The three years that Lisa and I spent up at Oxford were some of the best years of our lives. We had the time to study and the leisure to explore one of the world's most beautiful cities, with opportunities to engage in gospel ministry and form lasting friendships. By the grace of God, we also had a balanced daily schedule that enabled us to set patterns for family life that prepared us for future service in the church. One essential part of that daily pattern was and is family dinner.
Family dinner has fallen on hard times in American culture. Barely half of American teenagers say they have dinner with at least one parent most nights of the week. And whether they have dinner together or not, nearly one half of American families eat dinner with the television on. This is significant because the family dinner table is a bell-weather for our culture. The relevant research shows that children from families that eat together generally do better in school and are less likely to engage in risky behavior.
The reasons for the decline of the family dinner table are not hard to find. Sadly, some families are not close to begin with, and would prefer not to have dinner together anyway. Some households are led by hard-working single parents who are not able to be home every night at dinner time. Other families have too many activities going on. With all the late nights at work, activities at school, practices for music and sports, and meetings at church, the faces around the table change from one night to the next.
This is why Lisa and I are grateful for the basic pattern that was set during our time at Oxford, when we had dinner as a family almost every night at 6 o’clock, and when I was at home and available for the evening routine: play time, bath time, story time, and bed time, with singing, Bible stories, prayer, and of course, brushing teeth.
Things are a little more complicated now. We have five children, instead of just one, and my job is more demanding. But family dinner remains a regular part of our daily schedule. There are exceptions, of course, but most nights we all sit down together between 5:30 and 6:00. We're not slavish about our routine, but usually we have short family devotions (sometimes with singing), followed by all the other jobs that have to be done before bedtime.
Many good things happen around the family dinner table. To begin with, there is healthy nutrition. Families that eat together tend to eat more balanced meals, with more fruits and vegetables, rather than snacking on junk food all night. There is also the opportunity for good conversation—for discussing the unexpected joys, the little disappointments, and the providential encounters of everyday life. Then family dinner is a civilizing process, as children learn what mannerly things one is to do (and not to do) when eating with other people. It can also be a learning experience in other ways: a place for engaging the mind and learning the Christian worldview by discussing important things that are happening in the wider world, including in the church. And whenever Christian hospitality is practiced, there is an opportunity to learn these things from others.
But maybe as important as anything else is the sense of being together as a family. The people we see around the table are the first people God has given us to love. Every time we eat dinner together we are reinforcing the bonds of family connection. We tell the stories, use the nicknames, share the jokes, and learn the mutual respect that makes us uniquely who we are as a family. Our loving bonds of family identity are further strengthened when we spend time together in worship through singing, Bible reading, and prayer. In the same way that public worship helps us belong to the people of God, family dinner can establish a secure sense of belonging to a household.
I say “household” because these blessings are not limited to nuclear families. They are extended from families to singles who are welcomed in Christian love. They are also available to singles who live under the same roof or even to people who live alone, if they are committed to healthy relationships and intentional about pursuing godly patterns of community life that include the sharing of common meals.
The Scriptures do not give us any specific command to have family dinner. Strictly speaking, the only required meal on God's plan is the Lord's Supper. However, the Bible places a high positive value on feasting and everywhere seems to assume that God's people will share table fellowship. Indeed, this was a notable feature of the public ministry of our Lord, who loved to sit down with people for a meal.
We see the same thing in the early church. When Luke described the community life of the first church in Jerusalem, he said that Christians were “breaking bread in their homes” and receiving “their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God” (Acts 2:46). Luke was talking about something more than the Lord's Supper; he was talking about God-centered fellowship in the life of the Christian home. And he was talking about it in the context of a basic act of human companionship: sharing a meal.
Are you making good use of whatever opportunities you have for family dinner? The people of God are called to take their eating and drinking seriously and joyfully. As we take delight in the abundance of God's provision, we can also offer Christian hospitality, bless our children, strengthen the ties of family affection, learn what is happening in one another's lives, engage in edifying conversation, make our households a place for prayer, and gratefully return our thanks to God.
[Information for this Window on the World comes from Nancy Gibbs, “The Magic of the Family Meal,” Time (June 12, 2006), pp. 51-54, who cites data from a study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University]
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