A funeral might be the last place you’d expect to find new church members. You’d be surprised, though.
We recently welcomed a passionate new couple into our church that immediately added to the richness of our fellowship in Christ. How did they find us? Yes, at a funeral. And it’s not the first time this has happened.
When we started our ministry almost five years ago, we had no idea how often my husband, Tim, would be presiding over a casket. Yet funeral ministry has quickly become one of his favorite aspects of his job. He spends time with the family beforehand, becomes acquainted with the deceased as well as he can if he didn’t know them, and carefully prepares a funeral sermon for the occasion.
Tim believes grieving families don’t need pious platitudes about angels getting another choir member; they need to hear the hope of the gospel that once for all defeated death. And they need to hear of the reality of hell. After all, some family members may for the first time be soberly considering what happens after the final heartbeat. It’s a tender time—a small crack in the doorway to their hearts.
Squirming in the Seat
The first time I heard Tim preach a funeral sermon, I squirmed a little in my seat. I’d never heard anyone preach at a funeral in such a gospel-focused manner. Funeral messages are notoriously vague, presumably so as to avoid offending the various beliefs likely represented. Often, Tim doesn’t know the deceased person, and the family can give little evidence he or she was a true believer in Jesus. In our area, the unchurched still usually request a pastor to preside over the funeral. And when Tim has this opportunity, he simply proclaims the gospel and urges the family to trust Christ for their own salvation before their time comes. What he doesn’t do, however, is paint the deceased into heaven. He reports the positive traits the family shared about the person without whitewashing him or her into a blood-bought saint.
This particular funeral—Tim’s first—was for a passionate, Christ-loving elderly lady whose large family rarely darkened the doors of our church. Cautiously, I peered out of the corners of my eyes to see if anyone looked offended. They didn’t, but you could hear a pin drop in that chapel. Instead of offering vague hopes of a watercolor heaven, he opened the Word and unsheathed the sword of the Spirit. And with the Scriptures penetrating joint and marrow, Tim left no room for anyone to think he or she was going to schlep their way to heaven with a fool’s hope of being a good person. Against the backdrop of a casket, he pleaded with the funeral attendees to embrace Christ as their dear one had done—indeed, to put their hope in the One she was now meeting. Tim discarded country music’s version of a party-hearty heaven, reminding everyone that in heaven we stand in the presence of Christ—and that if you don’t want that now, you likely aren’t headed there. Needless to say, I left that funeral with new respect (and fear) for my husband and his calling. It takes a lot of courage to preach where angels fear to tread.
By God’s providence, our newest church members attended another funeral Tim was officiating. They later told him they were absolutely starving for the Scriptures at their current church home. So when Tim walked into the funeral, opened up the Bible, and preached a gospel with the power to give life and defeat death, they were intrigued. Their appetite for God’s Word led them to our church to hear more. They’re in the process of joining now.
I’m learning that the Word of God is more than sufficient for every occasion, including—if not especially—funerals. This is why Paul so often declared he wasn’t ashamed of the good news, for it is God’s power unto salvation (Rom. 1:16). For timid Timothys like me, it seems a bit frightening to bring this otherworldly power and wild grace to grieving family members in a funeral service. And yet, not once has someone complained to Tim. On the contrary, even unbelievers and nominal church members appreciate and admire his courage. Perhaps people respect a potent and passionate faith more than a watery and universal hope, even if they don’t agree. And maybe they are even less inclined to so easily dismiss it on their way to the graveside service.