More on Family Altars

I wanted to write a post that shares an email that we received in response to the post on “Three Ideas“. This is from a friend, Jim Newville: (Thanks Jim for some great thoughts!)

“It was a long-standing custom for Christians to have some kind of altar in the home as the center for family prayer and worship. At least some Catholics and probably most Orthodox Christians still do this. (The Orthodox call it an “icon corner.”) Lutherans seem to be rediscovering this practice. (See and I think it survived in some Protestant traditions until fairly recently. I suspect those large, illustrated family Bibles are a remnant of this custom. In some Protestant circles, the term “Family Altar” survives as a synonym for family devotions.

In this media-saturated society, I think Christians, particularly children, need concrete and visible signs of their faith. I’m always disappointed when I go into a home, especially Christian homes, if there are no visible signs that they are Christians. I feel that there ought to be something to remind the family and inform guests that Jesus is the Lord of their home – a cross, a family Bible, a picture of Jesus, a plaque of the 10 Commandments, something. Instead of that, you have TV’s, and they are getting bigger and bigger. We grant televisions such prominent places in our home; why not the first place to the Lord?

As far as using a butsudan for a Christian altar, I think most Japanese Protestant Christians would bulk at praying before one even in Jesus’ name. When I was in Japan, the Norweigian missionary pastor of Rokko Lutheran Church introduced Taize music to his Japanese congregation. Even though the lyrics were obviously Christian, they complained that the music was too Buddhist. I think placing a cross in a butsudan may suggest to non-Christian Japanese that Jesus is just another kami or ancestor. This is why I suggest displaying scriptures affirming monotheism or the Lordship of Jesus. Perhaps displaying the apostles creed would be appropriate, since it confesses both the trinity and the resurrection. I do think a Butsudan could serve well as a family altar and provide opportunities to witness.

It occurred to me that Japanese Catholics may already use a modified butsudan as a family altar. There is (was?) a Catholic bookstore in Sannomiya (Kobe) run by an order called the Daughters of St. Paul. So I looked online and found that they do have them. I definitely prefer the ones with glass doors. (I think that if you are going to have a cross in a home, it should be visible, not hidden in a cabinet.) I wonder if Japanese Orthodox Christians use them for their icon corners. (I serious doubt it, but I don’t really have any idea.)

Finally, my charismatic background leads me to think that if a butsudan has been blessed in a Buddhist ceremony or used for Buddhist worship, it should not be taken over for Christian use without blessing it first. I would do this for the home as well.”

Note from Sue: Thanks for great ideas. They’re making us think….


2 thoughts on “More on Family Altars

  1. As a Catholic, influenced by Zen and practising contemplative prayer, I’m using a modern Butsudan, to display an old celtic cross, an orthodox icon, a statue of the Virgin Mary and an angel. It’s a wonderful place to center my daily prayer.

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