I tell people I love funerals. And you know why? I realized that there is great outreach potential in them. If you’re meeting with a family who would very rarely enter the door of a church, in this time, they really want to know what God has to say about death. They have a crazy kind of hunger to hear God’s perspective on what they’re going through.
When we were first planting, I saw the need in our small town to offer pastoral care for people who might not have a pastor during their time of loss. In small towns, most people still want some type of spiritual element in their service, even if they didn’t attend church. So I met with the undertakers in town and offered my services.
Typically, when I do one of these funerals, there’s a large crowd of unbelievers. I did one a while ago for a woman who had died of lung cancer. I had visited her a couple weeks before she passed and made sure that she had a relationship with Jesus, and her husband asked me to do the service. They weren’t members of our church, or of any church at all. At the service I presented Jesus, and 19 people responded to the call for salvation out of about 150 people attending. After the funeral, her husband visited our church, and now he’s a regular.
For church planters and pastors who want to start reaching out this way, here’s some guidance:
Be servant-hearted, sensitive, and flexible.
One size does not fit all in terms of how you deal with people going through this experience. You need to be really flexible and in tune with the Spirit about what you’re going to present to whom at any given funeral. You can have a simple order of service that you follow at every service and then be sensitive. In our region of Northern Wisconsin, which has a primarily Lutheran and Roman Catholic background, I usually ask each family whether they want to say the Lord’s Prayer out loud at the service. If you are dealing with a lot of traditional people, they’ll say, “Oh yeah, everyone will know that!” But I remember the first time I met with a family where they said, “What the heck is the Lord’s Prayer?” I said, “sounds like you probably don’t want to recite that, then.” And they said, “No, not unless you print out the words.” That’s when bells went off for me—if I print out the words, they’re willing to say it. So I’ve learned to ask those kinds of questions.
Use historical narrative passages from Scripture for your message.
One of the ones I use is Jesus dealing with the death of Lazarus. That was his first cousin. And you can tell people, “Here’s Jesus, and even though he’s God, his heart broke for the death of his first cousin Lazarus. Let’s just see how he handled it. This thing affected everything about him. He wept, his heart was wrenched, he was emotionally attached. I just want to let you know that Jesus is very much attuned to what you’re going through, and he wants to help you with this.”
Be available for follow-up.
At a funeral service you don’t necessarily want to make someone who committed their life to Jesus fill out a commitment card. And often many of these people are from out of town. I make sure that my contact information is available at the funeral home for people to be able to get ahold of me later. People will email me and ask if I know of a church in their area that they could attend. On the other hand, local people will often come to church the next Sunday. They’ll come a few times, and after that, they’re basically in.
Look for Other Ways to Serve.
Mourning is a time of need for people, and they’re really open to receive blessing from the church. Sometimes a funeral director will clue us into the fact that a family can’t afford ham sandwiches for the lunch after the service. One of the things that we can do is offer to provide a meal for the mourners after the service. Typically, the undertaker will find out this information and then he’ll ask us if we would be able to provide a meal. We make sure we have really friendly people to help serve the meal, and the family feels really loved by that.
Making yourself available to do funerals is something I encourage every pastor and church planter to do. Visiting the funeral directors and undertakers is something church planters can do in the first month to introduce themselves to the community.
Ross Nelson and his wife Mary planted the Northwoods Vineyard in Tomahawk, WI in 1997, and he’s been the senior pastor there since then. Ross also serves on the Small Town USA Partnership which targets plants in rural America and as the Midwest North Region Representative.