I have a photo I show whenever I am asked to speak to parents. It is me leading a family devotion. I am sitting in the middle of the sofa with my Bible open. My eldest is curled over one arm of the sofa, her back to me, her bottom directed towards the Bible. My middle child has his face embedded in the other arm of the sofa. Only my youngest seems engaged, and that is because my arm is clamped around his waist so he can’t escape. I show this photo because it captures our normal. I write books of family devotions and I want to inspire parents to raise their children knowing Christ, but my own family Bible times are rarely inspirational.
Here are five things I have learned, with my own family, through all the mistakes, frustration and confusion.
Focus on years, not moments.
I once spoke to the adult son of a well-known church leader. His parents were the very model of godliness. I wanted to hear how their family devotions had gone. “I can’t remember a single one!” he said. I was amazed. He continued, “I remember them happening. Maybe they weren’t every day. I remember not being that interested. I can remember the time Dad’s chair broke underneath him leaving him sprawling on the floor. I just knew they were part of our day. I am so grateful they were.” Hear that son. Settle for the mundane. Encourage engagement. Pray for a daily work of the Spirit. But more than anything else, just do them. Let it be their normal. Faith is for the years.
Go for our way not my way.
Being a parent feels like an exercise in selfless patience. Devotions are part of that experience. My youngest is too young to read or think conceptually. Instead, he needs a Lego model, some pictures or a moment of drama. None of which I have the energy for. My eldest struggles to ponder deeply, quickly becoming frustrated that she can’t answer questions. As a parent, I want my devotions to be deep, ordered, and disciplined. They never are, because my children are children. Each of them has been created uniquely in God’s image. When we sit down together, I need to arrive loving them for who they are, delighted to have this opportunity, and ready to be patient with them.
Persevere in the face of failure.
My son once started our devotion by saying, “We should have already left for school.” I don’t remember how I answered, but I doubt it was loving. We spiraled downwards from there as I ploughed on when we should just have prayed and left. After dropping off the children, I sat on the sofa, feeling like a failure. On that occasion it was definitely me that was at fault. It’s not always, but the sense of failure stays the same. Nevertheless, we don’t give up. Tomorrow is a new day. A friend of mine is a single mother who came to faith late. Her memories of devotions with her three children are scarred by the feeling of total failure. Yet her adult son now says “Doing daily devotions is the most precious gift that you gave me and my sisters. It didn’t just teach me to build my life on the Scriptures, it’s the reason I now feel so at home in them.” How glad they all are today that even when she felt she had failed, she didn’t give up.
Look for the encouragements.
I once asked an experienced teacher to wander around our church’s Sunday School. Her feedback was a revelation, “Your leaders are prepared, engaged, enthusiastic and knowledgeable. But they never offer warmth or encouragement to the children.” Children long for our praise. I need to search for what my children are doing well. Praise the prayer. Applaud the answer. Commend the comment. (I wonder if this is more a mistake of grumpy Brits than smiley Americans?!)
Devotions can be a pleasure not an ordeal.
Who would your family love to have a meal with? Who would get your children racing to the table, eager to start? As I wrote my book of family devotions, I was struck that sitting my family around Jesus to hear his voice, to watch his gentleness and to talk together, is a gift beyond measure. It is a pleasure to be savoured and treasured. But for most families, it won’t happen easily or by accident. If it feels too hard, make a deal with your children that it will all be done in just 10 minutes. Start a timer and put it out of the way. Tell them this is the highlight of your day. Go for it. Plenty of energy. Get them talking. When the timer buzzes, stop and pray together. You’re done. Tell them why you loved it. Was their behaviour great? Were they super honest? Did they pray out loud? Did they listen to each other? There will be something (even if you’re feeling despair inside). If you can manage to do it for three or four days so there is a routine and a sense of expectation, then the battle will lessen. God bless you in this. Pray, knowing God is for you. You’re doing great.