How Should I Preach the Funeral of a Non-believer?

Hershael York — January 19, 2024

When we preach the funeral of someone who was a faithful member of our church, whose life was a testimony of their faith in Christ, that’s a joyous, glorious occasion. I know it sounds odd to say that I enjoy funerals more than weddings, but I do, because people are dialed in. At a funeral, you get to preach to a new audience of people who wouldn’t normally come to your church. At a wedding, however, they’re all focusing on other things. Usually, even if you do preach the gospel, trust me on this, nobody’s really listening. But at a funeral, they are listening.

When you’re preaching the funeral of a believer, it’s sort of easy. You just talk about their faith and you give examples from their lives. But what about when you’re not so sure? What about when you’re preaching the funeral of a person whose name was maybe on your church role or someone else’s church role, but you have deep suspicions that they weren’t a follower of Christ? Well, let me give you some advice. First of all, you don’t know anybody’s spiritual condition. I’m convinced that in heaven there’ll be two big surprises, one: who’s there? And two: who’s not? There will be people that you thought were for sure saved, but they’re going to be the ones about whom Jesus said, “Depart from me, workers of iniquity, I never knew you,” even though on this earth they said, “Lord, Lord.” But there’s going to be the five o’clock workers, the thief on the cross, the person who made a deathbed confession you didn’t know about, or who God brought something to their memory and they trusted Christ in a way that you didn’t know.

You can’t really comment with any certainty about someone’s eternal condition, so you certainly should not pronounce them damned in hell. I just don’t think that’s helpful or comforting to the family, even if it’s true. First, because you don’t know it. And secondly, because it’s not helpful to the living. What I like to do in any funeral is follow a certain pattern. At almost every funeral you preach, somebody loved that person and you can celebrate the life that the people around him loved. Usually it goes in four steps. First, he was a good man. And you mean that in the most human of senses. Secondly, he worked hard. Whatever job he did, people liked to brag on whatever work he did.

Thirdly, he loved his family. Most funerals you preach, people will be crying and there’s a testimony that there was affection and love between this deceased, however flawed he may have been, and his family. But you’re going to focus on the fact that he loved his family. And fourth, there’s almost always some kind of a comment about his hobby, his sports fanaticism, or something like that. He loved Kentucky basketball or he loved fishing, something like that.

Let’s say that he made a profession and was baptized in a church, but you’ve got your suspicion that he wasn’t really a follower of Christ because he hadn’t been in church for 20 years or whatever. Here’s the best thing for you to say: “It was Jim Bob’s testimony that he had trusted Christ and he showed that through a public profession in baptism.”

Now, that’s as much as you can say, and that’s really all you need to say. It was his testimony that he had trusted Christ. And then you pivot to the gospel, and I do that by saying something like, “As we’re gathered here to comfort one another in our grief and to pay our last respects, it’s a reminder that there’s going to be a service like this for every one of us, and we need to be ready. The Scripture tells us how to be prepared for death.” And then you just pivot right into the gospel, whatever your text is. You must be absolutely clear when you preach a funeral. There is nothing that unnerves me quite like attending a funeral where whoever’s conducting the funeral never gets around to the gospel.

If you’re preaching a funeral—preach the funeral. Preach the gospel. Every one of us must be ready. Share your gospel text and give the plan of salvation. Tell people what they must do, what they need to know about the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, that they must repent and place their faith in Christ and call on him. And then invite them to do so right there. As you close the service, invite them silently, right where they’re sitting to call on the name of the Lord in repentance and faith. Now, if the person had no testimony of faith whatsoever, it’s pretty much the same thing. Just leave out the part about his testimony and then go through the celebrations of the person’s life—usually, the family will share the details about the person with you.

I love to preach the text of the thief on the cross. It’s probably my favorite sermon text, and I just talk about what Jesus said about the other side of death when he said, today you’ll be with me in paradise. It’s a great gospel text. It shows that there’s personality beyond death. You will be with me in paradise beyond death. There’s a person, Jesus is there. The four most comforting words in the Bible are “with me in paradise.” The thief on the cross in his humility, recognized who Jesus was, that he was the king and that he was going to sit on a throne. Jesus saw his faith, and counted it as righteousness. Nothing shows the sovereignty of God, quite like snatching someone from the very mouth of hell and taking him to heaven with him. Jesus did that. You just share the gospel like that and call on them to repent and to believe. Invite them to trust Christ.

You might think nobody’s really listening at a funeral, but they are. They’re facing death. They’re facing the reality of death. I preached the funeral of a young woman years ago. She worked at a hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, and it was probably at that point the largest funeral attendance I’d ever preached to. I’m telling you, for years after that funeral, doctors and nurses in that hospital would stop me and say, I need to tell you that I trusted Christ at Phyllis Underwood’s funeral. I’ll never forget it. God uses the gospel. The gospel has power. So you make sure that you are clear and distinct in your presentation of the gospel and telling people how to place their faith in Christ, telling them what they need to do in obedience if they do trust Christ and let the Holy Spirit do his work. There’s nothing more important than preaching the gospel. And when you preach a funeral, you’re getting access to an awful lot of people that won’t darken the door of your church otherwise, but they’ll be there at that funeral. That’s your golden opportunity to share the gospel and see the power of the Holy Spirit and the Word at work. When you do this, you will pastor well.

Hershael York

Dean of the School of Theology; Victor and Louise Lester Professor of Christian Preaching

York serves as Dean of the School of Theology and Victor and Louise Lester Professor of Christian Preaching at Southern Seminary. He is also senior pastor at Buck Run Baptist Church.

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