Broadly conceived, family worship may refer to any type of religious activities occurring in the home. It may include prayer at meals and other times, singing, reading of the Bible or other devotional literature, meditation, listening to recordings of religious music, poetry, or prose, and other activities. It may occur on a regular schedule or irregularly. It may be observed by individuals alone, or in groups.
More narrowly defined, it would refer to group activities only (as distinguished from "private" worship), involving two or more household members and including something more than routine prayer at meals.
Broadly conceived, nearly all Mennonite families have family worship since almost all practice some form of grace at meals. According to information gathered in the 1972 survey of members of five Mennonite and Brethren in Christ denominations, 83 percent of households said grace at every meal and another 13 percent at most meals. However, only 45 percent reported having "a family or group worship, other than grace at meals." By 1989 70 percent said grace at every meal, and the percentage of families holding group worship dropped to 34 percent.
Christian education publications uniformly encourage families to conduct worship in the home, and a variety of worship aids have been published throughout the centuries.
Worship in Mennonite homes had its beginnings in the small, hidden congregations of Anabaptists that gathered for worship from 1525 onward. Avoiding worship in the state churches of Switzerland, Holland, and Germany, and suffering persecution at the hands of the civil authorities, worship gatherings were secretive and irregular, and took place in homes, barns, sheds, and even caves, wherever there was sufficient space to contain the worshipers.
Friedmann (1973, p. 147) reports that "sources on the conduct of worship among Anabaptists during the 16th century are almost nonexistent." The "Congregational Order" that appears to have circulated with the Schleitheim Confession mandated daily reading of the Psalter at home. To what degree families had worship within their own households in addition to their larger gatherings is not known. Early documents indicate that the Hutterites conducted a "worship hour" at about 6 p.m. which came to be known as Das Gebet, a daily practice that is still observed by Hutterites (Hostetler, 1974, p. 168). This, of course, is a colony gathering, not a household worship. Since other Anabaptists generally did not live in colonies, a daily worship service for the congregation would have been impractical.
Evidence that family worship was practiced in some homes in the 17th and 18th centuries stems from the emergence of prayer books for use by families and individuals as well as in public worship. The most popular of these was the Swiss-Mennonite devotional book, Güldene Äpffel in silbern Schalen (Golden Apples in Silver Bowls), published anonymously at Basel in 1702 and 1742, with many later editions. Other works that served Mennonites in Switzerland and surrounding areas were Send-Brieff (published about 1720), Die Ernsthafte Christenpflicht (1739 with many later editions), and Kleines Handbüchlein (1786 and later editions). The development and use of devotional literature was probably related to the growth of Pietism in the 18th century, which emphasized the cultivation of a spiritual "inner life."
The Dutch Mennonites, enjoying an earlier and greater political tolerance than did the Swiss, produced religious literature earlier and in greater quantity than the Swiss and South German Mennonites. Notable among their productions were several widely-read literary works by Peter Petersz and Johann Philipp Schabalie, and, of course, van Braght's Martyrs Mirror. A few works by Dutch and Prussian Mennonites contained prayers and hymns for use in public as well as private worship, but the more pietistic, devotional prayer books were not generally produced (Friedmann, 1949, chap. 11).
Bender reports that English-speaking American Mennonites have never produced nor used prayer books in public worship, and seldom, until recent times, in private or family worship. However, a variety of short prayers are usually found in the worship guides and booklets that have been published for use in homes in the last half century.
Contemporary family and individual worship patterns were investigated in the 1972 church member survey. The proportion of respondents who reported that they experience family worship, whether daily or less often, was: Mennonite Brethren, 61 percent; Brethren in Christ, 51 percent; Evangelical Mennonite, 44 percent; General Conference Mennonite, 43 percent; and Mennonite Church (MC) 41 percent.
The practice of family worship appears to increase with age, with proportions ranging from about one-third among the 20-29 age group to nearly two-thirds among those over 70 years of age. The proportions having family worship did not vary significantly between educational levels, socioeconomic levels, or rural-urban residence categories. This seems to indicate that Mennonite household worship practices have not been curtailed under the impact of the secular forces of urbanization and educational and economic advancement.
Ministers and non-ordained congregational leaders had higher rates of family worship than non-leaders. Family worship rates were highly associated with frequency of church attendance and other aspects of church participation. Higher rates were associated with higher scores on scales measuring orthodoxy of religious beliefs and adherence to Anabaptist principles. It is clear that church members in households conducting family worship, on the average, scored higher on all measures of religious attainment.
An important corollary of family worship is the practice of grace at meals. Only about four percent of Mennonites and Brethren in Christ households seldom or never have grace at meals. Four percent pray both before and after meals, a custom largely inherited from the Amish of bygone days. The remaining 92 percent have prayer before every meal or most meals.
Hostetler reports that prayer among the Amish is mostly silent. "Rarely is there a spontaneous audible prayer," although in some families the father may read a prayer from the prayer book when the family gathers before retiring (Hostetler, 1980, 165). Silent prayer was the custom also among Dutch Mennonites in the 16th and 17th centuries, and among some of the more conservative churches, on down into the 19th century. It is probable that prayer customs (silent or audible; kneeling, standing, or sitting; memorized, read, or spontaneous) in the homes mirrored the custom followed in the congregation. Also it is likely that prayer customs, whether silent or audible, spontaneous or memorized, depend heavily on the skills and creativeness of the persons who lead the family worship.
Van der Zijpp reports that "family worship has never been very popular among the Dutch Mennonites, though it has been held occasionally". He adds that formerly prayer was offered, usually silent, before and after meals, a custom still evidenced in many Dutch Mennonite homes.
The 1972 survey item, "Are prayers offered audibly or silently at meals?" elicited the following response pattern: "always audibly," 43 percent; 11 usually audibly, sometimes silently," 29 percent, "usually silently, sometimes audibly," 19 percent, "always silently," 9 percent. Silent prayer is more common among the Mennonite groups with strains of Amish in their backgrounds (particularly the Mennonite Church (MC) and is almost totally lacking among the Mennonite Brethren.
The use of memorized prayers is widespread among Mennonites, particularly for grace at meals. Parents often involve their children in family prayers at meals, bedtime, or other times, by having them learn and repeat memorized prayers appropriate for their age. Historically the Lord's Prayer has been widely used in both public and family worship.
Although the Dordrecht Confession of Faith does not refer to family or private worship, the 1963 Mennonite Confession of Faith (MC) includes a statement that "the Christian home ought regularly to have family worship." The 1995 Confession of faith in a Mennonite perspective does not make explicit reference to family worship. The denominational committees on Christian education include in their portfolios the promotion of family and private devotions, and have been instrumental in preparing worship aids for use in homes. For many decades the Sunday school lesson quarterlies included daily Scripture readings related to the International Sunday School lessons, intended for use at home.
The Women's Missionary and Service Association (MC) and its forerunners from 1925 onward published a Prayer guide for home use until 1960. Denominational family worship periodicals in the United States and Canada have been published since the late 1950s. These included: Light for the day and Licht für den Tag, 1959-71, published by the Conference of Mennonites in Canada; Family worship, 1961-71 (MC); Our family worships, 1961-71 (GCM), and Worship together, 1966-71, Mennonite Brethren. In 1972 these five publications were succeeded by Rejoice!, sponsored conjointly by the three denominations, a testimony to the increasing integration of Christian education programs by these major Mennonite bodies.
A rationale for conducting family worship is hardly required. A variety of pamphlets and articles have appeared promoting family and private worship in Mennonite homes during the past half century. Family life education programs have invariably emphasized the importance of family worship, reflecting the oft-quoted phrase, "the family that prays together, stays together." A 1984 publication authored by the Palmer and Ardys Becker, Creative family worship, inquires "Why family worship?" Their answers: To provide intimate Christian fellow ship, give glory to God, learn biblical truths and values, prepare for witness and service, build parent-child relationships, and foster personal growth. The book includes suggestions for songs, readings, and other activities for conducting family worship.
Augsburger, A. Donald. "Parental Roles in the Development of Attitudinal Patterns in the Family Worship Experience." MRE Thesis, Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1956.
Becker, Palmer and Ardys. Creative Family Worship. Newton, KS: Faith and Life, 1984.
Bohn, Ernest. "Religion in the Home" in Proceedings of the 6th Annual Conference on Mennonite Cultural Patterns, held at Goshen College, August 1-2, 1947: 87-94.
Christian Family Relationships, Proceedings of the Study Conference on Home Interests ... held at Goshen College, ... August 28-31, 1959. Mennonite Commission for Christian Education, 1960, various articles.
Friedmann, Robert. "Hutterite Worship and Preaching." Mennonite Quarterly Review 40 (1966): 5-26.
Friedmann, Robert. Mennonite Piety Through the Centuries. Goshen, N.: Mennonite Historical Society, 1949: 105-202.
Friedmann, Robert. The Theology of Anabaptism. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1973: 147.
Hostetler, John A. Amish Society. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press,1980):165-66.
Hostetler, John A. Hutterite Society. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1974: 168.
Kauffman, J. Howard and Leland Harder. Anabaptists Four Centuries Later: a Profile of Five Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Denominations. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1975: 96-99, 178-79.
Kauffman, J. Howard K and Leo Driedger. The Mennonite Mosaic: Identity and Modernization. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1991.
Kauffman, Nelson E., ed., For Family Worship: a Series of Doctrinal Meditations Based on Scripture Selections in the Family Worship Hour... Scottdale, PA: 1949.
Mumaw, John R. "Vital Experiences at the Family Altar." Christian Ministry 5 (1952): 216-19.
Mumaw, John R. Worship in the Home .Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, ca. 1941.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 293-294. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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