Richard Baxter was one of England's greatest ministers. In early ministry he pastored a community composed almost entirely of rich, cultured people. But he soon found that the congregation was cold, and all was not as he had expected it to be.
Although disappointed he said, "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." Baxter spent three years in visitation, deter mined to establish a family altar in every home in that community. He succeeded, and as a result found that his church filled to over flowing. Thus began that magnificent ministry and life for which he became famous.
Family relationships, fundamental to being Christian
Fundamentally, Christianity must involve family relationship. You cannot have a thriving church without a family altar in the homes of its members.
Robert Burns must have had some early experience or memorable view of a Christian family at prayer, that indelibly impressed. His best-loved poem gives an intimate glimpse into the humble home where, at the close of the day's labors, the father gathers the family for evening worship.
"Then kneeling down to Heaven's Eternal King, The saint, the father and the husband prays: Hope springs exulting on triumphant wing That thus they all shall meet in future days; There ever bask in uncreated rays, No more to sigh or shed the bitter tear; Together hymning their Creator's praise, In such society yet still more dear, When circling time moves round in an eternal sphere." The term "family altar" may bring to mind a small table in a corner that holds a large Bible, or maybe a taper, or a bowl of flowers, even though the family altar isn't a shrine but a happening.
Crucial nature of the family altar
The elements one needs to build a family altar are one family, at least one Bible, a personal relationship with God, some knowledge of the doctrines and convictions which parents hold as truth, and a sense of responsibility toward one's children. These elements must be packaged in determination and prayer, for Satan will relentlessly oppose such an altar.
What is the point of family devotions? A feeling of closeness and togetherness? An exercise in spiritual discipline? Worship? A compulsory religious duty? A testimony proving that "God means something" to this particular family? A sign of spirituality? A sure guarantee of family solidarity ("the family that prays together stays together")? Perhaps all of these are true to a certain degree, but it may be that the most salient reason for family devotions is one that is often overlooked. It is simply this: God has commanded us to teach His Word diligently to our children.
Passages such as Deuteronomy 6 and Psalm 78 remind us that it is parents—not Sabbath or Sunday Schools or other agencies—to whom God has primarily assigned the task of training children in His way.
Although I commend the honesty of those who have chosen to bury a dead ritual rather than piously going through meaningless motions, I feel it's regrettable that the tremendous potential of family devotions as a vehicle for Christian education so often goes unrecognized. Of course, spontaneous prayer and talking about God, one another, and our concerns in a natural manner throughout the day is good—and scriptural. But an additional set-aside, regular, structured time of learning God's Word together as a family is of incalculable value—if the possibilities of such a time are explored to the full.
Reasons for neglecting the family altar
The truth that I wish to emphasize is that every Christian family, as a family, should call upon the name of the Lord. Many excuses for not doing so are given, but most of them fall into two categories. Either it is not convenient, or we are afraid or ashamed to have family prayers.
If it is inconvenient, perhaps the condition which makes it so is out of harmony with the will of the Lord.
Many alleged inconveniences could be overcome by an earnest desire and a determined purpose to have a family altar. If the family cannot all be brought together at one certain time, perhaps they can at another. If they cannot all come together at any one time, there is no reason why the part of the family that can be together should neglect this duty and privilege.
If we are ashamed, or embarrassed, to begin family prayers, let us remember the words of our Lord when He said, "Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels" (Mark 8:38).
The ideal family altar
The ideal family altar should be informal, yet reverent. It should include Bible reading, prayer, and perhaps singing, and each member of the family should have a part. However, the method is not nearly as important as the fact that there is such an altar, and that the altar is an acknowledgment that this family needs God's direction and guidance.
The family altar is basic. The first thing Abram did after leaving Haran and arriving in the land of Canaan was to build "an altar unto the Lord" (Gen. 12:7). This altar of worship became the center of Abram's family life. It affected his thinking, his planning, his actions, and it directed his life God-ward into an intimacy with God so deep and binding that God revealed to Abram the impending destruction of Sodom before the judgment fell.
The entire history of Israel revolved around the altar which Abram began that day. When the altar was neglected and forgotten, captivity and sorrow came upon the nation. When the altar was rebuilt, blessing and prosperity resulted.
The rebuilding of the family altar today will arrest the tide of delinquency and raise a wall against the scourge of divorce. Daily prayers and Bible reading around the family table will equip the parents with wisdom and anchor the children's faith in the Rock of Ages,