Conduct Gospel-Centered Funerals
When he hears of afflictions of any kind coming upon households, he [the minister] should not wait to be sent for, but should hasten to them with the rich consolations he gathers from the gospel. – Thomas Murphy, Pastoral Theology
Funerals tend to arrive at the minister’s doorstep with little notice. Though extended illnesses allow one to anticipate a funeral, most funerals come rather suddenly. An accident, a heart attack, an aggressive illness, a rapidly growing cancer, an undetected disease, a birth defect, a suicide—all tend to come without warning. As gospel ministers, we must be prepared for such occasions since the responsibility for pastoral care of the family belongs to us.
But the minister is not alone in family care. The local funeral home is also involved in care, albeit from a different perspective. My father was a funeral director during my childhood and adolescence. I had the opportunity to observe his concern and care for people going through the shock of death and the subsequent grieving process. He occasionally mentioned his concern for the people he served, but mostly I could see it in his actions and tenderness, as he often went far beyond normal funeral “service” to help people through their grief.
My father was far from alone in such care. Through the years, I’ve met many funeral directors and personnel compassionately serving those experiencing the loss of a family member. Certainly, for some it is just a job, but, honestly, it is difficult to work in an environment in which you regularly face death and grief unless there is a measure of concern for the grieving. Consequently, as gospel ministers, we must seek to partner with funeral-home personnel in offering broad care for those encountering the trauma of death.
As partners, it is important to remember each other’s role. As a gospel minister you should focus on six specific areas.
1. Providing pastoral care
By this, we mean that you recognize the death of a family member as a significant occasion when your members need shepherding. It is time to apply the gospel and its promises to help them through the rough, churning waters they must navigate. One of my church families went through the trial of watching their newborn struggle with an undetected birth defect during his first month.
Subsequently, they spent over three months in the local children’s hospital, with either the mom or dad constantly by the little fellow’s side. I visited with them often, always reading Scripture, talking of God’s promises, reflecting on the gospel, and praying for them and their little boy. We all shed many tears through that period. My wife and I were present when he breathed his last breath. We found the sufficiency of the gospel to be so comforting at that time. When I conducted the two memorial services for this little boy (one in our church, the other in the dad’s hometown several hours away), I was able to build on the pastoral conversations that I had had with the family. We all gloried in the gospel of Christ, so that, in spite of the intense sadness at the loss, we found comfort in the work of Jesus Christ.
2. Giving comfort through the Scriptures and your presence
Just being present means much to a grieving family. Often, the minister thinks he must come up with some pithy quote to help the grieving family. Better, however, is the minister’s comforting presence as one who loves and cares for the family. Listening to them, offering a consoling arm around the shoulders, reading from the Word of God, and praying in the midst of weakness mean much more than clever phrases. They will not remember many of our quotes, but they will remember that we stood with them in their loss. It is surprising how our selection of particular biblical texts stays with them, with some recalling a particular passage years later. I had this experience recently, as one of the older members at my church reminded me of a particular text that I had read to her as she worked through a time of grief many years earlier, though I had forgotten about it.
3. Representing Jesus Christ, the church, and the gospel
The minister visibly represents Christ’s ministry to the family. It’s not that the minister replaces Christ—that could never happen! But he does stand as one who has been in the presence of Christ, through the Word and prayer, and now stands with the grieving family. He is also the first face to meet the family and to apply the gospel to help them move forward. He is in a position to recognize how other members of the church can aid the family in distress, and so can direct the body toward offering member care.
As one representing the gospel, the minister must never see his role as simply saying what he thinks the family want to hear. He is to be faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ. I once attended the funeral of a man who had been very active until late-term cancer struck him down. Athletic until just a few months before his death, this man looked youthful even though he was in his seventies. One of the ministers at the funeral, rather than being straightforward about the promises of the gospel, twisted a well-known gospel passage to accommodate what he perceived would please the family and friends. He quoted John 3:3 (“Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God”) and told the story of Nicodemus’s visit with Jesus, but rather than talking about the new birth he said, “You see, Nicodemus wanted to remain youthful. He went to Jesus because he wanted to keep on living a full, youthful life.”
He continued by commending the deceased as one who had this same spirit, desiring youthful vigor. I was grieved that this man demeaned the gospel instead of applying it to the comfort of the family.
4. Setting forth the sufficiency of the gospel
The minister must be all about the gospel. By this, I do not mean that he looks at the grieving process and funeral as a prime evangelistic opportunity. A time for evangelism might present itself through the pastoral care but, more pointedly, the minister’s goal is to help the family understand that the gospel is about living and dying. The same gospel that gives us joy in life also gives us joy when facing death. As the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ triumphed over death, freeing those who trust Him from slavery to fear of death (Heb. 2:14–15). The minister’s task is to help the family to live in this truth.
But what if the deceased family member was not a believer? How can the minister offer hope? First, a minister must be careful about “preaching a person into heaven.” For the sake of the gospel, if the deceased offered no fruit of conversion, the minister must be cautious about assuming him or her to have been a believer and thus a recipient of gospel promises.
Second, however, the minister must also walk the tightrope of not passing judgment on a person’s eternal state. If the deceased had professed to be a Christian but showed little evidence, the minister might refer to the person’s profession but carefully not present it as though this person had passed into heaven. I have led numerous funerals when scant evidence of genuine faith accompanied the deceased. Yet I realize that, ultimately, that is not my call. I might say, “Mr. Brown professed Jesus Christ as his Savior as a young man,” and then mention this no more. Or I might relate a conversation with a spouse or relative: “Sally told me of a time, years ago, when Mr. Brown professed faith in Christ; we rejoice in this report.” Do not say more than that which you are assured of by the deceased person’s walk with Christ. However, if the deceased scandalized the gospel by his or her life–in spite of an earlier profession–it may serve all by not referring to the supposed profession, lest the hearers become confused about the demands of the gospel.
Third, the minister, out of desire to comfort the family, will also not preach the deceased into eternal perdition! I remember an occasion, when working for my dad on a funeral, when the minister used very clear language to declare the deceased to be under eternal judgment. He lightly cloaked it in judgment terminology but it was clear enough for me, as a teenager, to understand exactly what he intended. He was probably right about the deceased, but I question the prudence of making such an announcement at that time. Most of those in attendance were not under any pretense that this man had been welcomed in the presence of Christ! Rather, the minister might more judiciously say, “It is only those who have trusted in Jesus Christ and His redemptive work who will be forever in His presence,” or something along that line. In this respect, the minister does not place the emphasis on the deceased, but rather appeals to the living who have yet to trust in Christ.
5. Building relationships for ministry with the immediate and extended family
Walking with members of my congregation in their grief has put me into closer relationship with them. They rarely put on a front at such times. Their pain comes to the surface in comments that might otherwise never be uttered. The minister sees them as they are. He may hear things that surprise him; he may see attitudes that he had never before noticed. Build on such times.
The grieving period is not the best time to “attack” those areas of sanctification that surface in a church member’s life. But in the forthcoming weeks and months, the watchful minister is able to apply the teaching of Scripture to issues he recognizes in the grieving family. He can recommend choice books to read that might steer a person toward spiritual development in the area of need. Or he might pair a grieving person with someone else in the church who will come alongside as an encourager in the faith.
6. Providing long-term encouragement and counsel
The funeral service does not end the care. A family’s grief may be tender weeks, months, and even years after their loved one’s death. A word in season, a visit, phone call, email, or note will be welcomed long after the funeral is over. An acknowledgment on the anniversary marking the loved one’s death is often appropriate.
This reflection is drawn from Conduct Gospel-Centered Funerals: Applying the Gospel at the Unique Challenges of Death by Brian Croft and Phil Newton, published by Day One Ministries as part of their Ministering the Master’s Way series. If you found this reflection useful, you can read much more on this topic in the book.
This reflection is drawn from Conduct Gospel-Centered Funerals: Applying the Gospel at the Unique Challenges of D
Enna A. Bachelor