Not too long ago I came across a book that I knew would be helpful to me as a young pastor but didn’t buy it because it wasn’t something that I was going to need for a few years yet. One month later I found myself purchasing this same book and selecting the “one day shipping” box on Amazon [thank goodness we are prime members!]. What book was it that I foolishly put off buying? Conduct Gospel-Centered Funerals: Applying the Gospel at the Unique Challenges of Death by Brian Croft and Phil A. Newton. I was about to lead my first funeral and I was desperate for some practical and cross-centered wisdom from someone more experienced than I. How did this come about?
I am an Assistant Pastor which means that weddings and funerals are pretty much left in the domain of our lead Pastor (though he has had me assist him in these duties). This has meant that I generally don’t have to worry about all the particularities that come with
leading these events – until last week that is. Last week my pastor left for a ten day trip and then the spouse of one of my coworkers passed away suddenly. Though this coworker was not affiliated with any church and wasn’t a follower of Jesus, she still called and asked if I would conduct her husband’s funeral. I was honored. And I was terrified. What follows are some things I learned in doing my first funeral.
Do: Get resources such as Conduct Gospel-Centered Funerals: Applying the Gospel at the Unique Challenges of Death by Brian Croft and Phil A. Newton as well as Comfort Those Who Grieve: Ministering God’s Grace in Times of Loss by Paul Tautges. These books really should be read in tandem since they compliment each other so well. Really, if you are a pastor, you should read these books.
Do: Get wise counsel. I spoke with several pastors (including my dad) who have led a number of funerals and found their advi
ce truly helpful. Besides it will help you honor them and them to know that you respect them. I also asked some of my friends who are young in the ministry. I knew that the level of experience wasn’t there but the fact that they were praying for me was encouraging.
Do: Meet quickly with the grieving family. This will help you as well as the family that has experienced the loss. It will help you as a pastor to know them and bond with them on a level that you would not otherwise have. It will also allow you to minister more directly to their hearts since all pretenses are usually gone. It will also help you to get a feel for the person who has passed away. I found this especially helpful since I didn’t know the man at all. In my context the pastor delivers the eulogies so knowing the person who has passed away is especially important. This will also help the family through the grieving process. After a family member has died those
who remain are left to plan and coordinate a thousand little details. Listening to stories and looking at pictures is an important part of the grieving process for many people (at least it seemed to be incredibly helpful for this family). Meeting quickly and listening to these stories will also let the family know that you care about them – not merely about another service that you have to perform. This will allow you greater flexibility to share the gospel both privately and publicly.
Don’t: Correct every theologically incorrect statement. If something a family member says bugs you because it isn’t right – get over it. You can deal with stuff like this later privately in the grieving process if it is appropriate. This goes for the funeral service as well. It is not our duty to correct every false statement made during the time when family and friends speak.
Don’t: Give false hope or certain judgment regarding the eternal state of the deceased when it is unclear. Just be faithful to the gospel
Do: Meet with the funeral home director. I am so thankful I met with the director of this funeral. He has been responsible for over 7,000 funerals and his experience and care were encouraging. As a pastor, your role in the funeral is important. But so is the Funeral Director’s. Don’t sideline him or attempt to undermine him. Instead try to develop a relationship with him for the sake of future funerals and families.by saying something like “only those who submit in faith to the Lord Jesus will be granted eternal life to enjoy God’s presence forever.”
Do: Get resources such as Conduct Gospel-Centered Funerals: Applying the Gospel at the Unique Challenges of Death by Brian Croft and Phil A. Newton as well as Comfort Those Who Grieve: Ministering God’s Grace in Times of Loss by Paul Tautges. These books really should be read in tandem since they compliment each other so well. Really, if you are a pastor, you should read these books. Wait, I said this one already….oh well. Get these books!
Here is a quote from the book by Brian Croft and Phil Newton to whet your appetite.
Faithfulness to the gospel in funerals is obscured in the pastor’s words of comfort about heaven when how heaven is received is not made clear. The gospel is distorted when the pastor preaches the deceased into eternal glory when there has been no credible evidence of gospel transformation in that person’s life. The gospel is likewise contradicted when the man entrusted to facilitate and conduct the funeral service is unloving, impatient, and uninterested in the soul’s of the family that remain. . . . Therefore, gospel-centeredness is when the gospel of Jesus Christ is the primary purpose and the focus of the funeral. It is making sure that the foundation of any hope experienced is rooted in a holy God’s merciful plan to redeem sinners through crushing His own Son on the cross in our place. (p. 18)