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Cover image via LDS.org.
We’ve all heard that familiar saying, “the family that prays together, stays together.” How does the nature and experience of family prayer create strong families? What can we learn from families that pray together? To understand this aspect of family life, from our National Study on Strong Religious Families, we conducted a study exploring how family prayer influenced family relationships. We reported our findings in a recently-published article in the Journal of Family Psychology.
From a family and social science perspective, we observed that family prayer was not only a religious practice – a time and space for worshipping god and remembering promises, but also a relational practice – a time of togetherness and a space for expressing love and concern to one another.
|Sacred Time & Sacred Space||Worshiping God & Remembering Promises||Talking Together, Expressing, & Receiving Support|
Family prayer as a time of togetherness
Our participants reported that family prayer was a time of togetherness and provided opportunties for talking with each other:
It’s a lot like family time, like when you say grace with everybody . . .That time is time that you set aside to spend with your family . . . It’s the time when we just kind of sit back and really take a break from what you are doing in your busy schedule. (James, 18-year-old Catholic son)
We are all at home, and we are able to stop and do prayer together. It is something we do as a family. You are worshiping as a family and [it] gives everybody times to stop and at least interact with each other afterward . . . To me it is heart-warming because we are all there, we are worshiping God . . . After prayer, everybody still sit[s] for a little bit and talk[s] to each other and play[s] and everything. So, to me it is good. It seems like a family time. (Pakeezah, Muslim mother)
Family practices . . . one of the most important [is family prayer]. I have discovered this as the kids got older: that family prayer was not just a prayer. It was because you all come together and they all have something to say, and sometimes you’d end up talking and laughing so much that you would have to [say], “Okay let’s have prayer.” I think it was just a very communicative time. (Irene, Latter-day Saint mother)
We [pray] as a family. Especially after prayer . . . the whole housesettle[s] down. There is no TV, there is no Internet . . . There is pureness of communication there, and it comes straight from the heart. You know, you just cannot get that any other way and especially close with the children. (Yameen, Muslim father)
We pray five times a day, so, this is a, I call it, the central activity for our daily life. We start our day in the morning with a prayer, we pray all during the day, and there’s one in the evening time. So, this is it. This gets us out of the usual norm. With the kids, “Let’s quit the TV and pray, and you go back to the TV later.” (Hakim, Muslim father)
It is a chance to breathe, to relax . . . We’ve had a busy week and here’s our time to be together, and we always take a deep breath before we do this and let all the thoughts, craziness, and worries, and everything slip away, and we say the blessing. (Gabriella, Jewish mother)
Family prayer is one of those rare family happenings that require intentional disconnection from other cares of the world, and intentional connection with family members and with God. These families indicated that family prayer was a time of worship as well as a time of interaction. By removing distractions, getting “out of the usual norm,” and setting aside time, families made intentional efforts to prioritize and be available for family prayer. Doing so reportedly made this a special time of family togetherness that stood out from the rest of the day. Many participants also mentioned family prayer occurred naturally in the context of other family routines such as mealtimes, bedtimes, and family traditions such as special occasions and religious holidays, along with times of special need.
Families today deal with challenges of “making more time for family” which may almost always seem insufficient. Even with this special time available, sometimes families struggle with distractions from devices – a phenomenon known as technoference – that can affect family conversations. At its best, technology connects us across oceans and minimizes distance and loved ones are easily available to communicate. At its worst, the wide array of technological connections can entangle us and create a false sense of urgency and consume our attention. Of course, moderation in all things and practicing digital hygiene can help technology be a good servant and not an evil master.
Emphasizing the importance of regular family prayer, President Hinckley said: “I know of no single practice that will have a more salutary effect upon your lives than the practice of kneeling together as you begin and close each day. Somehow the little storms that seem to afflict every marriage are dissipated when, kneeling before the Lord, you thank him for one another, in the presence of one another, and then together invoke his blessings upon your lives, your home, your loved ones, and your dreams.”16
Family Prayer as a Space for Social Support
Family members talked about their problems before, during, or after family prayer. This special space was an important part of family living. Couples, children, and siblings found such a time to draw support and strength from each other.
Two Lutheran siblings, Mindy (15) and Natalie (20), reported how they received support through family prayer.
I mean, anytime we have a problem, siblings or just a problem outside [in] the world, we come home and we [are] like, “I can’t take it anymore, this is too hard”. . . and always be ending up with, “Well what does the Bible say about it?”. . . then it goes to prayer. We always go back to prayer . . . and it’s always been that way . . . I mean it is just like a . . . security blanket knowing that you have your family behind you and God behind you and you can go back and you can have your parents and your siblings be able to sit down and pray for you, ask for help. It’s an awesome experience. (Mindy)
It’s a serenity thing. Like she said, a security blanket. A comfort to know that I can always come home and pray about things. And I know that there’s lots of times I call home, too, from school, [and I’m] like, “Okay just pray for me today.” And just knowing they’re supporting to me and going to God, it’s kind of a cool connection. (Natalie)
Mark, an 18-year-old Baptist son, gave a similar account when talking about his father praying with him and his other siblings before they left for school.
Dad still gets up early and prays with them, and prays with me, often before I go off . . . That, it’s meant a lot . . . I know that my dad cares for me, but also that he’s investing himself in my spiritual well-being, in my well-being in general. (Mark)
An Asian Christian couple shared these experiences in helping their teenage son through prayer:
There were several times this year, he said he felt bad when he came back home from school. He wanted me to pray with him hand in hand in his room, and then he felt better and went to sleep. Prayer has become his practice . . . It seems that he found answer[s] through prayer. (Mei-Fen, wife)
We have prayer time. This practice helps our family and helps our children to walk in the right way. If something happens to our family, we pray together to comfort each other, and to draw strength from God. (Meng, husband)
Family prayer was an indirect but conscious effort to convey individual and familial needs and to seek and offer social support. Families also used prayer to comfort and encourage each other, as illustrated by the following examples:
My eldest daughter was very nervous and afraid when she was in medical school. Our whole family would kneel down and pray for her whenever she had an exam. She felt great peace in her heart. (Shing, Asian Christian father)
We believe in the power of prayer in our family, and we pray every day together as a family . . . We encourage one another with prayer. Issues come up, and we pray together. (Jayla, African American Baptist mother)
Family members reported they “go to God” to “draw strength” and “comfort and encourage each other” through prayer. Personal and familial challenges were mitigated with affective responses. Parents and siblings responded by being there, praying for, and praying with those who needed support and encouragement. As a result of this joint pursuit, children and parents requested, received, and gave support. This highlights that family prayer had influence in offering a space for seeking, expressing, and receiving social support.
President Spencer W. Kimball shared this inspiring story:
From World War II comes a story of a young Utah boy who was called to serve his country in the faraway places across several time zones. On his wrist he wore the conventional wristband watch to tell him the time in the area in which he was living. But strangely enough he carried a larger, heavier old-time watch in his pocket, which gave another time of day. His buddies noted that frequently he would look at his wrist watch, then turn to the old-fashioned one in his pocket, and this lead them, in their curiosity, to ask him why the additional watch. Unembarrased, he promptly said:
“The wrist watch tells me the time here where we are, but the big watch which Pa gave me tells me that time it is in Utah. You see,” he continued, “mine is a large family – a very close family. When the big watch says 5 a.m. I know Dad is rolling out to milk the cows. And any night when it says 7:30, I know the whole family is around a well-spread table on their knees thanking the Lord for what’s on the table and asking Him to watch over me and keep me clean and honorable. It’s those things that make me want to fight when the goin’ gets tough. . . . I can find out what time it is here easy enough. What I want to know is what time it is in Utah.” (Adapted from Vaughn R. Kimball, “The Right Time at Home,” Reader’s Digest, May 1944, p. 43).
My family struggles to pray together. What can we do?
Families struggling to pray together may try to first work on their strengths. When does your family naturally gather together? Is it right before a meal? Or before bedtime? Or before breakfast? Using time and space from this already established routine make room for a short time of prayer. If you struggle with these routines, it would be helpful to begin by strengthening your family’s ability to get together. Be creative about scheduling time for regular prayer and keep it simple.
Are your family prayers a hallow ritual or a hollow routine?
Prayer when approached with anticipation, meaningful experience, and positive reminiscence has more benefits, than as a “hollow routine”. When observed with sincerity and meaning, family prayer can be a bonding experience that family members will anticipate. And when a meaningful and encouraging prayer is expressed, such feelings are preserved in positive memories that can be helpful for all those involved during times of need.
A Word of Caution
Do not put one another down in front of God.
Prayer may provide an opportunity for indirect communication. Remember, in religious families, God can be seen as a family member especially by young children. As they are forming attachment bonds with one another and with parents, it is important to make the time and space available through prayer “a safe haven” and “a secure base”. Although you may have good intentions, do not use prayer as an opportunity to correct, rebuke or indirectly say something distressing to another family member. Doing so creates a breach of trust and can potentially accentuate ill feelings due to the nature of the setting. Instead, be grateful for each other, express love and concern, and make it a time of joyful togetherness.
A Gentle Invitation
Create a sacred time and a sacred space and embrace the anticipation, experience, and reminiscnce available through family prayer.
Elder Bednar said, “Importantly, a home should be the ultimate combination of time and space wherein individuals and families remember most effectively God’s great and precious promises.”
With a home-centered, church-supported curriculum that clears the haze in front of an ever-present emphasis on righteous family practices at home, we can benefit from better experiences with family prayer. The Savior himself invited, “pray in your families unto the Father, always in my name, that your wives and your children may be blessed” (3 Ne. 18:21).
“Except the Lord Build the House,” Ensign, June 1971, 72.
Prayer, Deseret Book Company, 1977, p. 87
“Exceeding Great and Precious Promises,” Liahona, Nov. 2017, 92–93.