For most of my life, I rejected the “r” word. Ritual. After all, why would I want to pray someone else’s prayer? (Never mind the fact that this is precisely what we do when we read the Psalms.) Who wants to perform a mindless activity? Eventually, I realized that I had a hyper-individualistic conception of my faith, and that I completely misunderstood what ritual was about.
Ritual is not confined to religion, though it is typically associated with it. And, it frequently occurs in our lives regardless of whether we realize it; e.g., the activities which accompany birth, death, and birthday parties. As it is used here, ritual refers to “a culturally strategic way of acting in the world.”
Unfortunately, ritual is often viewed as a mindless activity wherein a worshipper manipulates God by repeating an action. While it is true that repeated activities are susceptible to autopilot, any activity (even the spontaneous) can be mindless. Intentionality, therefore, is critical. The beauty of ritual is that, when constructed well and entered into with full engagement, it is a powerful means of formation which can be leveraged for the family.
Why Create Family Rituals?
Recent research on ritual shows that, contrary to what many assume, it does not primarily symbolize belief. Rather, it embodies or effects belief. This means that ritual can mold and shape us in healthy directions while providing an alternative to aimless habits and reactionary postures which control and deform us.
Creating family rituals will not solve family struggles, but they will contribute toward a healthy environment. More importantly, they will be a regular source of bonding for family members. Here are three reasons why creating family rituals are important:
- We Grow Best in Community. Many people use spiritual disciplines as a means of spiritual growth, and while these are certainly important, they are insufficient by themselves. Biblical morality is intentionally communal in orientation; one cannot be moral in isolation.
- We are Formed by Patterns of Being. Recent research on the brain shows that learning happens most effectively through patterns. One of the principal ways we learn through patterns is through daily activities. This is why no matter how much our teachers or parents insist that we learn what they teach us, we always learn what we observe in them, i.e. the “hidden curriculum.”
- We Create our Own Reality. Peter Berger demonstrates in the Social Construction of Reality that our “reality” is based on a social construct. We grow up in that reality (or culture), and it powerfully shapes us. At the same time, we exercise influence over that reality as we question and modify the assumptions we thought were universally true (this observation, of course, does not mean that truth does not exist). The important point here is that everyone plays a role in constructing family culture (reality), and rituals are a key, proactive component.
Tips on Creating Family Rituals
- Make it Sacred. Rituals are made of otherwise normal actions. What sets them apart is how they are done. Consider sitting for meditation or prayer. We regularly sit throughout the day. What is different in the case of meditative prayer is the intentionality and manner of sitting (time, place, posture). Thus, one communicates the sacredness (set-apartness) of family rituals from other daily activities in how they are carried out.
- Choose Something Age Appropriate. The sacredness and even the ritual itself may not be immediately understood by children of all ages, and that’s ok! Lead by example and create age appropriate rituals. For younger children, shorter and simpler rituals are better. Instead of getting angry with fidgety, distracted kids, use your body language and speech to draw them in to what’s going on. Ultimately, our formation does not depend on a single instance of “getting it right,” but the formational power is in repeated consistency.
- Create Rituals Which Instill Your Values. Talk as a family (or with your spouse if the kids aren’t old enough) and decide what core values you hold. Pick something and design a ritual around it that capitalizes on a daily routine. Obvious ones include eating together, bed time, play time, leaving or reentering the home, etc.
- Be Consistent but Flexible. Creating effective rituals requires trial and error. Be willing to modify parts or the entire ritual to arrive at something that works. As kids get older, the content, length, or design might need to change as well. Also, don’t stress about forgetting or missing a ritual due to travel or some other reason. Rituals lose their effectiveness if neglected altogether, but they should serve your family—not the other way around!
Examples of Family Rituals
Here are a few rituals that our family uses.
- The Lord’s Prayer at Breakfast. This prayer shapes our daily expectations regarding God’s reign, our daily food, receiving and giving forgiveness, and making it through trials. Our family ends the prayer with “In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we receive our day.” This closing, which Dallas Willard apparently practiced, helps us recognize the role of the Trinity in our lives as well as posturing ourselves for receiving what God gives rather than what we hope to take for the day.
- An Advent Centerpiece. A centerpiece helps everyone remember and focus in on the current season. We highly recommend this handmade wooden wreath found at A Holy Experience which is also designed to work during Lent. All you need to do is integrate the centerpiece into a brief ritual at some regular point in your family’s day.
- A Lenten Centerpiece. Our family uses a small tray filled with sand to remind us of trials and temptation. We add a small wooden cross to remind ourselves that we have died to the world and sin. Also, a small bowl of water recalls our baptism. Finally, a small candle reminds us of the Holy Spirit’s presence in the wilderness.
- A Mezuzah. God instructed his people in Deuteronomy 6:9 and 11:20 to write his words on the doorposts (mezuzah in Hebrew) of houses and gates as a visual reminder to live by his word when going out and coming in. Consider using one or affixing some other object near your door to remind your family of his word. Say a brief prayer and touch it as you leave and enter.
- A Body Prayer. For each child, touch their head, eyes, ears, mouth, heart, hands, and feet. As you do, pray that God will lead them and that they will seek after him with each part. For example, when touching near the child’s eyes, pray, “Lord, help my daughter or son to see you working today.”
For further prayer ideas see 10 tips for your family worship time
 Catherine Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. Oxford University Press, 2009, vii, 7.