before them and when you come short acknowledge it. Children respect honesty.

In my opinion, parents today tend not to reckon with a child’s free will as they should. They should make much of it when parenting, rather than considering themselves totally responsible for outcomes. By the time children are 15 they have made scads of choices that are rapidly shaping who they are becoming and what value system they will live by. Lying, cheating, stealing, sassing, rebelling –- these are all options open to them, however seriously their parents coach them in uprightness and decency and respect.

Children should therefore be held responsible for their choices. This needs to be brought home to them from their early years. I remember little sayings repeated to me in my childhood that infected me with a sense of personal responsibility from early years onward: “If you make your bed, you have to lie on it.” Or, “Your chickens will come home to roost.” Or, “Birds of a feather flock together.” Whenever I was unresponsive to parental advice regarding some decision, one such saying would be dropped into my memory and left with me to accept or reject. They were effective lines.

The battle for the souls of our children is a taxing one, but one well worth waging on every front -– the spiritual, the moral, the social. At the same time, every child must be helped to understand clearly that they are fully responsible for the decisions they make that seal their eternal destiny. The key decision: “What will you do with Jesus?”

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