I have done over 200 funerals in my almost-fourteen years of pastoring so I think I know a little about doing them. The majority of these have been for people I did not know and of those, most were people who professed no faith in Jesus Christ. In many of these cases, someone in the church I pastor asked me to do the funeral even though I did not know the deceased person. They usually ask me to do the funeral because they want Christ preached to their friends and family members. This is an excellent opportunity to minister to the people in your congregation while also being able to proclaim Christ.
I can think of three reasons why you should do this.
1. Preaching at the funeral of an unbeliever gives you a chance to preach the Gospel.
This is one of the few times in our culture when people actually stop and consider their death and what happens after death. It is also one of the few times when people will listen to a loving but sober explanation of the coming judgment. Besides, this is what you do: you preach Christ. And yes, I know people who were saved as a direct result of someone preaching Christ at a funeral. If you just read some Scripture and a pretty poem, why did you bother?
2. Christ is exalted.
Like it or not, Christ is exalted in the judgment of the sinner just as much as he is in the deliverance of the believer. This makes it entirely appropriate to speak of Christ even when it seems certain to all that the deceased was apart from Christ. Remember, that this event may very well be in the plan of God to call someone to himself. I have had several people in my congregation over the years who were saved as the direct result of someone preaching Christ at the funeral of a friend or family member. Others, however, will have no excuse on the Day of Judgment because they heard the truth.
3. Doing the funeral of an unbeliever will force you to confront the harsh reality of sin and eternal judgment.
Unless you’re a universalist you believe that those apart from Christ will be separated from God for eternity. It’s one thing to say it while preaching in your church, it’s another thing to be confronted with it standing at the casket of one of those unbelievers. It will also force you to find judicious ways to speak of the hope of Christ without preaching the deceased into heaven or hell.
But the bigger question for most pastors is, “How do I do this? How do I remain faithful to affirm the necessity of believing in Christ when the deceased made clear he or she did not?”
Here are some things to remember.
1. Do not preach the deceased into heaven or hell.
A good rule of thumb for all funeral preaching is not to mention the deceased in the sermon at all. That is what the eulogy is for. Yes, people may draw their own conclusions and that’s okay. Let the Word do its work. You can do that without passing judgment at an inappropriate time.
2. Begin with the deceased and with death, but be sure not to end there.
Place the eulogy at the beginning of the service. Let the emotions run freely, let them talk about how wonderful the deceased was. Then you conclude by talking about how wonderful Christ is. Without being crass, point to the inevitability and certainty of death and then point them to the One who triumphs over death. And be sure to explain who Jesus is that makes him triumphant over death and what he has done to triumph over death. And be sure to end with the final resurrection where our faith and hope is vindicated. Let the Gospel give them hope.
3. Preach Christ.
This is what you’re called to do in any circumstance (1 Cor. 2:2). Don’t let death be the focus, let the life of Christ be the focus. I spend no more than 25% of my sermon deal with death. The other 75% is Christ and the Resurrection.
This is not the time for sappy stories, platitudes, dumb comments like “Death is a part of life,” and, please, give “Footprints in the Sand” a rest. If the people present are largely unbelievers, it doesn’t apply to them anyway, does it? Preach Christ and let them hope in His Resurrection.
4. Be brief.
I realize this is hard for some guys all the time and for all of us sometimes, but be brief. The number one request I hear at funerals is “Please, just keep it short.” So do it: be brief. Remember that your sermon is part of a longer service. By the time it’s your turn to preach, they’re already worn out. My funeral sermon for an unbeliever is no more than 6 or 7 minutes long. Yes, that’s short, but I make sure that they hear every word and that every word is full of truth and worth hearing. I also make sure I finish before they’re expecting me to. I’d rather speak for five minutes and know that they will hear what I have to say than preach 10 and know that they only heard half, because they’ll resent the half they did hear.
5. Make yourself available to those who hear.
What I often do is wait until I have concluded the service and the funeral director is coming to give final instructions to tell those present that I am available to answer any questions they may have. I have business cards on me so that if someone asks I can put them in touch with me later. Then let the Word do its work. I am certain that I will not know what fruit my funeral preaching has borne until I get to heaven, but I can’t wait to see what the Lord has done.
You may email me at <pastor (at) ziontaylor (dot) org> if you would like a sample funeral sermon or a sample order of service.
(I’d prefer you not send a Facebook message because if we are not friends on Facebook your message will go into the inbox marked “Other” and I might not see it in time.)