How can a pastor prepare his own heart for a funeral?

Because there are so many elements to plan and logistics to prepare for, it is not uncommon for the pastor to have all his words prepared, service planned out, everyone in place, processional details checked off, and realize an essential element had been neglected—the pastor’s heart.  Do not become enslaved to the tyranny of funeral preparation, only to stand and conduct with an empty, drained, and calloused heart.  Do not underestimate the emotional and mental drain in comforting the grieving while preparing and conducting a funeral.  Thus, there are three areas for the pastor to take time and prepare his heart, mind, and soul.

1)  Prepare for the unexpected

Just when you think you have seen it all—the next funeral reveals you haven’t.  Even if you have seen fights break out, arrests made, uncontrollable wailing, family members and pallbearers fainting, caskets dropped and knocked over, shouting conflicts between families and funeral directors, or funeral attire that would make most people blush,  these experiences do not mean at all the next funeral will fit these experiences.  Because of this, prepare to see anything.  Prepare to get the craziest response to something you say.  Prepare to watch families at their worst.  This will allow you to think clearly and wisely when the unexpected happens.

2)  Prepare to minister God’s word

Though there is much to manage, administrate, and facilitate, you are not the concierge of the funeral.  You are a minister of God’s word and a preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Prepare your heart, mind and soul however you must, so that when you stand before people at the beginning of the funeral service, you stand to minister God’s word, trusting God will work mightily by his Spirit through his word.

3)  Prepare to extend the hope of Christ

You are not there to solve the family conflicts or to help the funeral home learn how to function more smoothly.  You are there to clearly present to each person the hope we have from sin and death because of Christ.  You can best prepare by thinking about who will be at the funeral service.  Consider what kinds of questions you could ask the family to surmise their spiritual condition as you talk with them.  Prepare questions ahead of time from the words you have prepared to share, so that gospel opportunities might show themselves in those conversations.

Wearing your administrator and facilitator cap through the process is necessary.  It will serve you as a helpful companion to maneuver through all the details and demands that always accompany funerals.  Nevertheless, you are ultimately a pastor and evangelist who is called upon by the Chief Shepherd to prepare and conduct funerals of dead men as “a dying man preaching to dying men (Richard Baxter).” Prepare and conduct funerals knowing the grieving are hurting, longing for tender care, and must look to Jesus as their only hope.

Posted in Funerals, Preaching

Should I Plant or Revitalize A Local Church?

Here is the sermon Brian Croft preached today at The Chapel Service of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary answering this question…kind of.

“Should I Plant or Revitalize A Local Church?”  (Titus 2)

Watch, Listen, and find out…

Posted in Preaching, Training for Ministry

How does a pastor evaluate his sermon one hour after preaching it?

This might surprise you, but one of the most dangerous times for a pastor are the hours following his Sunday sermon. You step down from the pulpit still wired and juices flowing as you greet those leaving from the service.  Then, like after a good jog, you begin to calm down, your body starts to return to “I’m not preaching mode” which then brings a temporary, but real emotional let down with it.

These reasons are enough not to trust our instincts and discernment in these moments.  Yet, what we also inevitably face during this emotional tailspin are the encouragements, comments, questions, and criticisms (or lack there of) given from those who sat under our sermon.  Needless to say, how objectively and honestly to evaluate our own sermon in the midst of all this can be a bit of a challenge.  Here are 4 suggestions I have found helpful:

1) Receive the encouragements now

Nothing lifts the spirit in the emotional spiral of post-sermon fitigue like a warm, honest, specific comment from a church member about how the sermon was helpful to them.  Those are a gift from God by His grace.  Receive it immediately, but receive it humbly realizing it was only the work of God to help that person, not the craftiness or eloquence of your sermon.

2) Store away the criticisms for Tuesday morning

Any criticisms you hear need to be received, graciously acknowledged, and then honestly considered, but not one hour after your sermon.  Most of us who have just poured our hearts out in preaching are not at a good place to evaluate criticisms.  Always graciously receive all comments.  However, those comments that may be particularly hard or even harsh to hear are better evaluated after 2 good nights of sleep.  Write them down.  Leave them on your desk.  Try to forget about them until Tuesday.  I have not always been able to do this, but when I have had the discipline to do so…it is worth it!

3) Look forward to Service Review later that evening

If you do not have a process in place to evaluate the services and sermons for the day with other pastors and those training for the ministry, I would strongly encourage you to do so.  About 4-6 of us meet for an hour on Sunday evenings after the evening service to discuss these things.  It is very helpful to try and evaluate your sermon among trusted, discerning brothers in your church who desire for you to grow.  See these previous posts for more info on the purpose and process of a Service Review.

4) Recognize your work is done

The best thing to do a hour after your sermon is to realize your hard labor from the week that peaked in the pulpit a few minutes ago is now over.  For better or worse, you were faithful.  Find great joy and encouragement that God will do the rest through his Spirit being at work in his people who heard the Word of God preached.  How peaceful we rest Sunday night as we lay in bed depends much on how much faith we have that God and his Word does the work and even my disappointing sermon I just preached does not change that.

Consider these suggestions as you set your hand to the plow this week that will culminate in the pulpit on Sunday.  I hope this helps you evaluate your sermons in a more fruitful manner.  There is one thing better than being willing to evaluate your sermons honestly and that is knowing “when” is the most fruitful time to do so.

Posted in Preaching

What 3 elements should be in every funeral sermon?

I was contacted last week by a pastor asking this question and thought there might be others asking it also.  The most helpful advice I ever received about preaching at a funeral for someone I didn’t know is: “Don’t preach them into heaven.  Don’t preach them into hell.  Just preach the gospel for the people who are there.”  This principle captures our task regardless the kind of funeral we do.  Ironically, though we focus on remembering and celebrating the life of the deceased, the funeral service is ultimately for those who attend.

The sermon is where the gospel must be preached clearly.  Only when we can personally have confidence in a person’s conversion should we feel comfortable to speak of the heavenly reward he/she has now received.  If there is any doubt in your mind, it is best to focus on the gospel for your hearers and resist the temptation to provide a false comfort that you have little or no basis to give.

A funeral sermon should not exceed 20 minutes and should highlight these three categories, preferably expounded from a text(s) of Scripture:

1)  Acknowledge the need to grieve 

The story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11) is particularly helpful as there seems to be a legitimate time of grieving for those present and sorrow for those who are experiencing the separation that death brings, including Jesus who wept (John 11:35).  I often share of the time my father sat my wife and me down, once we found out we had miscarried with our second child, and exhorted us to take time to grieve over this child, instructing us how to do so.

Don’t ever presume that people realize that grief is appropriate or that they know how to work through their grief by simply talking about their deceased loved one.  In actuality, many do not want to talk about them because of the hurt felt in loss.  Many pastors know that often, years later, people learn the value of this process, eventually working through the grief with some pastoral guidance.

2)  Make the hope of the gospel clearly known

True hope in grief cannot come apart from the hope of the gospel.  This is why the second and third portion of a funeral sermon focuses on Christ’s person and work.  Whatever text you choose to preach, make sure you are able to focus on the clear elements of the gospel from it:  God’s holiness, man’s sinfulness and deserving judgment, Christ’s perfect personhood and atoning work to save us, our essential response to repent and believe upon Christ.

3)  Call your hearers to respond to the gospel

To do so appropriately and effectively, you must prepare by knowing as much as you can about your hearers as well as the deceased.  You should assume Christians and non-Christians are present.  You should assume they all have come with a preconceived understanding on how we receive eternal life.  For example, I have done a funeral where ninety percent of those in attendance were devoted Catholics, another who were Mormons, and another where no one in the building had ever stepped foot in a church.

In every case, I explained the gospel clearly, called my hearers to repent of their sins, believe upon Christ, and trust in him.  Yet, in each of these different situations, I approached calling them to respond to the gospel differently, depending upon their preconceived understanding of the “good news.”  Exhort them to grieve.  Preach the gospel clearly and simply.  Help them understand their need for Christ as death is before them.  Call them to repent and believe.

Posted in Funerals, Preaching
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