I have a confession to make: I’ve never liked funerals. I’ve often thought about why; I think it goes back to my childhood experience. Death, along with sex and religion was one of the three subjects we never spoke about in my family. Even when my half-brother was tragically killed in a plane crash, there was no explanation, no grieving process – just deathly silence. And my father never mentioned his name again. Attending his funeral was the most horrible experience a 9 year-old could ever imagine.
Then I got saved. That changed everything. For the first time in my life, I was free from the fear of death. I had hope, I had eternal life – I had Jesus. Funerals became a whole lot easier for me. I now had a framework in which to fit them in. Funerals for unbelievers were incredibly sad, but funerals for believers became a time of rejoicing.
Now I am a Pastor and I see funerals as a wonderful opportunity for the gospel. No ‘sermon hook’ is needed for this occasion. Everyone is looking at it in the middle of the room.
Preparing for a funeral sermon however, is not an easy thing. I look back at some of the funerals I took in my early ministry and I’m aghast at what I got up and said. I was too clinical, too impersonal and too formal. And my message didn’t always relate to the life of the individual concerned. So I have worked hard to try to change things. I started paying close attention to other, more seasoned ministers – even if I didn’t agree with what they said. They had a warmth about them that I lacked. And they seemed to touch the souls of people, not just their heads. I also started reading any funeral sermons I could find online. This was immensely helpful and I’m thankful to those pastors who posted them.
I’m sure there are a number of young ministers out there who are still finding their way in this area. What does make for a good funeral message? Here are a few tips that might help you:
· It should be true to the person. Your audience will be looking at the casket and thinking about the life of that person. You’re not going to be able to pull the wool over their eyes. Do your homework. Find out everything you can about the person from as many different people (including non-Christians) as you can.
· It should be fitting for the audience. Start feeling the ‘pulse’ of the family and the kind of people they tell you will be coming. Are they Christian or non-Christian, religious or irreligious, antagonistic to the faith or open? This will affect both the tone and content of what you will say. At a recent funeral learned that there was going to be a number of people there who would call themselves Christian but are not living it. They have made some kind of commitment when they were young but have not followed through. My message was largely directed toward these very people.
· It must be honouring to God. At the end of it all, you get to stand before God and give and answer for everything you have said, not to your audience. So strive to please God, not man.
· It must be gospel-centered. If what you have to say isn’t about Jesus and what he came to do, you shouldn’t be getting up and saying anything. You are a servant of Christ and a steward of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4:1). A funeral is a wonderful and fitting opportunity for the gospel – that Jesus has overcome death, opened heaven’s doors and offers eternal life to all who will repent and believe in Him.
· It must be sharp and to the point. My usual experience is enough has been said by the time you get up. People will be looking at their watches. So get up, speak up and shut up. Hit home base as quickly as you can, without appearing to be rushing.
· It must offer hope. People must be able to walk out thinking, “There is a way to heaven for me; there is still hope.” If they aren’t able to say that, you haven’t shown them the way.
Enough said there. A couple of weeks back I took a funeral for a wonderful man of God who gave his life to serving Jesus and helping others come to know and walk with him. I posted that message on my personal blog. If you are interested, you can have a read here: http://petersomervell.wordpress.com/2014/04/06/a-feneral-sermon/