Preaching a Funeral For An Unbeliever

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Yes, I am actually posting.   It’s been a long while since I’ve posted–good to be back.

On occasion, I am asked to preach a funeral for one who has died without Christ.  The first time I encountered this difficulty was actually before I became a pastor.  My uncle died as an avowed atheist who had rejected Christ up until the end.  He died unexpectedly.  I remember my parents telling me how sad and hollow the service was, because he had rejected any notion of the afterlife.

For the pastor, a great tension exists.  On the one hand, you have grieving family members and friends who want the funeral to be about the deceased’s earthly life.  On the other hand, the Scriptures are clear about the reality of their eternal life (or death, as the case may be).   How does the minister of the gospel of Christ handle this?

Always acknowledge and validate the deceased’s life. This person is someone’s grandfather, grandmother, father, mother, son, daughter, etc.  In other words, this person was greatly loved and will be missed.   A lifetime of memories are stored on the bookshelves on their minds.  A myriad of pictures may be displayed by the casket representing a lifetime of events and experiences.  These cannot and should not be denied, even in light of their refusal to receive Christ in this life.

Develop a close relationship/friendship with the family of the deceased. Whatever the reason they asked you to do the funeral (such as:  you were the only one to visit them at their home or in the hospital; they looked you up in the phone book; you are the pastor of a relative, etc.), you must take time to get to know the family personally.  Visit them in their home, call them, go to the viewing at the funeral home or church.  Your presence speaks volumes.  You are not to simply arrive and preach your message.  You come alongside them and help share their grief and bear their burdens.  And you will be amazed at how they appreciate your presence and will lean on you for support.  At that point, you are as Christ to them by virtue of your calling into the Gospel ministry.  Which leads me to the next point… .

Remember your ultimate calling as a minister of the gospel of Christ, even in this situation.  In the course of your visits and conversations with the family, you will find yourself tempted to lessen the blow of the deceased’s eternal reality — something which can happen easier that it initially appears.  The family is so grieved and despondent that, even in light of the deceased’s apathy or even outright rejection of Christ, may comfort themselves in thinking that the deceased is in “a better place.”  The alternative of believing someone they loved so dearly is suffering eternal judgment in hell may be too much to bear.

But even so, we have a higher calling.  The funeral is for those in attendance, not just the one in the casket.   Remind those in attendance of this fact, then show them the comfort that may be found.  How?  “Preach Christ crucified!”  The reality of Christ must break through the muddle of thoughts that are settling in their grief-stricken minds.  While they may comfort themselves that many other issues and thoughts, family and friends, and fill in the blank — in reality, the only comfort that may be found in any circumstance or situation is in Christ.  We must not turn away or be ashamed of Christ, even if it means breaking through their sensibilities of what the ‘afterlife.’

I have put out some other posts on preaching a funeral:

Scriptures I Use For Funeral Services

Practical Tips For Preaching a Funeral

Any other thoughts on this matter?

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5 thoughts on “Preaching a Funeral For An Unbeliever

    WMH said:
    May 23, 2010 at 8:54 pm

    I agree completely with your position here: “Preach Christ crucified” – to the living! When approached with prayer, faith and humility, a funeral or memorial service is the perfect time and place to present the Gospel, as hearts are often softened, and thoughts turn to one’s own mortality. “For the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation…” Rom 1:16

    OKONJI, MICHAEL NNAMDI said:
    October 14, 2010 at 9:46 pm

    PLS SIR, MINE IS QUESTION WHICH DEMAND AN URGENT ANSWER. PLS HELP COMMENT ON THIS QUESTION. THE QUESTION GOES LIKE THIS “YOU AND YOUR WERE ATTENDING FUNERAL SERVICE AND YOUR WHO WAS 6 YEARS OLD WAS CRYING THROUGHOUT THE GOING OF THE JOURNEY AND AFTER THE SERVICE MIGHT HAVE BEEN CONDUCTED ON YOUR WAY GOING BACK HE REMAINED SILENT ALL THROUGH THE COMING BACK OF THE JOURNEY. SIR, WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN THE CAUSE OF HIS BEING SILENT ALL THROUGH THE COMING OF THE JOURNEY.

    please sir, i need your reply on this issue.

      Matthew R. Perry said:
      October 23, 2010 at 10:12 pm

      I truly am amazed at how this six-year-old reacted. Sometimes, when a funeral is over and the finality of it all sinks in, some being to realize that that person is never coming back and have thus found closure and resolution.

    Steve said:
    December 18, 2010 at 6:50 pm

    I’m reminded of St. Francis of Assissi’s words, “Preach the Gospel; when necessary, use words.” I would rather look for opportunities to show the love of Christ and make sure that the family is comforted, looking for spirit led opportunities to share the gospel — then preach an overt evangelistic sermon at the funeral. I’ve seen too many preachers be really very heavyhanded at time when a gentler approach would be better.

      Matthew R. Perry said:
      December 18, 2010 at 8:21 pm

      Steve:

      Yes, there are always extremes, but the gospel has always been in words, not just in actions–so both must be present. Someone once said that in putting Francis’ quote in today’s terms is like saying go ahead an make a phone call, if necessary use digits. Those opportunities to show love will certainly take place before and after the funeral (I hope), but while in the pulpit, give that gentle comforting Word of the gospel so the listeners’ comfort might last for eternity (Matthew 11:28-30).

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