Preacher’s Toolkit: How Do I Handle an Unbeliever’s Funeral?

Editors’ note: “Preacher’s Toolkit” is a new monthly series that seeks to answer questions related to preaching. If you have a preaching-related question or issue you’d like for us to answer, please write us at [email protected]. We recently launched an Expository Preaching Project, for which TGC Council pastors will prepare free instructional resources on expository preaching in both video and print formats in six strategic languages. We’re prayerfully seeking to raise $150,000 to fund the project. To make a donation, please click here and select “Expository Preaching” from the designation list.

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The funeral chapel overflowed. Unlike some funerals I’ve conducted, this faithful Christian and longtime church member had given voice to the message I now delivered amid grief. I’d watched for years how this 85-year-old lady lived daily with hope in Christ. With a twinkle in her eye, she would regularly affirm with Paul, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). 

But that’s not the case at funerals for those with an unknown—or perhaps too well-known—spiritual condition.

A gospel minister’s angst heightens in wondering how to lead a memorial service for an unbeliever. So how do ministers serve families whose deceased loved one has given no evidence of trust in Christ? Here are seven considerations.

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1. Remember your calling to be a faithful minister of Christ.

Faithfulness to Christ doesn’t stop when you enter the funeral home; it intensifies. Grieving people are often desperate to see a purpose for their grief—and that is found only in Christ.

The minister is not present to check the “duty” box, but to represent Jesus and his church to those who grieve without hope.

2. Clearly preach the gospel.

While not creating an evangelistic rally, the minister should turn the conversation to the good news of Jesus. Apply the gospel through narratives (e.g., John 3; John 11), simple gospel texts (e.g., John 14:1–6; 1 Cor. 15:1–2), or familiar Old Testament texts (e.g., Ps. 23; Eccl. 3:1–8). Aim to open future spiritual conversations through gospel clarity, and illustrate and apply with simplicity.

3. Do not wear the burden of deciding the deceased’s eternal destiny.

I can remember a deceased’s family member asking if I thought her loved one was in heaven. The person had shown no evidence to me that he trusted in Christ. So my response was simple: “None of us can make that call, but what we must do is to be sure of our own relationship to Christ.” That turned the conversation away from the deceased to this young lady’s spiritual need. Avoid casually declaring someone’s eternal destiny (Matt. 7:21–23).

4. Point to comfort in the gospel.

While the deceased unbeliever has no hope, those remaining do if they look to Christ. Help the audience to see the massive ramifications of the gospel believed.

5. Focus on the big picture rather than the finer points of theology.

Utilize the grand narrative of Scripture—creation, fall, redemption, and restoration—in your message. Grieving people may hear little of what you say. The big picture will be easier to remember, and will serve well in future conversations with those who were at the funeral.

6. Say with integrity what you can about the deceased.

His or her influence for good, kind actions, and acts of service can be appropriately mentioned. For example, “We’ve learned from ______ that life is brief . . . how relationships matter . . . how every day counts.” It’s good and right to affirm someone created in the image of God.

7. Grieve with loved ones at their loss.

Show it by your concern, your empathy, your prayers, your calls, and your follow-up conversations. As you grieve with those who grieve, gospel opportunities might arise.

Preparing well for unbelievers’ funerals is vital so that those who listen might find hope in Christ. Often, preachers see these funerals as a mere duty every minister must do. However, preaching the funerals of unbelievers may well mean you are the only opportunity those in attendance may have to hear the gospel. So relish these opportunites as God brings them along and hold high the good news of God’s redeeming love in Christ. 

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