I wish I could say that COVID-19 has been good for my patterns and practices of worship. I’ve kept up with times of prayer, Bible reading, and other spiritual reading. I’ve also had some Christian conversation, both in person and on Zoom. When it comes to worship, though, I must admit that my formal worship life has suffered. Instead of preparing for Sunday worship, many a late Saturday night was filled with streaming episodes of the Tiger King at the beginning of the epidemic and more recently the umpteenth episode of The Voice. While I still attended Sunday morning worship virtually, the digital experience, at least for me, was neither as consistent nor as formative as the face-to-face version that, in part, defined the previous fifty-one years of my life. I know I’m not alone in my preference for worshipping in person with my Christian community, but the longer we’ve had to endure this COVID-19 pandemic the more I realize that I’ve become too dependent on my local church for facilitating my worship.
This never would have happened in early Methodism. We don’t talk about it much anymore, but field preaching, class meetings, society meetings, and serving those in need were not the only ways Methodists supported each other in their search for perfection. Another key practice of the early Methodists was family worship or family prayer.
Have you heard of family prayer? John Wesley wrote at one point that it was the indispensable Methodist practice (Works, 3:270). The idea of family worship, or family prayer, is that every home is the spiritual heart of a person, couple, family, or whoever makes up a household at any given time. The point of family prayer is to gather everyone in a household, at the end of the day to pray, sing, read Scripture, share a testimony, and typically included a time of teaching or even preaching (Works, 2:99). If it was a Sunday, then the focus was specific reflection on the morning’s sermon in worship.
Early Methodists emphasized the smaller, more personal times of Christian formation. While Methodist history books rightly emphasized the important role of Methodist field preaching as well as society and class meetings, what is often downplayed if not ignored is the synergetic relationship between these larger groups and the more personal conversations that took place in one-on-one visitation and in family worship. Methodist practice was built on the belief that smaller and more personal settings, with the people we know the best, are often the best times to have deep conversations about the questions, doubts, and joys that run through life and faith. But family worship was about more than conversation about faith. It provided a place where people who are more mature disciples can mentor those in the earlier stages of faith, be they children or more recent, adult converts (Works, 7:81). In early Methodism, the broader Christian community certainly plays an essential role in Christian formation. But the role of household or family formation is just as critical.
I wonder sometimes if we modern Christians outsource some of our personal responsibility for family and household formation to our Christian communities. Our churches can help facilitate some of our formation, but Methodists are also called to take an active role in helping nurture those closest to us as disciples. For “godliness” as the early Methodists believed, is best nurtured through the “constant use of family prayer” (Works, 5:19). As we begin this new year, and, prayerfully, as COVID-19 moves more into our past than our future, let us reclaim this Methodist practice. May we help our churches see that their role is not only to teach and nurture us, but to train us to teach and nurture each other in our family units.