Family worship is fast becoming a thing of the past. In the scattered and divided life that we lead, especially in the urban, materialistic context, God gets effaced of the canvas of our family life. Unless forced by situations of desperation or crisis, we rarely turn to God as a family. The secular privatization of religion now marginalizes our faith not only vis-à-vis the public space but also the family space. And that, not because we are hostile to God but because we are too busy or scattered as a family to come together and spend some time with God and with each other regularly. As if to make amends for this lapse, we have pietistic aphorisms like, "The family that prays together stays together," adorns our walls and mantelpieces. Some of us even become dogmatic about Sunday Church attendance, perhaps as a form of penance and expiation.

The importance of family worship in shaping family culture and reinforcing family cohesion is one of the most neglected truths of life today. On the practical plane what family worship does, without our knowing or aiming at it, is to create the enduring foundation for a sense of belonging. The belief that a family is founded on God and that it is, therefore, much more than an accidental aggregation individual acts powerfully as an integrating principle on the family. This creates the matrix for what all the members of that family can hold together as a shared culture and creed, from where they also derive their norms of morality and humanity.

This kind of unity or cohesion is an ongoing, subconscious and dynamic reality; perhaps like the internal unity (shalom) of the body as effected by the circulation of blood. Every part of the body, including the extremities, is linked to each other through the blood stream that washes and nourishes the body as a whole. When the flow of blood to a part of the body stops, that part's relationship with the rest of the body is imperiled. Because such principles of cohesion work steadily and silently as an inner dynamic without any fanfare, we tend to discount their importance. Just as the flowering and fruiting of a tree depend on the invisible and silent flow of sap in its tree trunk and branches, the health and cohesion of a family depend very substantially on its worship life.

How does worship life become a catalyst of coherence in family life? It is by facilitating, as in the example of blood circulation, an outward flow from the self towards the other members of the family. Coherence in the organic context - the context of life - has to be kinetic in nature. It has to be a coherence of movement, and not a static coherence. As long as the individuals who comprise a family remain self-enclosed, unmindful of the presence and needs of the others in the family, it does not become a coherent family unit even though they live together under the same roof, eat the same food, speak the same language and so on. The discipline of worship enables individuals to grow out of their exclusive self-absorption and become integrated as a family unit. That is because worship involves self-transcendence: an experience of rising above the level of the self. When we pray, we become focused on God, which is a pre-condition for becoming sensitive to others. We cannot read the Bible, or any religious scripture, in the right spirit and still remain self-opinionated and self-preoccupied.

The dynamic of unregenerate human nature operates almost wholly in terms of unilateral receiving. We want to receive love and attention. We want to be served, understood, affirmed, cherished. But we forget all too easily that others around us also need the same. What the discipline of worship does is to create a balance between the self and others, based on the equality of worth that God ascribes to all human beings. In this process the essence of receiving itself is transformed. Receiving in the worldly and individualistic model is a matter of right. So children tend to believe that they have a right to be loved, financed, and made much of. In a spiritual sense, we have a need to receive from two sources: God and each other. That is because no one is complete in himself or herself. But, in the human context, the need to receive can never be separated from the duty to give. [Ironically, those who will not give cannot also receive.] This simple truth is not all that obvious to the eyes of ungodliness; for its operative logic is that of unilateralism, which sees relationships as one-way traffic. Worship creates the inward logic for human mutuality by reinforcing our other-orientation: our sensitivity and response-ability towards those around us. It is for this reason that the Bible emphasizes that our love for God necessarily involves our love for our fellow human beings. If we say, as St. John argues, that we can love the God we cannot see, but not love the brothers we do see, then we are liars indeed.

Love is the life-blood of the integrative role that worship plays in family and social life. It is tragic how increasingly we tend to forget that the very purpose of worship is to enlarge the horizon of our love. Worship is communion - a relationship of deep oneness and intimacy - with God. The very purpose of this communion is to become more and more like God; and not to qualify oneself for cosmic favors, as is being more and more widely misconceived today. God is love. That being the case, how can we worship God "in spirit and truth" without broadening our human sympathies and enlarging our capacity to love? And how can we become one, unless nurtured in love which must hold us together, unfailingly? Worship needs to be seen as the school of love, just as suffering is the school of wisdom.

Love, in practical terms, is reciprocity. Reciprocity is the logic of cohesion. Put in the words of Jesus, we are to treat others, as we would like to be treated by them. The native tendency in human nature is to upset this balance and to take everyone and everything on one's own terms. Sin corrupts reciprocity into unilateralism, which is the principle of alienation and division. Reciprocity is the essence of the spiritual culture; whereas unilateralism arising out of self-centeredness yields estrangement, cruelty and violence. Shifting human conduct from the foundation of self-centeredness (unilateralism) to that of God-centeredness (reciprocity or bilateralism) is the spiritual revolution underlying the ministry of Jesus. Family cohesion, if it is to endure at all, has to rest on this inward transformation that has to be consolidated through worship as an on-going process.

Worship as togetherness:In the scattered lives that we lead, opportunities for caring and sharing are few and far between. In most families the family as a whole does not share even meals. In extreme cases, a home becomes, as in the case of an American poet, "a place where when you have to go there, they have to take you in." In olden days meals, in the family context, have had not only nutritive but also ritualistic value: the ritual of togetherness and sharing. It is this that Jesus affirmed through the Last Supper He celebrated with the disciples. Today meals are associated only with eating and not sharing, except in case of ceremonial occasions like a birthday party or a special dinner. In such a state it is all the important to adhere to the family worship time where the entire family comes together with Jesus as its invisible center. Worship is not only an experience of being with God, but also of being with each other. This should be seen as basic to family life; for family is the nuclear community. Sharing is the life-blood of a community. A community decays when its shared life evaporates. This is obvious, for example, in terms of the difference between doing a course of study as a regular member of a college (an academic community) and doing the same course by correspondence.

This sense of togetherness is the foundation for our capacity for relationships. It is not surprising; therefore, the emergence of nuclear families complemented by the urban and individualistic culture there has been a marked decline in relational skills. Relationships can deepen only if they are continually nourished in togetherness. The biblical view of life lays a lot of emphasis on forming and sustaining healthy and just relationships. This is envisaged to have a direct bearing on our worship life. Jesus insisted that no worship should be offered to God unless one's relationships are preserved in their righteousness. If a person were to bring an offering to the altar and there remember that his brother had some difficulties against his, he should go back and be reconciled to him. Only then does he ear the right to maker the offering to God. It is a matter of familiar experience that when person's relationship with others, especially the members of his family, turns sour he finds it difficult, even impossible, to communicate not only with the person he is estranged from, but also with God. That is because togetherness as a consistent principle of life is the essence of worship. We cannot be alienated from our fellow human beings, and remain close to God. Conversely, our communion with God obliges and empowers us to be good stewards of our relationships. Worship involves a two-fold relationship: with God and with one another. This is also the basic discipline, the spiritual pattern, of all our relationships.

A corollary to this truth is that our attitude to worship becomes a mirror held out to us to capture, albeit indirectly, the truth of our predicament any given point in time. The great preacher, D. L. Moody, believed that either the Bible will hold us back from sins, or our sins will hold us back from the Bible. Sin tends to separate individuals from their intimate communities; for alienation is the very logic of sin. Sanctity, in contrast, reinforces the joyful intimacy of family relationships. Those who get sucked into vortex of the sin-induced preference for secrecy and loneliness find the prospect of worship extremely unpleasant. Ironically, the experience of worship is what they need most. In a practical sense, the best index to the robustness of family life is the enthusiasm or indifference to family worship obtained from time to time. The "sanctity graph" of a family operates on the coordinates of togetherness and worship life.

As a matter of fact, togetherness becomes a blessing only on the basis of sanctity. If something is ugly or mean it is desirable to keep a distance from it. If, on the contrary, something is good and positive, it is useful to be as close to it as possible. Our communion with God is a supreme value because God is holy and the source of all that is good and positive in our nature and destiny. But once we cut ourselves off from this source of nourishment, renewal and hygiene, we begin to be alienated and scattered even as we live together. Togetherness ceases to be a positive and dynamic experience, even if it does not provoke overt violence and hate. Alienation from God weakens the foundation for sharing and family solidarity. Immorality, alcoholism and drug-addiction necessarily undermine the cohesion of a family. It is impractical to assume that we can resist these pressures on our own strength. Our fortification against them happens as a byproduct of our abiding in God. In the words of the Psalmist, God is our refuge also in the sense that our love for him becomes a bulwark against anti-life forces.

Not many people realize that family worship has an implicit counseling function that is all the more effective for being indirect. Worship involves the routine awareness and affirmation of the eternal truths and principles on which our sanity and well-being depend. Affirmed through the medium of worship, these principles penetrate our mind deeper, encountering the least possible resistance or defensiveness. In contrast, they could be contested or resisted when stated up-front either as reprimand or in counseling. Through family prayer the members of a family come to share a set of common concerns. What is said in prayer is on behalf of all the members, and they endorsed these concerns by saying "Amen" to the prayer.

Worship, if practiced according to its discipline, can nurture a contemplative spirit in us. Life at the present time is impoverished on account of the polarization between the active and the contemplative spirit. A symptom of this disease is that many think of work and worship as alternatives. It is either work or worship. Those of this persuasion often quote the aphorism "to work is to pray" to their advantage. In point of fact the practical implication of this saying, however, is that work and worship are inseparable. The erosion of the contemplative aspect of our life has not worked to the advantage of our humanity. So even as the physical world takes rapid strides forward, the individuals dwindle in their stature. Our world is peopled by the moral dwarfs and spiritual who can boast of gigantic material achievements. The human element suffers on account of the imbalance between the active and the contemplative. Worship -i.e. relating to God in spirit and in truth- is a profoundly enriching thing for our inner life. The exclusive preoccupation with our physical life is a symptom of our bankruptcy in this respect. A pointer to this is the otherwise inexplicable restlessness that underlies our active life.

One aspect of this contemplative spirit is the training to concentrate. It is integral to family worship that all members of the family focus on what is said from the scripture and said by way prayer. At least, it is the duty of the head of the family to ensure that this discipline is strictly maintained at prayer time. This discipline must be internalized by all members of the family, so that it comes spontaneously from within and does not have to imposed as a matter of parental authority. This, however, is the ideal towards which we must move. In practical terms, this becomes possible only through training, counseling and personal example over a period of time. As a rule, those who allow their minds to wander at family prayer time will also be found deficient in their staying power and concentration, and vice versa.

Given the importance of worship in family life, the need to make it a meaningful and transformative experience cannot be exaggerated. Approached either as mere routine or as a magical exercise, the spiritually and intellectually formative aspects of family worship may not be experienced. Worship should not be seen as something isolated form the general flavor of the life we lead. It must be seen as the resource for reforming and rejuvenating our life. The fullness of our personality and involvement must be brought to bear on it. The Bible must be read not as carrying out a customary practice. It must become the lantern to our feet and the light to our path, as it is meant to be. Praying has to be much more than the routine presentation of our shopping list to God. In a real sense, it musts become an opportunity to listen to God. The family assembled together at prayer must symbolize its God-centeredness. There must be time for self-examination as well as seeking direction form above. Family worship must be an exercise in truth, hiding nothing from the eyes of the all-seeing God. The transformative power of family worship depends to a large extent on our willingness to make the holiness of God the shaping principle of our family culture and personal life.

A disciplined approach to family worship also makes for a systematic and planned approach to our daily life. Worship sharpens our sense of accountability to God. This minimizes the excuse for being haphazard and erratic in our ways. God does not condone disorder, inconsistency or apathy. It is impossible to worship God in Spirit and in truth and yet live according to our mean instincts and tastes. It is from our worship life that we derive the motivation as well as the energy to lead a godly and noble life. This includes, among other things, a keenness to prepare ourselves prayerfully and practically for each day's responsibilities and opportunities. If we worship God "in Spirit and in truth", as Jesus said we should, we cannot side-step our duty to be "perfect, even as our Father in heaven is perfect." Family worship has no bearing on our daily life does not amount to true worship.

Yet another practical benefit from worship is the cultivation of the spirit of thanksgiving. When we are in the presence of God there are two things about which we become particularly sensitive:

  1. All that we are and all that we have point to the goodness and generosity of God;

  2. They far exceed what we deserve.

This catalyzes our sense of gratitude. The ungodly, in contrast, are given to grumbling, even in the midst of the blessings in their life. Worship is a sacrament of profound gratitude. On account of worshipping regularly, this becomes an stable attribute of the worshipper's outlook. On account of this spirit of gratitude, the believer becomes positive in his approach to life and inspired to enter fully into the possibilities in the given context. The disgruntled succumb to negativity and become blind to the goodness and glory within their reach.


Rev. Dr. Valson Thampu, who combines wide-ranging experiences in higher education, social action, multi-faith initiatives, media, preaching, research and writing, has been engaged in mainstreaming the Christian presence in India. Leaving the certainties of a coveted job, he plunged into public life a few years ago and has become, in a short span of time, a household name. A proponent of the “spirituality of seeking,” as against the religiosity of mere compliance, Rev. Valson’s writings are distinguished for their originality of thought and freshness of style. All of his writings are a contemporary response to the words of Jesus, “Cast your net in the deep”.

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