Even though I have some reservations about personal devotional books, expressed here, family devotions are another story, and while some formats are “less optimal” than others, time set aside as a family to talk about God’s word and its application to everyday life is time well spent. The quantity doesn’t matter as much as the consistency; if everybody is knocking themselves out to get to church on Wednesday night, or if soccer practice is going to interfere with Tuesday and Friday nights during the season, family devotional time can be flexible. What it should not be is dispensable.
Formats are up to you. Some families prefer reading scripture straight through and discussing questions as they come up. Others would like a little more structure. The NIV Family Reading Bible I reviewed yesterday presents an easy way to get into Bible reading together, and there have always been published guides like Our Daily Bread and Table Talk which can be adapted to a group setting. But other books are written and marketed to Christian families with ages, interests, time concerns, and relational dynamics in mind–like these two. I’m dispensing with the ratings for this post; though different in approach, both are recommended.
Exploring Grace Together: 40 Devotionals for the Family, by Jessica Thompson. Crossway, 2014, 127 pages. For ages 8 and up.
In her forward to this book, Elyse Fitzpatrick recalls the impetus and process of writing Give Them Grace, an antidote to the “Parenting Covenant of Works” that bedeviled so many Christian families (co-written with her daughter Jessica Thompson). After Give Them Grace was published, Elyse and Jessica began receiving feedback from parents who were grateful to be relieved of the burden of guilt if their kids weren’t always showing godly attitudes. But at the same time, they wanted specific direction about passing on to their children the same grace they had received: “How do we talk about the Bible and still remember the work Jesus has done?” Exploring Grace Together was written to help meet that need, though Jessica Thompson cautions parents that they might not see immediate “results.”
This is worth remembering: the stories all point to the gospel of Christ, and the questions are intended to draw out a child’s responses, but they won’t always respond as you’d like. They may even sit back in their chairs and sulk about being forced to stay at the dinner table when they’d rather be running around outside. Convicting and saving a child is the Holy Spirit’s job, not the parents’. But a grace-filled mom or dad will continually point the way, and that’s what these devotionals are all about. Each one begins with a Bible verse, a short illustrative story, and 3 or 4 questions to stimulate discussion. The stories center around the everyday concerns of children: Why are some kids so mean? What does it mean to be nice? Why do I sometimes feel bad? Why do some people want to fight all the time? As we often discover, the everyday concerns of adults aren’t that much different, and 0lder family members will be able to relate. Thompson is addressing the sinful heart of every child, but she does it warmly and sensitively (in the best sense of that overused word). The stories are intriguing enough to stimulate discussion even without the questions, and as a bonus, the book is very compact and can be easily taken along on an overnight or a vacation.
God’s Wisdom, by Sally Michael. P&R Publishing, 2014, 119 pages. For ages 6-12.
The author of God’s Names, God’s Providence, and God’s Promise here uses the book of Proverbs as the lamp for her exploration of wisdom. Though not specifically designed as a devotional guide, the book can serve that function, with scripture readings, lessons and examples from scripture, two discussion questions and an activity for every chapter. The book is also illustrated (Jessica Thompson’s is not). It’s too much material for a family to complete in a single sitting, though, so each chapter could be split up over two or three nights or serve as the basis for a family Bible class once per week. It’s definitely to be used by parents with children, rather than children reading independently. The 26 chapters develop the idea of biblical wisdom in a deliberate, cumulative manner: first contrasting wisdom with foolishness, then defining foolishness by looking at the various kinds of a fool (four kinds, in case you were wondering), then defining wisdom by looking at God, and finally describing eight characteristics of the wise man or woman. The lessons end, as they began, with Jesus, for it’s s clear that we can’t aspire to this virtue by ourselves: “Only Jesus is the bridge from the path of foolishness to the path of wisdom.”
This book generally takes a theological, propositional approach to the subject matter, in contrast to the relational and experiential tone of Exploring Grace Together. I would suggest the same cautious attitude to the material that Jessica Thompson does for her book: all of the questions in God’s Wisdom are important for a young child to think about, as long as we don’t “lean in” with folded arms and judgmental attitudes. Depending on the child, questions about heart attitudes might not be answered honestly, if at all. For example, “What are you filling your life with? What do you treasure most?” Most children learn very early what their parents want to hear, and may give them the “right” answer, or may refuse to say anything. Soul-searching questions are best for one-on-one conversations; in a family setting, I would stick to the observation questions and encourage the kids to think about the more introspective ones on their own. At the same time, parents are encouraged to share their own struggles and failures. Sally Michaels has done a lot to illuminate the character of God Himself for children, and this book is another strong example.
Betsy reviewed some summertime devotional guides here, and even though it’s a little late for Easter, you might want to consider Megan’s review of Why Easter? for next year. We like Sally Lloyd Jones’s Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing, and I found some pleasant surprises here and here. And for the ultimate in family devotional time, consider Emily’s read-along of Pilgrim’s Progress, available in a convenient download.