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preaching article Does a Pastor Preach Christ at the Funeral of an Unbeliever?

Does a Pastor Preach Christ at the Funeral of an Unbeliever?

based on 3 ratings
Oct 21, 2016
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I read a church sign that said, “Practice what you preach so your Pastor doesn’t have to lie at your funeral!” I don’t normally like quippy church sign sayings but that one has stuck with me over the years. It’s true; there are an awful lot of exaggerations of good and oversights of bad at funerals.

People only want to remember the best parts of their deceased family and friends. Focusing on the best and ignoring the worst is normal. But what do you do when called upon to do a funeral for an unbeliever? What about when their bereaved widow would rather you pretend they were a believer, with all evidence pointing to the contrary? Here are a few principles I’ve learned after preaching several funerals under these circumstances.

1. You can’t eulogize somebody into heaven.

No matter how hard you try the time for accepting Christ is this life and personally. A crying widow is heartbreaking but it’s not her pain but Christ’s, and that acquired by faith, which affords someone the prize of Heaven. (Hebrews 9:27-28) Celebrate the person’s life but don’t pretend they were a Christian if they were not.

2. Don’t perpetuate myths.

Many unbelievers are incredibly good people but just because grandma says Ol’ Joey must be in heaven because he was a good man doesn’t make it so. The Creator of all things is the only judge on such matters, not grandma. A lot of people are trusting in their relative goodness to gain access to Heaven. Don’t preach Joey into Heaven for the sake of not trampling upon people’s mythological versions of Christianity.

God saves according to grace alone through faith alone. You may not be able to straighten out everyone’s bad theology in one sermon but at the very least don’t reinforce it. Offer up a straightforward presentation of the biblical portrait of salvation by grace through faith. Truth needs no defense. State the pure Gospel affirmatively. Don’t attack a false gospel.

3. Don’t be overly dogmatic about who is or is not saved.

Do not state who is or is not saved. While there may be absolutely no evidence of salvation in Ol’ Joey’s life please, please, please, don’t claim the role of God in assuming that any man knows for certain the condition of another soul or relationship with Christ.

Grandma may insist upon clinging to the notion that the little boy she loved so dearly is in Heaven, even though he grew up to be a self-centered idolatrous man. You’re not going to talk her out of it by insisting Joey can’t be in Heaven. You’ll just make her dislike you and retreat further into her bad theology. It is better to use the funeral of an unbeliever as a platform to proclaim a pure Gospel than to assume the judgment seat that only God can occupy. You don’t have to say, “Joey’s in Hell,” to tell people how to get to Heaven.

Whether the deceased was an unashamed believer and lived in a manner consistent with her beliefs or she was an avowed atheist, a funeral sermon should celebrate the dead and point people to the risen. People are grieving the loss of someone they loved in this life. Gaining Christ and heaven doesn’t mean they’ll see them again but it does mean they can have a hope the deceased never knew.

Preaching Christ at the funeral of an unbeliever requires the subtle art of careful preaching. It’s as much about what you don’t say as what you do say. Celebrate the person then use careful transitions to point people to Jesus with statements like, “This life will end someday for all of us. How can we be prepared?”

Preaching Christ at the funeral of an unbeliever must be surgical. Don’t lose the audience by dwelling on the person’s lack of faith. Celebrate their loved one and then point them to Christ. There yet remains time for them to receive Christ and have the eternal reward that comes to sinners as a free gift through faith in Jesus.     

 

In addition to shepherding the flock as Pastor of Liberty Spring Christian Church in Suffolk, Virginia. Chris Surber is also Founder and Director of Supply and Multiply in Montrouis, Haiti. 

Talk about it...

Paul Martens avatar
Paul Martens
0 days ago
Good article Chris. The funeral of an unsaved person is not the place to point out the destiny of that person, but it may be the perfect place to gently, lovingly, yet firmly preach the truth of the gospel - that the people listening need to be ready to meet God! Paul in Canada
Chris Surber avatar
Chris Surber
0 days ago
Thanks Paul. That's exactly the right spirit I think too. Gentle in the circumstances with friends and family and firm on the Gospel.
Tony Bland avatar
Tony Bland
0 days ago
Right now is my preaching season for home going services. And i always at the start of the service ask does every one have a program? than I will say we are going to follow the printed program except i will not be bringing the Eulogy, I will let you all do that in your 2 min. I will simply preach what i can that might help somebody here today. I cannot help So and so, but i can help us. The home going service is our opportunity to have the most unsaved people at one time...
Chris Surber avatar
Chris Surber
0 days ago
Thanks Tony, amen to that. The home going time is precious indeed.
E L Zacharias avatar
E L Zacharias
0 days ago
Eulogies have little place in church, aside from what might be in the sermon. If your church has that practice, subtly but firmly move your church away from eulogies. Why? Because eulogies often force people into having to speak positive things about a dead person, which can be a painfully difficult thing in some instances. This expectation leads to moments that range from the sublime to the ridiculous, from false piety on the one hand and pure profanity on the other. The funeral of an unrighteous man becomes the pretense that no one, including the spouse, wants to endure. In our church, there are hymns, Scripture, a sermon, reading of the obituary, prayers, and a benediction. On rare occasions, eulogies are allowed, but always with the expectation that point a person to the blessings that come from this person of faith. There is no extra celebration for a life that had no place for God. Reverence and respect for the dead is one matter, but the funeral message must emphasize that our real hope is in God who redeems us from an empty way of life through faith in Christ. You will always find someone who shakes your hand and thanks you for presenting the good news of Christ in the midst of death's darkness. Suggest that eulogies take place in another setting, where people can feel free to express themselves with honesty and to their own satisfaction, without the pastor serving as timekeeper or referee.
E L Zacharias avatar
E L Zacharias
0 days ago
Bottom line is that eulogies often move us to the false idea that we are saved by what we do. Proclaim Christ or nothing at all. Works do not save us. To suggest otherwise is to creat a church filled with self-righteous bigots that destroy one another with judgments and damnable hypocrisy.
E L Zacharias avatar
E L Zacharias
0 days ago
Also, if the family insists on secular music in the service, suggest that it be in the preservice music or in the luncheon that follows. The music within the service is for the honor of God and reflects the hope and glory we find in Christ.
Chris Surber avatar
Chris Surber
0 days ago
I appreciate your perspective and thoughts, though I'm not sure it is possible under practical application to prevent family members from eulogizing deceased loved ones. I'd certainly not think it wise or prudent to prevent it. The funeral is largely a family affair. In the churches I've shepherded these last 12 years or so I just can't imagine exerting that much pastoral authority over the family. Shaping the service for sure, but keeping little Joey from saying something nice about Grandma, I'm going to be real slow to do that. - Chris
Lawrence Webb avatar
Lawrence Webb
0 days ago
And then there are the preachers who turn every funeral into an evangelistic service, everything short of an actual altar call. If we are there to console the family, I don't believe that should be a dominant element. The only time I've made a direct evangelistic appeal was last winter when my older sister died. Her son, a lawyer who coordinated the service, asked me to read a message my sister wrote. Because she knew she was dying, she wrote an appeal to any of her family or friends who had never made a profession of faith or who had strayed. And we had some of those present. By the way, she was the first person who ever talked personally to me about my need to trust Jesus as my Savior.
Chris Surber avatar
Chris Surber
0 days ago
Thanks Lawrence. Its true, some preachers can forget that we are even there to honor the life of that person and comfort the living and offer them hope. Some of the "dance" of how to do this well is really about be tasteful and respectful, while finding careful ways not to waste the opportunity to share Christ. Blessings brother!
Kalyan Das avatar
Kalyan Das
0 days ago
Whilst I agree with all the sentiments about eulogies, I find eulogies provide two useful "hooks": 1) they allow people the opportunity to find healing in what MIGHT have been a strained or difficult relationship, and 2) it provides me the transition, "What wonderful memories of xxx, who was ... (a few extracts from the eulogy, about the person). What memories will we leave, when it is our turn to close the chapter of our loves on earth?" ... transitioning to the memory of our lives God delights in, which ends with the accolade, "Well done good and faithful servant", which is only possible through a relationship with Jesus the Christ who said, "The only way to the Father is through me".
Chris Surber avatar
Chris Surber
0 days ago
Thanks Kalyan. Eulogies can be very useful when they point to God. Blessings!
Suresh Manoharan avatar
Suresh Manoharan
0 days ago
A wonderful article...all said and done, though the concerned article of Brother Chris, may not have any words to this effect, it was reinforcing the fact that a Pastor needs to approach this "tricky" assignment prayerfully seeking "wisdom" which the Saviour exhibited when confronted with "tricky" situations such as "Should we pay taxes to the Roman Government"...
Chris Surber avatar
Chris Surber
0 days ago
Absolutely Suresh! On an unrelated note that you bring up, I wrote a little book on that very topic that you can get on Kindle called "Rendering Unto Caesar" ... Blessings!
Jerry Rittenhouse avatar
Jerry Rittenhouse
0 days ago
Thanks Chris for a thoughtful article. You reminded me about my first funeral. A crusty old atheist plumber by the name of Al. He was proud and loud about his "no religion" position his whole life. Funeral home asked me to so his service. My approach? I said "Who knows the business a person does in the secret place of the heart" and then went on to talk about God's goodness. Jesus turned every moment into a teachable moment. I'd like to get good at doing the same.
Chris Surber avatar
Chris Surber
0 days ago
Amen! Better to positively assert truth than to condemn untruth. Always better to shine a light than curse the darkness.

So, what did you think?


Thank you.