The events I dreaded the most when I first became a pastor were funerals. But not every funeral.
Some funerals are easy: you know the person, and you know that they were a believer. There is nothing easier than pointing to the hope that a Christian has as they enter the grave and into eternal life.
But the funerals that scared me most were the ones that I would have to do for people I didn’t know and who were unbelievers. Some unbelievers know they’re unbelievers. Many more think that because they quoted the pledge of allegiance and said “under God” with gusto, they are probably good with God and will go to heaven. There are also a fair number of families that don’t know what else to do when someone dies, so they call the Baptist preacher and have a Christian funeral.
But we are people of conviction and kindness. This means that we cannot just preach anyone into heaven, because we haven’t been given the authority to do so. And we can’t condemn anyone because we don’t know their heart. A man with a past like the thief on the cross may spend this day in paradise, while a man with a resume like Judas may, this day, find himself in hell.
Whatever circumstances bring an unbeliever to the church house for a funeral, here is my strategy for preparing to do an unbeliever’s funeral:
1. Don’t lie. Don’t preach a person into heaven when they’re not there. Remember: the family knew that person better than anyone, and they know if you’re making them into something they weren’t. Conversely, don’t assume that everyone there understands the eternal ramifications of belief on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. At the most vulnerable point of many of their lives—when their hearts are soft—this is a time for a us to bring clarity and gain credibility with the living, not throw it away.
2. Tell the truth in love. We must resist the temptation to use this phrase: “Billy’s in hell right now, and the thing he’d want you to know more than anything is that you don’t have to go there”. If we say that, we’ve denigrated the dead and ostracized the living, all while being a stumbling block that people trip over before they even see Jesus. Are we a bigger rock than Christ? Do we absolutely know that, in the seconds before he breathed his final breath, he didn’t call upon the name of the Lord? We have to remember that we are not the Lawgiver—we are gospel-proclaimers.
3. Find redeemable, Christ-magnifying qualities. Did that person love his wife well? Was that person active in her community? Were his grandchildren his delight? Was she generous or kind? Frugal or hard-working? Even the most miserly old man has exhibited something that images his creator at one point or another. When we find it, we should use it as a transition to what the Word says about the One who displays quintessential character. We need to redeem that trait, while making sure we redeem it in order to point to the Redeemer.
4. Find something unique that reminds the audience of the gravity of the situation. Did old Bill like Duck Dynasty? Then we can try something like this:
Every time you’re flipping through the channels and come across Bill’s favorite show, and you see uncle Si up to his crazy antics, think of Bill. Think of all the wonderful memories y’all shared. But don’t stop there. Think of this moment, when you lost Bill, and let your mind wander to matters that we consider today. Matters of eternal weight and gravity. Matters of life and death. Heaven and hell. Gospel and belief. You know, Christ said that those who call upon him don’t have to fear a moment like this.”
Then, we should tell them why.
5. Proclaim the gospel. We cannot let one of the best opportunities for gospel proclamation pass. We are ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and we owe people the gospel. We should not be ashamed of it—it’s what everyone expects from a faithful minister. But more importantly, it’s what Christ expects of his servants. I am tired of going to funerals and not hearing the gospel proclaimed. If we, as preachers, do a funeral and don’t explicitly share the gospel, then we need to find another line of work, because we’ve been unfaithful to the kind of kingdom-calling of preaching the Word.
Doing funerals is scary, weighty and grave. It’s an occasion for eternal souls to ponder their future. We should strive to do it well, speaking the truth with kindness and evangelizing the lost. This is our holy task as ministers of the gospel.