Over the last 8 years of my pastoral ministry, I have preached more funerals for non-Christians than I have for Christians. This is partly because we are a relatively young church plant so most of the funerals I do are for people in the community whom I have never personally met. I recently got a phone call from a a young man in ministry who used to be a member of our church. He wanted a few tips on how to preach a funeral sermon for someone who may not have been a Christian. Here is a summary of what I shared with him.
When preaching the funeral for a non-Christian or perhaps someone you just don’t know a lot about, you as the pastor are faced with an important task. It is an incredible opportunity that should not be wasted, but there are also some pitfalls to avoid.
The funeral is not the time to comment on someone’s eternal destiny if you do not know whether they trusted Jesus for salvation. This is not a time to provide a false hope that they are in heaven. In doing so, you may confuse non-Christians in the room. You may be presenting a faulty version of Christianity by saying that the person in the casket was a Christian when they were not. This is also not the time to articulate the judgment of God that they may now be experiencing. You do not know what their spiritual state was at death. There is always the possibility that someone heard the gospel and believed just as the thief on the cross believed and was shortly in paradise with his Lord and Savior.
We don’t speak to things we do not know for sure at funerals, rather we speak to what we do know for sure. I have a three part outline that I follow at most funerals, but especially funerals of those whom I did not know. At every funeral service, you should be leading those gathered to do the following: 1) Celebrate life as a gift of grace, 2) Mourn death as the cursed consequence of sin, and 3) Look to Christ our only hope for eternal life.
1) Celebrate Life as a Gift of Grace
No matter the situation of someone’s death, and no matter their spiritual state, life as we know it is a gift of grace. We gather at funerals to thank God for every bit of laughter enjoyed and love experienced from friends and family. Common grace has extended to every human being. Every good and perfect gift is from above (James 1:17). Life was God’s idea, and he is to be praised for the specific ways in which he blessed the individual with life. You may want to do some research with the family and friends. What did the individual enjoy most about life? Who were their closest friends and family? Spend time praising God for these gifts of common grace.
2) Mourn Death
It does not matter how old an individual is when they pass, nor does it matter the circumstances surrounding their death. Whether expected or unexpected, there is this common grief that occurs in the hearts of loved ones at every funeral or memorial service. There is a sense of unbelief. There is a feeling of, “I can’t believe he is gone” or “This is not how it is supposed to be.” Funerals are for mourning and rightfully so. We feel the weight of brokenness in this world at funerals because our world is broken. Death was not a part of original design. It is an intrusion, a curse, and a consequence of sin. Help non-Christians at a funeral to understand why death stings according to the story of the Bible, and why it is good and right that we grieve death. Do not, however, leave them in a place of hopeless grief.
3) Look to Christ for Eternal Life
At every funeral there are individuals who are considering ultimate things like life and death perhaps for the first time. They are feeling the sting of death. Once you explain why they are feeling it, lead them to the hope that Jesus offers. God has put forward a plan for life eternal! We serve a resurrected Savior who promises us a resurrection from the grave! You do not have to know the spiritual state of the one who lies in the casket to seize the moment by directing everyone eyes to the only hope that we have in the face of death.
Conclusion: Though I may choose different texts, and I may approach the message with different nuances based upon the circumstances, the above elements are the three non-negotiables of a funeral. If God has given you the opportunity to speak at a funeral service, take the opportunity to direct every one’s eyes to their only hope in life and death, Christ alone.