Nov 8, 2021

How We Learned to (Actually) Do Family Devotions

By Anna Mussmann
Until recently, my husband and I didn’t do regular devotions with our children. We prayed before meals and bedtime, of course. We told Bible stories and talked about God. Yet unless we were in church or doing homeschool lessons, we didn’t consistently read God’s Word together. We meant to do it. We made various plans at various times. We acquired various devotional books and started them. Somehow, it never worked. The rather pathetic reason is that we kept forgetting.
It wasn’t how we wanted to live. We wanted to show our children that studying and praying together is not only good, but normal, kind of like eating breakfast or lunch. Yet as St. Paul laments in Romans 7, we did not do the good we wanted. We “just weren’t good at doing devotions.”
I don’t want to blame our struggle on being Lutheran. Yet I think it’s true that when Christians live in grace, as Lutherans attempt to do, we can find ourselves caught in a strange brain space.
Humans have a tendency to treat whatever is mandatory as important, and, conversely, whatever is not mandatory as optional: that is to say, not as important. If, for instance, I told my children that seatbelts save lives but I let them choose whether or not to buckle up, would I really be communicating the importance of seatbelts?

Living in Grace is Tricky
Martin Luther ran into this problem, too. When he and other reformers preached the freedom of the Gospel to the peasantry, he expected the people to flock joyfully to church. They didn’t. Instead, once freed from Rome’s rules about obligatory religious observances, many were more inclined to loll at home. Later they even started smashing stained glass windows, but that’s another story. Luther’s grief and disappointment was intense.
It is not that the reformers were wrong. They preached truth, and many of their listeners did respond with joy and faith. The point, though, is that humans are very bad at living in grace.
As a teenager I knew several (non-Lutheran) Christians who were intensely dedicated to their personal devotions. In fact, I remember some girls who stated that the only way to remain Christian is to spend at least an hour every morning in God’s Word. Their legalism made them harshly critical of everyone else, but at least they were “good at” devotions. They were also good at using peer pressure to keep each other’s noses to the grindstone. Legalism can be a highly effective motivator.
It’s a dilemma that seems to haunt the church throughout time: Either we push ourselves and each other into line with legalistic rules that often backfire into works-righteousness, or we. . . we what? What is the other path? What does it mean for personal prayer and Scripture reading to be neither “mandatory” nor “unimportant?”
I’ve been thinking about this lately, and I have realized that a Lutheran understanding of Christian life is actually very helpful here.
Lutherans Know Our Wills are Weak
As Lutherans, we are continually reminded that we are poor miserable sinners. The confession of sins we pray in Divine Service Setting I includes the phrase, “We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.”
It is a mistake to envision personal piety as something that develops spontaneously from a sanctified will. Our wills are weak, distractible, and often ignorant. They can’t be trusted to help us make the changes in our lives that we claim to want. Our wills need help to do what is good and right. Like toddlers, they need firm guidance as well as constant repetition. We can choose to be proactive and practical by putting boundaries in place for ourselves.
However, this isn’t about putting ourselves back under the law or trying to live up to some kind of legalistic standard. We are saints! We desire to pray and meditate upon God’s Word! You yourself are presumably reading this article because family devotions are something you value. That is a gift from God. We want to do devotions because He has begun a good work in us (Phil. 1:6).
Thinking through our own behavior and making sensible plans for the future isn’t legalism: it is a right and proper response to God’s good gift. Here are some of the steps that helped us.
Think through the “Why”
During the pandemic, my husband and I became much more conscious of why we wanted regular family devotions. For us, it was important to realize that habits shape who we are. In moments of crisis and struggle, we all tend to fall back on the choices and behaviors we have practiced. In addition, just as we teach our children to recognize the importance of church by regularly taking them to church, we learn the importance of reading God’s Word by regularly reading God’s Word. Our priorities, values, and loves are all shaped by what we do, see, and hear. We wanted our family to be shaped by family devotions.
Talking about this over time as a couple was important. The opening chapters of James K. A. Smith’s book, You Are What You Love helped inspire us to think through our choices. James Clear’s Atomic Habits also gave us good ideas about thinking about our goals in terms of habit formation.
We Needed Something Very Short
One reason we struggled in the past was because we chose materials that were too long. Even though I believe strongly that toddlers should be taught to obey and sit still when appropriate, it still felt like a lot of extra work to get the kids to listen quietly to a long passage. After all, the habit was a new one for them. Because it felt like so much work to do devotions, I was less motived, less enthusiastic, and—I admit it—less likely to help my husband remember.
Things changed when we shifted our mentality. We realized we needed to use something very short and simple to create the habit of devotions. Later, we can tweak, expand, and develop what we do. For now, my husband simply chooses a Psalm for us to pray together, followed by the Lord’s Prayer. We sometimes talk briefly about the meaning of the words we are hearing. We repeat each Psalm frequently so that we and the children can learn them by heart. It’s simple enough to stick.
Reasonable Consistency is Key
Sometimes we still miss devotions. However, we are reasonably consistent. Reasonable consistency is huge. It takes an aspiration and makes it a norm. Norms shape people. They build a family culture. They carry us through bad times when our will and intellect are weak.
In the past, the biggest obstacle we faced was forgetting our plans until it was “too late.” By the time we remembered, the kids had already gone off to do chores or school work. The clock was ticking, my husband needed to start work, and life had seemingly moved on. The solution turned out to be doing devotions anyway. If we forget, we now call everyone back. If needed we stand around waiting for the kid in the bathroom. We let the clock tick. We let ourselves be late. This is a little painful, but pain is memorable. It helps us remember the next time. 
These are the plans and boundaries that helped us (finally) learn to do family devotions. I hope we will continue to grow in this area. We have not transformed ourselves into a family that is necessarily “good at” doing devotions in a particularly impressive way. Yet by God’s grace and my husband’s faithfulness, we do devotions. It is a gift for which I am grateful. 

Family prayer isn't "mandatory," but it is part of living in grace. It is even part of what it means to be Lutheran. It is good


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Anna homeschools her children during the day and writes in the evening. Anna loves Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. She reviews the books she reads on Goodreads, and her work can also be found in The Federalist and The Lutheran Witness.

(Title image source).


  1. It took us a while to find a family devotion routine that worked too.

    Sometimes, I get the feeling that people think saying it's a "routine" makes it sound like we're only doing family devotions out of habit and not paying attention to it, so it doesn't do us any good. But that's as silly as saying that because brushing our teeth after breakfast and before bed is my children's routine, it doesn't clean their teeth. Routines and habits are there to keep us from forgetting or neglecting something important.

  2. Great post, Anna! I know many families share your struggle, ours included. We have found with our older children, gathering together in evening and listening to the daily devotion online from either Higher Things or The Lutheran Hour has been very helpful. We then close in prayer.


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