Funeral Sermon for An Unbeliever

Funeral Sermon for An Unbeliever

In the last post we considered some guidelines for preparing a funeral message.  Now we are going to turn to how to prepare a funeral sermon for an unbeliever in your community.

The Difficult Funeral

I remember the telephone call.  A man in his 40’s had died suddenly of a heart attack, and the family would appreciate if I would come.  So I went.  I knew Harry only a little bit, having met him only a couple of times, and the conversation with him was minimal. I knew that he grew up in a church from my denomination.  I knew also that he had abandoned faith.  He believed in nothing in regards to faith or spirituality, and was known to be hostile to Christianity.  I did know his wife, however.  She was a faithful member of the church that I pastored.  In our visit she asked if I would preach at the funeral.

What a challenge!  The family anticipated a large funeral, since Harry was well-known in the community because of his business dealings.  His wife’s family was also well-known in the community, known especially for their engagement in Christian causes.  Harry was known for his cantankerous attitude toward people around him.  His wife’s family was well-known for their faithful involvement in church.

I felt like I would have to walk a pretty narrow tight rope if I was going to care for the family and preach about faith when they knew that he wasn’t likely in heaven, and still minister to and preach to the many unbelieving friends who were going to be at the funeral.  It was in this situation (and many others) that I developed some “rules” for creating a funeral sermon for an unbeliever in our community.

The “Don’ts”

In Your Funeral Sermon for An Unbeliever Don’t Preach Him Into Heaven

In my first year in ministry I had 8 funerals for unbelievers.  One of the things that surprised me was that people believed that their relative or friend was in “a better place” in spite of the fact that they had no connection with the church or ever read the Bible.  Why did they believe that?  Because he or she was such a “good” person.  When they shared all the good things about their relative, I found it tempting to list all those wonderful things in a message, and leave the impression that the dead person was now in heaven because he/she was so “good”.

The gospel is clear: none of us gets into heaven because we do good things in our time of life.  This doesn’t mean that you can’t mention all the things that made life worth living with the person who has died.  You can do that in a “eulogy” sort of way.  But don’t preach them into heaven.

Don’t Preach The Unbeliever Into Hell, Either

God’s mercy is great, and we don’t know what the condition of a person’s heart was in the moments before death. So don’t use this as a way to get something off your chest about unbelievers, and don’t try to scare the hell out of them.  It’s okay to talk about heaven, just do it as a general description of what awaits the believer (see below).

The “Do’s”

Do Present God as Loving and Good

The funeral of an unbeliever gives you a powerful opportunity to talk about God as loving, good, and caring about the people who are grieving.   Again, that powerful verse from John 11, “Jesus wept”, reminds us all that God sees the horror of death, and cares about the people experiencing it.  Let people know that God sees their grief, and is moved by it.

Present the Gospel

If there was ever a time for good news, it’s at a funeral.  When the funeral is for a believer, we can celebrate the promise of heaven.  When you are preaching a funeral sermon for an unbeliever it is a bit more complicated.  However, you have a group of people who are faced with mortality.  Now is the time to remind them of God’s promise of eternal life, as well as the promise of God’s presence in a difficult time.

I have used the method of bringing the deceased into the message, saying something like, “If your loved one was here right now, he would want you to know this.”  Then I would present the Gospel.

Be The Presence

The Spirit is within you.  You are the presence of the Body of Christ in this situation.  Love the people the way God loves.  Show your concern.  Contact the family after the funeral to check and see how they are doing.

Final Thoughts on a Funeral Sermon for an Unbeliever

In conclusion, I want to add one caveat to what I have written above.  When I entered ministry I thought people would come to faith in great numbers in my funerals for unbelievers.  They didn’t.  As I wrestled with that fact, I realized that I don’t really know what the Holy Spirit will do with my faithfulness.  It could be that my efforts could end up like those of the prophet Jeremiah.  He preached faithfully, and the people didn’t respond.

But it could be that I God did a great work in someone’s life, and I just didn’t know it.  I was surprised at a gathering for people in my first church to meet a woman who came to Christ under my preaching.  She never told me at the time, and it was now 33 years later.  But her life was changed as she came to experience God’s grace.  And she was in the church service under compulsion by her in-laws!

I prefer to think of my funeral sermon for an unbeliever in this light: that God will do what He wants to do with my efforts.  My call is to be faithful.

Russell Moore is a seminary professor with vast pastoral experience.  Here’s his take on this in his blog.