funerals

Preaching a Funeral For An Unbeliever

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Yes, I am actually posting.   It’s been a long while since I’ve posted–good to be back.

On occasion, I am asked to preach a funeral for one who has died without Christ.  The first time I encountered this difficulty was actually before I became a pastor.  My uncle died as an avowed atheist who had rejected Christ up until the end.  He died unexpectedly.  I remember my parents telling me how sad and hollow the service was, because he had rejected any notion of the afterlife.

For the pastor, a great tension exists.  On the one hand, you have grieving family members and friends who want the funeral to be about the deceased’s earthly life.  On the other hand, the Scriptures are clear about the reality of their eternal life (or death, as the case may be).   How does the minister of the gospel of Christ handle this?

Always acknowledge and validate the deceased’s life. This person is someone’s grandfather, grandmother, father, mother, son, daughter, etc.  In other words, this person was greatly loved and will be missed.   A lifetime of memories are stored on the bookshelves on their minds.  A myriad of pictures may be displayed by the casket representing a lifetime of events and experiences.  These cannot and should not be denied, even in light of their refusal to receive Christ in this life.

Develop a close relationship/friendship with the family of the deceased. Whatever the reason they asked you to do the funeral (such as:  you were the only one to visit them at their home or in the hospital; they looked you up in the phone book; you are the pastor of a relative, etc.), you must take time to get to know the family personally.  Visit them in their home, call them, go to the viewing at the funeral home or church.  Your presence speaks volumes.  You are not to simply arrive and preach your message.  You come alongside them and help share their grief and bear their burdens.  And you will be amazed at how they appreciate your presence and will lean on you for support.  At that point, you are as Christ to them by virtue of your calling into the Gospel ministry.  Which leads me to the next point… .

Remember your ultimate calling as a minister of the gospel of Christ, even in this situation.  In the course of your visits and conversations with the family, you will find yourself tempted to lessen the blow of the deceased’s eternal reality — something which can happen easier that it initially appears.  The family is so grieved and despondent that, even in light of the deceased’s apathy or even outright rejection of Christ, may comfort themselves in thinking that the deceased is in “a better place.”  The alternative of believing someone they loved so dearly is suffering eternal judgment in hell may be too much to bear.

But even so, we have a higher calling.  The funeral is for those in attendance, not just the one in the casket.   Remind those in attendance of this fact, then show them the comfort that may be found.  How?  “Preach Christ crucified!”  The reality of Christ must break through the muddle of thoughts that are settling in their grief-stricken minds.  While they may comfort themselves that many other issues and thoughts, family and friends, and fill in the blank — in reality, the only comfort that may be found in any circumstance or situation is in Christ.  We must not turn away or be ashamed of Christ, even if it means breaking through their sensibilities of what the ‘afterlife.’

I have put out some other posts on preaching a funeral:

Scriptures I Use For Funeral Services

Practical Tips For Preaching a Funeral

Any other thoughts on this matter?

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When Interruptions Lead to Opportunities

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When I returned home from Spring Break this past April, I received a phone call from a wife whose husband was in the grip of throat cancer.  He was to have surgery that would be very risky.  He wanted to talk to “the preacher at Boone’s Creek.”  So I went to visit him.  He was one who had been at church during his teenage years, but strayed.  He was 69 years old, and he wanted to make sure his relationship with the Lord was there. I had the pleasure of sharing the Gospel with him and he received Christ.

He made it through the surgery, but he lost his battle with cancer this past Thursday.  I had to do his funeral this past Sunday right after church.
The funeral obviously had a decided celebratory mode to it.  I was able to share his story and share the Gospel that had transformed his final days.

What may have been seen as an interruption was a glorious opportunity.  So, dear pastor, please embrace whatever interruptions that may come your way.  God may well be sending you an opportunity.

Hebrews 13:1-2 says, “Let brotherly love continue.  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

Scriptures I Use For Funeral Services

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Given the nice response I received from posting Practical Tips for Preaching a Funeral, I would like to follow up on this post with an answer to Gunny Hartman’s question found in the comments section: “Any particular format you use or favorite Scripture passages or other readings?”

I would like to touch on the favorite Scripture passages I use. Whenever I am called upon to preach a funeral of someone I really did not know all that well, I gravitate to John 14:1-6 and use a simple outline adapted from a John MacArthur sermon on this very passage:

1. Jesus comforts us with His presence (John 14:1);

2. Jesus comforts us with His promise (John 14:2-3);

3. Jesus comforts us with His pathway (John 14:4-6).

Again, you don’t want to give a full, 30-45 minute exposition unless the family requests it. Yet that does not mean we forsake structure.  This passage most certainly ‘works’ whether the person was a believer or not (or even if it was in doubt). 

When a Christian dies who suffered a long while with a debilitating condition, I believe one of the bests passages to preach on 2 Corinthians 5:1-10:

For we know that if the tent, which is our earthly home, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. [2] For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, [3] if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. [4] For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened–not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. [5] He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.

[6] So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, [7] for we walk by faith, not by sight. [8] Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. [9] So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. [10] For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil (ESV). 

Granted, this particular passage is following 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 in which Paul speaks of how ministry physically wears him out but spiritually is setting up for him an eternal weight of glory. Yet, as Christians, we do understand how important it is to maintain the faith even in times of physical distress and duress. This passage is appropriate for those who maintained their strong faith regardless of these circumstances.

(Another passage for this is Psalm 116:15, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.”)

At the interment, I read two passages of Scripture:  1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and Revelation 21:1-5.  I use these passages to establish a hope for all Christians that this burial is not the end.  In fact, we need to comfort and encourage with the hope that awaits the Christian — a kingdom where “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4, ESV).  For the listening unbeliever, they will see what awaits the Christian and will plant some seeds of the Gospel. 

While these are not the only Scriptures I use, these are ones that jump out at me.  What Scriptures do you use for services?

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Practical Tips for Preaching a Funeral

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Today (Monday) was an exceedingly sad day — I had to preach a funeral of a member who was of great encouragement to me. While I feel the immense privilege of preaching a funeral and being able to minister at such a critical time, I find that there are some lessons that I have learned in regards to preaching a funeral sermon.

First, spend time with the family of the deceased. There is no substitute for this. It’s not enough to simply preach a sermon during this occasion. There is pastoral work to be done. Be there at least by the day after the family members’ death — after the funeral arrangements have been made and other personal issues are in order. Go to where they are and just sit and listen. Some would say, “I don’t want to intrude on family time.” To that I say, if had the choice of erring on the side of a personal presence or no, I would err by risking intrusion. You will be able to tell in about 15 seconds if it is a bad time — but they will appreciate the gesture and may well give you a better time to come by. And when you do, be prepared to listen, to inquire, to go through pictures, read letters, hear wonderful stories. But most of all, be prepared to be the Lord’s presence to them at that time. Since you are a minister, you are an ambassador for Christ — and even the most pagan individual will see you as such (and may not understand why).

Second, when you preach keep it short — 12-15 minutes top — unless the family asks you otherwise. Yes, the family asked you as the minister to do the funeral — but this time is not about you or your sermonic skills or for you to take pride that the family asked you to preach at such a life-altering occasion. You are there to represent Christ and to give his Word — but take care. The family is emotionally, spiritually and in all likelihood physically drained. And listening takes energy. An economy of words would suit everyone well here.

Three, share the Gospel without fail. Yes, address the reason why you all are gathered in that place. Yes, eulogize and recall some fond memories. Yes, address the family and send your condolences on behalf of yourself and the church you serve. But shame on any minister of the Gospel who does not share the Gospel to people who are most open to hearing about this. Some would object and say, “This is manipulation! You shouldn’t take advantage of people in that state.” But death is what the majority of people are most afraid of, and the finality and mortality of this age is clearly front and center. And, as was the case with this individual’s funeral I did on Monday, this person dealt with some severe medical issues and remained resolute, the family and friends looking on need to know why. So tell them the Gospel of Jesus Christ and give them the encouragement that the Apostle Paul gave in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18:

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. [14] For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. [15] For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. [16] For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. [17] Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. [18] Therefore encourage one another with these words.

Fourthly, be the last one to leave. If you end with a graveside service, stay until everyone else is gone. Don’t say, “Amen!” then run to the car. Stay with the family until they leave. Walk out with the last family member if possible. Be the Lord’s ambassador right until the end. If there is a meal afterwards for the family and they invite you to stay and partake, stay and partake. Some very pastoral and teachable moments happen on such occasions that would not happen at any other time. So take advantage of the opportunities God brings your way.

Lastly, touch base with the family one week after the funeral. By now you may be saying, “Matt, I thought this was about preaching a funeral.” Yes, and by you showing that you care outside the pulpit, you will give more credence to what was said in the pulpit. There is something to be said for living a sermon, not just preaching one.

Those are my tips. What about you? Any tips come across your mind?

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