I had just begun my first pastorate when an older and wiser church member came by the church office and asked an unexpected question. “Have you prepared for your first funeral?” he asked. I probably asked him if someone from the church had died without me knowing about it, and I didn’t give any more thought to his question. At the time, it was all I could do to prepare three messages a week and keep up with the other demands of pastoral ministry.
Not even a few weeks later, tragedy hit our community when a young man died in an automobile accident. The church member’s question returned quickly to my mind when the family of that young man asked me to do the funeral.
Funerals are a normal part of pastoral ministry. Some funerals are easier to preach than others, but there are things a pastor or preacher can do to deliver a message that honors God and ministers to the family, as well as others who may be in attendance.
Last week, I attended the funeral of my wife’s 87-year-old uncle. The pastor preaching the funeral did three things exceptionally well that can be a guide to all of us as we minister.
1. He loved the deceased while he was living. It was apparent that this pastor loved my wife Connie’s aunt and uncle. They had relocated from a rural setting in northern Kentucky where they enjoyed a small farm, owned horses, knew all their neighbors and attended a Kentucky Baptist church together. Then they moved 12 years ago to a suburb in central Ohio where they had to re-establish themselves in their mid-70s. One thing they did upon arrival in their new town was to get involved in a local church where they developed a close relationship with their pastor and he with them. It was a joy to hear of the numerous interactions this pastor had in his care for Connie’s family. He loved them.
2. He told stories about the deceased. When a pastor tells stories that characterize the life of the loved one, it allows the family to experience the range of emotions that are part of the grieving process. This pastor told how the couple met, married and began life together. He told us about his work and family. He also talked about the old car Connie’s uncle used to drive and how he met up with a group of men in town at a local grocery store to talk, drink coffee and “solve all the world’s problems.” These stories helped us know that Connie’s uncle had lived a good life and enjoyed the gifts God gave him.
3. He shared the gospel with the living. The pastor who preached at this funeral told how Connie’s uncle came to faith later in life and how his new life in Christ was demonstrated by the way he lived. He clearly explained the gospel and he pressed the unsaved present at the funeral to repent and believe. We were praying while he was preaching for the Holy Spirit to bring conviction with the word preached. Whether people end up being saved as a result of this service, we may not know in this lifetime. The pastor, however, did his part to explain the good news of Jesus and invite those present to put their faith in Him.
I left that funeral not knowing whether this pastor was seminary trained, possessed a doctorate, pastored a large church or a small church or anything else about him. What I did know was that he loved Connie’s aunt and uncle, ministered to them faithfully, and did a great job preaching this funeral by pointing others to the gospel. This was one more reminder to praise God for faithful pastors and to continue ministering diligently in the big moments and the small ones. We never know how something as ordinary as preaching a funeral may change a listener’s eternity.