I am preaching a funeral today. It is someone I did not know. I have no idea what her spiritual condition was. A local funeral home contacted me and asked if I could help. I have probably done a 100 of these types of funerals in the last 10 years. How does a pastor know what to do and say for a funeral service like this? These 4 elements below can and should be applied in both this scenario, as well as the funeral of one of your most faithful church members:
1) The Unchanging character of God: You have all kinds of people who come to a funeral who are evaluating this death (and God’s role in it) in all sorts of ways. We must use the objective truth of God’s Word to cut through all the different subjective conclusions and judgments about God that are being drawn in the minds of people. I accomplish this by allowing the first words out of my mouth to be Psalm 145:17-21.
2) The hope of the gospel: This is our hope in life and certainly death. Therefore, the gospel must be clearly preached at every funeral you conduct. However, the setting of a funeral demands it be done clearly, yet sensitively. The best advice I ever received for funerals is this: Don’t preach the deceased into heaven, don’t preach them into hell, just preach the gospel for the people who are there. This is most helpful when conducting a funeral for someone with whom you didn’t know or doubted their eternal state. Regardless, it is a reminder that the gospel is the most important truth we can hold out to those looking for hope in the midst of death.
3) A call to respond to the gospel: If our focus is to preach the gospel to those who remain, then there must be some call for them to respond to the gospel. I hope we all agree that you cannot accomplish this in the setting of a funeral by some “hand-raising, music-manipulating, pleading to come forward during the 12th stanza of Just As I Am“ type of response. We can, however, plead with these people to respond in repentance and faith once the gospel has been preached in a similar way we should be pleading for sinners to turn to Christ every Sunday we preach. In both contexts, we trust in our sovereign God to awaken sinners to see their need for Christ and turn to Him as the gospel is faithfully proclaimed.
4) Instruct those present how to grieve: This is often overlooked as an essential for funerals, but one we must take seriously. Though the gospel being preached is the most important thing we can say, we also have the task to help these people know how to grieve over this loss. We accomplish this by walking them through the importance of talking about the deceased, sharing the things they loved about them, the impact the deceased had on them, and the important things they learned from them. This provides times to laugh and cry, which gives a helpful formula to walk through the grieving process. I think you will find the family of the deceased most grateful for your effort to instruct them in this way. As a result, I have found them more receptive to the other “most important and essential” elements that I share.
Pastors, consider how you would approach doing a funeral for someone you did not know. How would you handle it? How would you extend care to the family not knowing them or the deceased? Would you say yes if a funeral home called you with the same request? I submit to you it is one of the most fruitful and unique evangelistic opportunities we can have as pastors. As you consider what you would do or say, pray for me as I go and preach this funeral today.
For further book reading on this topic, go here.