“Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).
First, let’s make the point that nowhere does Scripture say preachers have to preach funerals. In fact, there’s not a word in the Bible about the necessity to even have funerals.
But there is a great deal about comforting the grieving and hurting.
We who are called into the ministry must not claim this funeral prerogative as our divine right. If we are invited to “preach a funeral,” someone wants the comfort we are able to give because of Jesus Christ.
Don’t miss that.
And try not to abuse the privilege.
Most preachers get this right. They know a funeral is the saddest time for a family and that they are there to do one thing: to bring the comfort of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Again, most pastors seem to get this right.
There are among us preachers who try to turn funerals into everything except what they should be. They see funerals and the grieving mourners as:
–captive audiences who cannot get up and walk out, and are thus required to sit there and listen to the preacher’s pet theories about heaven and hell, salvation and judgment.
–prospects for his church who need to be convinced that doctrines they’ve always believed are wrong-headed and every preacher they’ve ever heard misguided.
–an audience for a litany of stories about “what happened to me” and “something I heard someone say one time” or “something I’ve been thinking about.”
–a spot for a full-grown sermon that some congregation in the past appreciated, and that would surely work in this situation.
–an opportunity to promote a new sermon series he’s beginning next Sunday.
–a time to vent his anger at some heresy he has encountered in the past when some other preacher or celebrity or denominational person corrupted the true message. So, he tells the story and uses his time to attack that individual.
The list is endless. When I invited Facebook friends to share their tales of preachers who drove people away by their funeralizing, the response was immediate. Most agreed that these horror tales were the exception, and for that we are grateful.
Some of my friends encountered funeral preachers who judged the deceased, usually sending them to hell, who preached sermons of an hour or more, and who seized the opportunity to convert all the mourners to their version of the faith.
One pastor told of a visiting preacher who had been invited to have a prayer and “bring a word” before the pastor himself would preach. However, the visitor kept talking and eventually delivered a full-length message, after which there was nothing for the host pastor to do except lead a hymn and speak the benediction.
One told of a preacher who hung around funeral homes and informed grieving families that “the deceased had told me he wanted me to do his service,” whether he actually knew the individual or not.
You shake your head in wonder.
Perhaps people should ask around before they line up a funeral preacher. Find out what this guy does in such services and what that one can be trusted to do. If the funeral matters to you–we admit that many people simply do not care, so this does not pertain to them!–then you will want to choose well who leads it. Otherwise, it’s a flip of the coin whether the deceased is properly honored and your family suitably comforted and instructed.
Here are our strong recommendations on what a funeral service should be, no matter whether the deceased was a believer or not. Note that I’m not looking for arguments or trying to stir up a controversy, but simply trying to introduce a note of common sense to a difficult situation….
1) You the minister are there to bring the comfort of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That message was called “good news” for good reason. I suggest you find what those reasons are and build your sermons on that soil. All other ground is sinking sand.
Do not preach the philosophies of men. Do not preach condemnation. You are representing One who said, “God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him” (John 3:17).
Do not send anyone to hell. Or to heaven, for that matter. This is above your pay grade, friend. Know your place.
2) You the minister are there to comfort others “with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:4). Unless you know what it is to grieve and then receive the balm of the Holy Spirit settling your heart and lifting your spirit, the help you have to offer others will be of little value.
If you have “been there and done that,” as the saying goes, ask yourself what comforted you most. I’m guessing it was the assurances of God’s word. Then preach those.
Do not preach a full-fledged sermon. This is not the place nor the time. If you are new to this and unsure about what to do and how long to take, seek out two or three trusted veteran preachers and pick their brains. They want to help you.
3) You are there to represent the Lord before the congregation. This means you share His word, His message, His presence, and not your pet ideas, your favorite convictions, and your personal stories.
Do not talk about yourself.
4) You are not there to convert anyone. You are there to represent the Lord Jesus and to share His comforting word. If He chooses to convert your hearers, let Him do it. Try not to get in His way. He said if He were lifted up, He would draw people to Himself.
Lift up Jesus.
5) You are not there to answer all the questions which you presume are bugging the people sitting before you. (I’m betting no questions are bugging them. They are grieving or tired or eager to get this over with.) So, don’t over-task yourself.
To repeat, they are not wondering a) what happens to the soul at the moment of death, b) did our loved one go to heaven, hell, or some in-between place, c) do we become angels, d) do we live in mansions on streets of gold and play harps, and e) does my dog go to heaven also.
6) If you know anything negative about the deceased, keep it to yourself. If the mourners want to believe he/she went to heaven when you think otherwise, again, keep it to yourself. You do not know. It’s just possible the Lord might have done something in that person’s life of which you are unaware.
Know your limitations. You are not the judge nor the prosecuting attorney. You are a New Testament preacher with good news to share.
7) One of the best things you can do for yourself, pastor, is to drop in on funeral services being conducted by other ministers whom you know and respect. Sit in the back and see what they do. You will learn both things to avoid and practices to emulate.
Sitting in on a service where I knew no one except the minister is how I came away with one of the best ideas ever. Thereafter, I began every funeral service with my opening words being some glorious pronouncement of a Scriptural promise: “I am the resurrection and the life….” Or, “Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in me….” Or, “Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever!”
(I have seen ministers walk to the pulpit and fumble their way through the opening sentences. “So many times as we go through life….” Or, “I know many things are on your heart today…” How much better to announce the glorious hope of the gospel and thus set a high tone for the service to follow.)
Bottom line to all this: If you have no good news to share, please decline the invitation to preach this service.
In short, try not to do anything dumb or say anything stupid. Give the comfort of the Lord Jesus Christ to everyone.
If the Apostle Paul could say “we see through a glass darkly,” it’s a safe bet that you and I do, also. It is not necessary for us to have all the answers. We don’t, so let us quit acting like we do.
It’s perfectly fine to leave these matters in the hands of the Almighty. That’s where they are anyway, and nothing you and I do will change that.
I heard Billy Graham say once, “I hope to go to heaven when I die.” Now, I thought the same thing you probably thought: “Man, if he doesn’t make it, there’s no hope for the rest of us!”
He was voicing the humility we should all possess as we deal with eternal matters. We must be wary of too much bullish overconfidence that “I know that I know” and should speak with reverence of judgement and the afterlife.
The Holy Spirit is the Great Comforter. Perhaps if we are faithful, we can be His servants in sharing that comfort.
(Final note: In sending this forth, we do not mean it to be the last word on anything. There is so much to be said regarding funerals and giving the Lord’s comfort to the grieving. The best suggestion in all the above may be to find a couple of veteran preachers–the kind you hope to grow up to be!–and make appointments with them (separately, of course) to pick their brains on this subject. God bless you as you go forth to serve and bless.)