Although I had been in professional ministry (off and on) for 15 years when I moved to rural Vermont in 2009, I had never officiated a funeral. Weddings, yes. Funerals, no. But I was quickly baptized by fire in this small town, and in the last two-plus years as pastor of Middletown Springs Community Church I have lost track of the number of funerals I’ve either participated in or officiated over. And the majority of those funerals have been for those who did not publicly profess faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the receiving of eternal life.
It turns out that even in irreligious New England, where a large percentage of the populace have not set foot in a church building in several decades, and a growing percentage have never set foot in a church building their enter lives, tradition wins out when a loved one dies. You can ignore religion your whole life but never at death. And because I am the pastor of the only Protestant church in our town, I most often receive the call to bless those who mourn.
I have officiated funerals for old men who went out shaking their fist (metaphorically) at God, for middle-aged men well-regarded but without much use for religion, for young men who overdosed and committed suicide. (In God’s providence, I have also presided over the funerals of dear saints—all elderly women so far—and I am grateful for the tone of victory that more accompanies these services.) Each of these funerals presents its own unique challenges. As I have preached several funerals for one large family in the last two years, I have even presented the gospel from different angles and from different biblical texts than the customary funeral references.
I am still learning how to do this. I don’t believe I have it all figured out. But I have done a lot of thinking through this sort of service and the stakes involved. While I would not say everyone ought to do it the same way, here are some thoughts born from much reflection and continued experience with preaching the funerals of unbelievers.
Presence Before Professionalism
When funeral home directors call to ask about availability to officiate a non-churchgoing family’s funeral for a loved one, the last thing I want to be thinking is business as usual. No family wants the pastor they’ve contacted to treat this aspect of his ministry as the florist does the flowers. Many times they do not know what to ask for and what they expect. So after saying yes to the one making the funeral arrangements, I make contact with a member of the family to let them know I am thinking about them, praying for them, and would like to meet with a representative of the family at their earliest convenience to talk about the service.
Sometimes families don’t care to meet with me, and that’s okay. But most often I host a relative or two in my office, or I go to their homes to discuss the arrangements. But the first thing we always discuss is the departed. I may ask to see pictures. One particular meeting around a family’s kitchen table I could sense was particularly helpful for them, largely because at one point they started reminding each other of funny stories about their son/brother, something I had facilitated but then merely observed. I didn’t even say much in that meeting, but afterward they related to church member how impressed they were by my presence and how much it meant to them.
I have sat with the dying in hospitals and funeral homes, sharing the joy of Jesus with them in their final hours. I have counseled feuding family members in my office as they seek to honor their loved one while sorting through animosity long-held with each other. I have held hands at a crime scene and at the morgue while a mother waited to identify her son’s body. When a loved one dies, it is not business as usual for their family, so it cannot be business as usual for the minister either.
When possible, I also attend the post-funeral receptions and luncheons. I am introverted by nature, so it’s difficult sometimes to strike up conversations with strangers, but I fit in very well in this regard with Vermonters. I’m not expected to be gladhanding and inserting myself into family conversations and sharing. But I have been told that being available has been very helpful. Never underestimate the power of presence. Coming alongside a family, even in silence—sometimes, especially in silence—beats making their needs look like something you’re checking off your to-do list.
Nevertheless, there is a sense in which professionalism can be expected, needed, and quite helpful.
Professionalism Can be Pastoral
It is true, brothers, that we are not professionals. But I’ve learned from visiting with families deep in fresh grief that taking on the burden of planning the funeral service without leaving much up to them can be very comforting. Few have put much forethought into these arrangements. And many families who are not churchgoing don’t have much preconception about what a minister does, what a service ought to look like, or what’s appropriate to include. I am asked for permission about Scripture readings and reflections quite a bit; despite the irreligious bent of Vermont, there is still respect for and deference to tradition. Families whose mourning takes precedence often defer to me in determining how a service goes.
When I go over a funeral service order with families, many times they simply nod and reply with some variation of “Whatever you think will be fine.” I have learned over time that one of the best things I can do for these families is go into “professional mode.” As they are handling family and friends coming into town, dealing with all the other goings-on attendant to the loss of a loved one, and just sorting through their own feelings, taking “think about the funeral service” off their plate can be a major relief. And I’ve noticed how the professionalism of good funeral home directors and morticians can be a calming service in this time as well. Most families just don’t know what’s supposed to happen, so knowing that the minister does and will take care of it is a blessing.
Proclamation Trumps Presumption
Here is the most sobering aspect of preaching a funeral for an (apparent) unbeliever. Funerals are rife with comforting assurance. “He’s in a better place now.” “She’s up there dancing with Jesus.” “He was a good kid, and now he’s one of God’s angels.” When you open up the floor for sharing from those gathered, the result can be a mishmash of pseudo-religious sentimentality, sometimes gritty stories about what a saintly cuss the old curmudgeon was, and sometimes borderline heresy.
When irreligious families who respect religion lose a loved one, they don’t wrestle with whether the departed now faces eternal judgment. They assume he’s not. He or she was “a good person.” My opinion on this custom—and better pastoral minds than mine may and will differ—is that it is the minister’s job to relieve them of these assumptions in a circumstantially appropriate way.
No one has ever asked me, “Is my loved one in heaven?” because they all assume he or she is. In these moments I remind myself that I am an invited guest to this family’s mourning. It is better to speak my piece about the true gospel and rely on the Spirit to work the logic internally against mourners’ assumptions than to directly and personally contradict with a “Well, actually” to people who are sorting out their grief and trying to offer comfort. There is a time for personal correction on these matters, but I am not convinced that time should come in the middle of a funeral service.
At the same time, I cannot shake the reality that none truly knows the way God knows where anyone’s eternal destiny lay. Salvation for the thief on the cross is enough precedence for us to remain humble on this point. I believe in deathbed conversions, not because grace is cheap but precisely because it’s deep enough to cover a sinful person’s long, long life of disobedience. Therefore I have come to the perspective that declining to declare that the departed is in hell is not the same thing as denying the reality of hell.
Proclamation Trusts Providence
Still, the minister’s first loyalty is to Jesus Christ, not to any family. I customarily decline payment from unbelieving families for officiating their funerals because I never want to unwittingly bind my message to the dictates of those paying for it.
I have never at any funeral for someone who did not live a life of public faith said anything about him being in heaven, playing a round of golf with God, or the like. It is just as important to avoid false assurance as it is to avoid presumptuous condemnations. Instead, I typically outline briefly what the Bible says about grief, insist from the Scriptures that Jesus himself experienced grief, and then present the biblical storyline of where death comes from, what it means for us still alive, and what it means for us in death. I make sure to say that those who reject Jesus will die eternally while those who repent of their sins and trust Jesus will live eternally, going to heaven when they die and enjoying the new heavens and the new earth on the future day of their own bodily resurrection. (This latter part is quite a hit up here since most people have never heard of the Bible’s promise of “life after life after death” in this way, and the notion of a restored earth is very compelling to Vermonters who love the created earth very much already.)
By declining to presume where the departed is but committing to proclaim the eternal realities of any departed person in relation to Jesus, I am throwing myself onto the sovereignty of God who will use his gospel to spiritually awaken his children to desire his Son.
There are other opportunities for ministers who stay in touch with grieving families to more directly and personally share the gospel of Jesus later on, but in the funeral service itself, a clear, concise, unequivocal proclamation of the good news disconnected from presumptuous condemnation of or false assurance about the departed is the wisest course. I will even make note to say that trust in Jesus alone is the only way to heaven, for in these parts a New Age-y kind of pluralism is both prevalent and latent.
These are rules of funeral thumb. They may change given the needs of your context or community, but I believe they present a way faithful to Jesus Christ and the ministry of his Word among unbelievers in the mission field of New England.
The events I dreaded the most when I first became a pastor were funerals. But not every funeral.
Some funerals are easy: you know the person, and you know that they were a believer. There is nothing easier than pointing to the hope that a Christian has as they enter the grave and into eternal life.
But the funerals that scared me most were the ones that I would have to do for people I didn’t know and who were unbelievers. Some unbelievers know they’re unbelievers. Many more think that because they quoted the pledge of allegiance and said “under God” with gusto, they are probably good with God and will go to heaven. There are also a fair number of families that don’t know what else to do when someone dies, so they call the Baptist preacher and have a Christian funeral.
But we are people of conviction and kindness. This means that we cannot just preach anyone into heaven, because we haven’t been given the authority to do so. And we can’t condemn anyone because we don’t know their heart. A man with a past like the thief on the cross may spend this day in paradise, while a man with a resume like Judas may, this day, find himself in hell.
Whatever circumstances bring an unbeliever to the church house for a funeral, here is my strategy for preparing to do an unbeliever’s funeral:
1. Don’t lie. Don’t preach a person into heaven when they’re not there. Remember: the family knew that person better than anyone, and they know if you’re making them into something they weren’t. Conversely, don’t assume that everyone there understands the eternal ramifications of belief on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. At the most vulnerable point of many of their lives—when their hearts are soft—this is a time for a us to bring clarity and gain credibility with the living, not throw it away.
2. Tell the truth in love. We must resist the temptation to use this phrase: “Billy’s in hell right now, and the thing he’d want you to know more than anything is that you don’t have to go there”. If we say that, we’ve denigrated the dead and ostracized the living, all while being a stumbling block that people trip over before they even see Jesus. Are we a bigger rock than Christ? Do we absolutely know that, in the seconds before he breathed his final breath, he didn’t call upon the name of the Lord? We have to remember that we are not the Lawgiver—we are gospel-proclaimers.
3. Find redeemable, Christ-magnifying qualities. Did that person love his wife well? Was that person active in her community? Were his grandchildren his delight? Was she generous or kind? Frugal or hard-working? Even the most miserly old man has exhibited something that images his creator at one point or another. When we find it, we should use it as a transition to what the Word says about the One who displays quintessential character. We need to redeem that trait, while making sure we redeem it in order to point to the Redeemer.
4. Find something unique that reminds the audience of the gravity of the situation. Did old Bill like Duck Dynasty? Then we can try something like this:
Every time you’re flipping through the channels and come across Bill’s favorite show, and you see uncle Si up to his crazy antics, think of Bill. Think of all the wonderful memories y’all shared. But don’t stop there. Think of this moment, when you lost Bill, and let your mind wander to matters that we consider today. Matters of eternal weight and gravity. Matters of life and death. Heaven and hell. Gospel and belief. You know, Christ said that those who call upon him don’t have to fear a moment like this.”
Then, we should tell them why.
5. Proclaim the gospel. We cannot let one of the best opportunities for gospel proclamation pass. We are ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and we owe people the gospel. We should not be ashamed of it—it’s what everyone expects from a faithful minister. But more importantly, it’s what Christ expects of his servants. I am tired of going to funerals and not hearing the gospel proclaimed. If we, as preachers, do a funeral and don’t explicitly share the gospel, then we need to find another line of work, because we’ve been unfaithful to the kind of kingdom-calling of preaching the Word.
Doing funerals is scary, weighty and grave. It’s an occasion for eternal souls to ponder their future. We should strive to do it well, speaking the truth with kindness and evangelizing the lost. This is our holy task as ministers of the gospel.
This article originally appeared on ERLC.com, The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Used with permission.
John Powell is the senior pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in New Caney, Texas. Previously, he served as director of admissions at Southern Seminary and discipleship pastor at Carlisle Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky. After graduating from Southwest Baptist University, he earned a M.Div from Southern Seminary. John and his wife, Katherine, have four children. Follow him on Twitter at @johnhpowell.
Image courtesy: ©Thinkstock/danefromspain
Publication date: August 29, 2017
Funeral messages for unbelievers are the messages which are sent to the individuals who are non believers. Such messages should be able to provide comfort to the individuals who have lost their loved ones. We should respect the belief of atheist. Below are some sample messages that you can send as funeral messages for unbelievers.
1). The person who is no more with us will always be in our memories. We wish the soul a safe journey to Heaven.
2). Birth and death is in God’s hands. Whatever comes to this earth has to go someday. Let us bless the person who has left us in his journey to meet the Almighty.
3). Death is not the end of life but it’s the beginning of a new life which we ignore to see. Let us bless the soul so that it rests in peace and begin a new life.
4). Death cannot be avoided and it should be looked upon as a way of meeting God. Death is not the end of life but a beginning of a beautiful journey.
5). Let’s remember the good times spent with the person who has left us. We wish the departed soul a safe journey to Heaven.
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I have done over 200 funerals in my almost-fourteen years of pastoring so I think I know a little about doing them. The majority of these have been for people I did not know and of those, most were people who professed no faith in Jesus Christ. In many of these cases, someone in the church I pastor asked me to do the funeral even though I did not know the deceased person. They usually ask me to do the funeral because they want Christ preached to their friends and family members. This is an excellent opportunity to minister to the people in your congregation while also being able to proclaim Christ.
I can think of three reasons why you should do this.
1. Preaching at the funeral of an unbeliever gives you a chance to preach the Gospel.
This is one of the few times in our culture when people actually stop and consider their death and what happens after death. It is also one of the few times when people will listen to a loving but sober explanation of the coming judgment. Besides, this is what you do: you preach Christ. And yes, I know people who were saved as a direct result of someone preaching Christ at a funeral. If you just read some Scripture and a pretty poem, why did you bother?
2. Christ is exalted.
Like it or not, Christ is exalted in the judgment of the sinner just as much as he is in the deliverance of the believer. This makes it entirely appropriate to speak of Christ even when it seems certain to all that the deceased was apart from Christ. Remember, that this event may very well be in the plan of God to call someone to himself. I have had several people in my congregation over the years who were saved as the direct result of someone preaching Christ at the funeral of a friend or family member. Others, however, will have no excuse on the Day of Judgment because they heard the truth.
3. Doing the funeral of an unbeliever will force you to confront the harsh reality of sin and eternal judgment.
Unless you’re a universalist you believe that those apart from Christ will be separated from God for eternity. It’s one thing to say it while preaching in your church, it’s another thing to be confronted with it standing at the casket of one of those unbelievers. It will also force you to find judicious ways to speak of the hope of Christ without preaching the deceased into heaven or hell.
But the bigger question for most pastors is, “How do I do this? How do I remain faithful to affirm the necessity of believing in Christ when the deceased made clear he or she did not?”
Here are some things to remember.
1. Do not preach the deceased into heaven or hell.
A good rule of thumb for all funeral preaching is not to mention the deceased in the sermon at all. That is what the eulogy is for. Yes, people may draw their own conclusions and that’s okay. Let the Word do its work. You can do that without passing judgment at an inappropriate time.
2. Begin with the deceased and with death, but be sure not to end there.
Place the eulogy at the beginning of the service. Let the emotions run freely, let them talk about how wonderful the deceased was. Then you conclude by talking about how wonderful Christ is. Without being crass, point to the inevitability and certainty of death and then point them to the One who triumphs over death. And be sure to explain who Jesus is that makes him triumphant over death and what he has done to triumph over death. And be sure to end with the final resurrection where our faith and hope is vindicated. Let the Gospel give them hope.
3. Preach Christ.
This is what you’re called to do in any circumstance (1 Cor. 2:2). Don’t let death be the focus, let the life of Christ be the focus. I spend no more than 25% of my sermon deal with death. The other 75% is Christ and the Resurrection.
This is not the time for sappy stories, platitudes, dumb comments like “Death is a part of life,” and, please, give “Footprints in the Sand” a rest. If the people present are largely unbelievers, it doesn’t apply to them anyway, does it? Preach Christ and let them hope in His Resurrection.
4. Be brief.
I realize this is hard for some guys all the time and for all of us sometimes, but be brief. The number one request I hear at funerals is “Please, just keep it short.” So do it: be brief. Remember that your sermon is part of a longer service. By the time it’s your turn to preach, they’re already worn out. My funeral sermon for an unbeliever is no more than 6 or 7 minutes long. Yes, that’s short, but I make sure that they hear every word and that every word is full of truth and worth hearing. I also make sure I finish before they’re expecting me to. I’d rather speak for five minutes and know that they will hear what I have to say than preach 10 and know that they only heard half, because they’ll resent the half they did hear.
5. Make yourself available to those who hear.
What I often do is wait until I have concluded the service and the funeral director is coming to give final instructions to tell those present that I am available to answer any questions they may have. I have business cards on me so that if someone asks I can put them in touch with me later. Then let the Word do its work. I am certain that I will not know what fruit my funeral preaching has borne until I get to heaven, but I can’t wait to see what the Lord has done.
You may email me at if you would like a sample funeral sermon or a sample order of service.
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