Book Reviews: Review of A Neglected Grace: Family Worship in the Christian Home by Jason Helopoulos
“Family worship” is an archaic phrase—and an increasingly archaic practice. It sounds austere and intimidating, like an outdated tradition for über-conservative, tightly sheltered, hyper-Christian families who care more about spiritual solemnity than family warmth.
Pastor Jason Helopoulos, assistant pastor at University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan, puts the lie to these misconceptions and seeks to revive a joyful Christian practice with roots deep in Christian tradition. In A Neglected Grace: Family Worship in the Christian Home (Christian Focus, 2013), Helopoulos dusts off, rewraps, and re-presents this forgotten gift.
Chapter 1 (19-28) focuses on worship. The question is not whether we’re worshipers but what we’re worshiping. Helopoulos explains that worship is a lifestyle but that specific times of worship are also essential. Christians worship in three complementary spheres: secret worship, corporate worship, and family worship. Lots of pleasures and priorities—even good ones—can hijack the Christian’s passion and direction in life. It takes regular time and intentionality to reorient our hearts to God and his ways—individually, collectively, and as a family.
Chapter 2 (29-40) provides biblical reasons for family worship. Helopoulous agrees that there’s no scriptural command for a regular set-aside time of family worship. “However, there are plenty of commands that in our homes we are to teach our children, read the Word, pray: in essence—worship” (30). He highlights the joyfulness of the responsibility, its cascading effects on future generations, the value of weaving the biblical story into the lives of our children, and the essential role of male headship. He appeals mainly to Psalm 78:2-7, while also mentioning a handful of other passages (Gen 2–3; 18:19; Deut 6:6-7; Josh 24:15; Hos 6:7; Rom 5:14; 1 Tim 5:8; 2 Tim 1:14; and Eph 5–6).
Chapter 3 (41-49) explains some other practical reasons for family worship. Family worship centers the home on Christ, encourages children toward Christ, cultivates Christian character, fosters peace in the home, brings the family together, develops common knowledge, equips children for corporate worship, reinforces spiritual headship, and provides systematic discipleship.
Chapter 4 (51-66) gets into the nuts and bolts. Here and throughout the book Helopoulos focuses on three essential elements of family worship: Scripture, prayer, and singing. Practical, realistic examples fill the chapter (especially focusing on younger children). Helopoulos also explains how we can supplement (but not replace) these three essential elements by employing Scripture memory, catechisms, confessions of faith, responsive readings, and other books.
Chapter 5 (67-71) discusses the attitude and manner of family worship. These times should be reverent, joyful, regular, and consistent. Thankfully, Helopoulos is careful to guard against misunderstandings, answer common objections, and preempt misguided guilt. Reverence does not mean “cold and stiff formalism” (67). Joy should not be “contrived” or forced (68). Consistency does not mean perfection (71). Nevertheless, Helopoulos never backs down from the challenge, consistently urging families to “endeavor to approach God every day with resolve, focus, and ‘heart-felt’ faith.” Then: “Through all seasons, be patient, be gracious, and keep praying that God would bless” (71).
Chapter 6 (73-79) explains what family worship is not. Helopoulos warns against the family-as-church error, the idolatry of the family, and the all-too-common feeling that family worship is a burden. He encourages parents not to use these gatherings for individual rebukes, family activities, or gospel-less morality training. Nor should parents view these family times as a guarantee that their children will be converted and walk with Christ.
Chapter 7 (81-88) gives tips for planning like finding the best time, keeping to a specific time and place, starting slow, keeping it simple and short, making it a priority in the midst of busy schedules, being flexible while remaining committed, modeling the right attitude as parents, and persevering in the face of challenges.
Chapter 8 (89-98) gives practical advice for some typical challenges: single parenting, feelings of inadequacy, an unbelieving spouse, an unconvinced spouse, children of different ages, kids that won’t sit still, lack of response or fruit, and lukewarmness.
Chapter 9 (99-109) encourages us to “Just Do It” while providing seven real-life testimonies from Christians who’ve practiced, struggled at, and benefited from family worship. These stories are painfully, humorously, helpfully honest—from college students to young mothers to empty nesters.
Finally, the four appendices provide a rich reservoir of resources to draw from: sample family worship structures, questions for different ages of children, organized ways to pray together, resources for prayer and singing, an example of responsive reading, and catechisms and creeds.
This is a very helpful book for many reasons. First, Helopoulos is clear without being simplistic. He’s careful and thoughtful but never technical or nebulous. Second, he’s managed a concise book on a disputed and complex topic. He keeps it short and sweet without overexplaining or oversimplifying, both of which would have been tempting. Third, the book is filled with real-life examples along with resources to help guide the way. The focus isn’t grand theories or emotional appeals but biblical substance, healthy wisdom, and can-do practicality. Fourth, the practical sections cover a lot of categories, dealing with the major issues and questions encountered by those seeking to join Helopoulos in loving their families well. Fifth, the book is grace-driven, so that family worship is truly presented as a joyful responsibility and an exciting means of grace rather than the burden it can so easily become.
Helopoulos also digs down into the deep roots of historical perspective, quoting a handful of Christian figures from past generations: Richard Baxter (14-15, 26, 74), Robert Murray M’Cheyne (23), Charles Spurgeon (25), Jonathan Edwards (30), John Knox (37), James Waddell Alexander (87), and Matthew Henry (100). These glances at history remind us that faithful Christians from long ago can still help us reorient our lives by correcting (or confirming) our contemporary priorities.
First, I would have appreciated a more robust and nuanced scriptural grounding for Helopoulos’ particular format for family worship. He briefly mentions a handful of passages in chapter two, but it takes several logical steps and implications to move from the passages he cites to the specific structure he promotes as “essential” throughout the book (everyday time of Scripture, prayer, and singing). No mature Christian would disagree that parents should teach their children God’s Word and make prayer a priority. In fact, I agree with his basic “essentials” and am convinced by his reasoning. But for an entire generation that hasn’t grown up with this clear, structured model of “family worship,” along with a developing church culture that values non-tradition over tradition, more scriptural evidence may be needed.
Second, using synonyms for “family worship” would help round out the book. The constant use of this particular phrase seems to suggest that there’s only one acceptable look and feel to this time together. The exclusive wording also seems to tie the idea inextricably to past generations. Perhaps Helopoulos aims to recover the rich tradition of family worship and therefore wants to drive the “family worship” terminology deep. But it has the potential to miscommunicate when used exclusively, a potential that could be mitigated by changing up the terminology here and there. Contemporary testimonies from Christian leaders (within the book, not just in the blurbs) could also help combat the misguided feeling that family worship is a noble ancient tradition but an irrelevant or impossible contemporary practice.
Third, while the book is rich in practical ideas, helpful resources, and real-life stories, non-traditional forms of creativity are noticeably absent. I completely agree that Scripture, prayer, and singing should be central, but the main point of many parenting passages is teaching God’s truth and his ways to our children. The Israelites remembered God’s works through feasts and festivals involving all five senses. The prophets often used object lessons to communicate God’s truth. Jesus himself used many creative teaching techniques throughout his itinerant ministry. Each of these examples can be misinterpreted and misapplied, but each also points to the multi-sensory ways that human beings learn, remember, and celebrate. Children can benefit immensely from creativity and diversity in the midst of consistency. Therefore, what about having an artistic 8-year-old draw the story and then explain it to the family? What about having a creative group of siblings perform a show based on the passage? How about a musical young teenager composing a song based on a biblical truth, story, or psalm? How about enterprising young boys building a Lego presentation to portray the passage? These should never replace or take over Scripture, prayer, and singing, but could inject energy and splash color onto the experience from time to time.
Fourth, I hope Helopoulos will revise this helpful resource in 15 years after his children have moved through the teenage years. Little advice is provided for those with teenagers and all the opportunities and challenges that attend those years. How should parents of older children think through scheduling, requirements for participation, leading hard-hearted teenagers, allowing the older children to teach the younger, or involving their children’s friends? Adding a chapter by someone who’s done family worship through the entire life cycle would help fill out the book (some comments from an empty nester are included in the testimonials, but there’s no explicit or organized advice).
Fifth, a chapter or appendix on doing family worship with children with special needs would be helpful. Physical, mental, emotional, and linguistic challenges can abound, requiring customized counsel and skillful advice from those who’ve walked similar paths. How should you approach family worship when you’ve just brought home a 5-year-old orphan from Africa who’s scared, suspicious, and speaks no English? What about children with mental disabilities or developmental challenges? I don’t expect Helopolous to offer personalized counsel that’s meant to come from local pastors and in-flesh believers, but addressing some common issues and categories would be a welcome addition.
I don’t offer these suggested improvements because the book is bad. The book is very good, and deserves a wide audience. Its strengths far outweigh its limitations, and I heartily recommend it to parents, grandparents, pastors, and mentors.
What’s the mark of a good book? It changes you. In some way—intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, practically—you’re moved. The greatest compliment I can pay this book is that I’m walking away wanting to do family worship consistently and well. I’m not discouraged, though based on my past performance I could be. I’m not unmotivated, though based on my weaknesses I could be. And I don’t feel helpless, though based on the inherent challenges, such feelings would be natural. Rather, I am instructed and inspired to lead consistent, intentional, wise times of worship with my family—not as a heavy obligation but a precious grace.