Why I Welcome Funeral Opportunities for the Unchurched
by David Osborne

David Osborne and his wife, Lori, pastor the Burlington Church of Christ, an independent, community Christian church located in North Central Indiana. In addition to being a 1982 graduate of Rhema Bible Training Center, David holds a bachelor’s degree from Indiana University and a Master of Arts in Pastoral Counseling from Liberty University.

Funeral Opportunities for the Unchurched by David OsborneProverbs 11:30 (ESV)
The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, And he who is wise wins souls.

I stood in front of a crowd of people in a grief-filled room for a deceased man that I had never met and for his unchurched family that will most likely never come to my church. I asked myself once again: Am I doing the right thing offering my ministerial service and sacrificing personal time for the unchurched? The funeral service I am referring to was my third funeral for that week, and like the two before it, I did not know the deceased or any of their family members before being contacted by a local funeral director for help. The only connection I had with the crowd before me was that they needed a minister, and I was willing to help.

Throughout the service, I’d like to say that their many warm smiles confirmed that taking on one more funeral for the week was the right choice. But this particular crowd was almost expressionless, stoic even, only adding to my worry that the time and effort I had already spent on this service was a waste of valuable ministry time. However, at the conclusion of the service, confirmation came as many in attendance shared emotion-filled words that indicated that my time spent was not a loss, but possibly some of the best seed planting for the Gospel I had done in a while.

So why do I take on so many non-church family funerals even though there is both a personal cost and cost to my ministry to do them? It’s simple. I have learned over the years to treat every funeral opportunity as an extension of my pastoral work and not a conflict to it. The Apostle Paul once told his apprentice and partner in ministry, Timothy, to “be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Tim. 4:5, KJV). For me, providing pastoral care and ministerial services for the deceased and their surviving family members has become some of the richest soil to plant the seeds of salvation into the hearts of non-Christian people while also shepherding the wandering sheep of Jesus back to the safety of following Him more closely. Once I made this change in my outlook concerning the calls I get almost weekly to perform funeral services for the unchurched and those without a pastor, I noticed a deep, spiritual change in the whole process I go through every time a funeral director calls me for help. I would like to share some of these helpful insights and practices with you.

1 Corinthians 15:58, NIV
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

1. Just Showing Up Changes Everything

Some time ago, I was getting out my car to walk into the funeral home for a person I had never met. In that moment I thought, “Am I really going to make a difference today?” I was tired and overwhelmed with many other ministry tasks yet to perform that week. In the middle of the groan that came from my soul came the familiar voice of our Savior by His Spirit saying, “Your ‘showing up’ changes everything for them.” I knew in an instant that regardless of how well I conducted the service, which is a pressure I always feel, I had already provided the family with something they desperately needed: someone to minister to their pain. Psalm 34:18 says, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” This isn’t just a great Scripture to read at funerals, it’s what the Lord does through us as we “just show up.”

2. Every Person Counts

It’s easy to focus on the family members most affected by the death of a loved one. However, we are given a great opportunity to serve every person involved. From funeral director to grave services, from closest friends to the most distant relative, we represent Jesus and His love for each of them.

Not too many funerals ago, a family requested a bagpipe player to play as the casket was carried to the gravesite from the funeral coach. Following the committal service, the bagpiper approached me commenting on how moving the service was (I didn’t even know the bagpiper was in listening distance to the service).

There are many ways to bless the overlooked-grievers (my word) when a death occurs.

When a 92 year old man passed away, his dear friend that wintered close to him in Florida made the trip to Indiana in order to attend his friend’s service. I noticed before the service began that the friend from Florida was displaying heavy grief. Because he was not family, he took a backseat to their needs. At the grave site, as the pallbearers were making ready to carry the casket to the grave, I quickly asked the friend if he would like to lead the casket with me to its final resting place. It was a sweet walk with a dear, aging friend that needed to be included in the service and identified as someone who was deeply grieving. Needless to say, he thanked me, hugged me, and told me how honored he was to join me in that moment. Small things matter.

Funeral directors and staff need ministry.

Some of the best ministry moments have been riding out to the cemetery with funeral directors and staff. While the slow procession is in motion, and I would rather be reviewing my notes in preparation for the committal service, it’s at that time the directors or staff seem to want to open up to me about what’s going on in their lives and to see if I have any words of help. I know it seems strange, but if we approach the whole funeral service event as a rich field to work in for Jesus, even a funeral coach becomes a counseling room for those needing spiritual guidance.

I make it a standard practice to find the person or persons that seem to feel that they are serving in the least capacity, and I serve them.

Mark 10:44-45 (ESV)
And whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

3. Format vs. Rubber Stamp

All pastors face the need to streamline reoccurring activities; however, we need to avoid the trap of using the same funeral service every time. The answer is to use a standard format that provides a familiar flow every time while allowing plenty of flexibility making every funeral service special and unique for every family served.

Here’s my standard outline when serving those without a pastor or home church. Note the flow.

  1. Opening song (if requested by family)
  2. Opening words—this is my first address to those attending the service.
    • Reference opening song (if a song is used)
      • I’ve learned to go with what the family wants. I have had some pretty interesting songs used as an opener. However, I have also learned that when I demonstrate respect for their requests, they become better listeners when it’s my turn to speak of Christ and His love.
    • Open with a poem selected by the family for the funeral service bulletin.
    • Open with a Scripture passage, if requested by family.
    • Always thank those attending the service on behalf of the family.
    • Transition toward opening prayer.
  3. Opening prayer
  4. Read the obituary as it appeared in the paper.
  5. Family sharing
    • If family members or special friends want to speak, here is where I insert them.
    • Read the notes provided by the family if they feel they can’t speak. This is a great way to let their voice be heard as you read their words.
  6. Open the floor for guests to speak. I always get the family’s permission for this. Some tell me they don’t want others speaking, many welcome it.
    • Opening the floor can be a little risky. I have had some interesting and nervous moments as grief-speak (my word) flows out of the hurting. Even so, we can’t control what is said. Just know weird things can happen and be okay with it.
  7. Pastoral words of comfort
    • Here’s where I typically speak directly to those in attendance using what I have learned about the deceased while including the Gospel and other relevant Scriptures.
      • If the deceased was unchurched, I am careful not to preach a message. Typically most of the family and friends will be unchurched as well. However, I have learned to share the Gospel in a way that appeals to their hearts while testifying of the love of God expressed in the Savior, Jesus Christ. I’m always amazed at how powerful it is to quote John 3:16-17 while looking directly in the eyes of those gathered before me. This is where it is good to have a few “go to” verses ready to be quoted by memory. Nothing communicates like eye contact, so intentionally have a few places set in the entire service where you are ready to for eye contact and can leave your notes for a moment or two.
      • There’s much to detail here, but my encouragement to you is learn to tell the Gospel in such a compelling way without condemnation so that the love of God is on display.
        • Romans 2:4 in the NLT says, “Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?”
  8. Closing remarks
    • If you feel there is more to say, say it as you work toward a single closing statement. Many times here is where the inspiration of the Holy Spirit moves me to say things in the moment that I could not have planned for. If the Holy Spirit isn’t giving clear direction, I move toward the closing prayer and trust that is what the Holy Spirit was leading me to do.
  9. Closing prayer
    • If there will be a procession to a cemetery, include it in the closing prayer by asking for protection for the procession. I have had some close calls as oncoming traffic doesn’t always yield to the procession.
  10. Closing song (if the family selects one).
  11. Committal service—following the funeral service and usually at the grave site or a mausoleum.

If there are military rites given, serve the military rites team by letting them go first (this respect has created a really close relationship between our local teams and myself).

FYI: When the flag approaches, stand at attention and cover your heart. When TAPS is being played, stand at attention and cover your heart (non-military don’t salute). A good cue is to watch what the military rites team members are doing and follow their lead.

Sometimes I like to read the lyrics to TAPS out at the grave, especially if the military rites team can’t be present for some reason. Also, it makes for a great closing statement before the closing prayer. Here are the lyrics I use:

Day is done, gone the sun
From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky
All is well, safely rest
God is nigh.

Fading light dims the sight
And a star gems the sky, gleaming bright
From afar, drawing near
Falls the night.

Thanks and praise for our days
Neath the sun, neath the stars, neath the sky
As we go, this we know
God is nigh.

Committal services feel different—they should be very dignified and reverent. Typically, they should be about the minister concluding the duty the Lord has given to oversee the returning of a human body to the ground from which all our bodies were formed while trusting the spirit and soul to the Lord. I have five main components:

  1. Opening scripture or poem.
  2. A statement of purpose: “The Lord has given us a duty today. That duty is to lay to rest the earthly body of _________.”
  3. The inclusion of appropriate Scripture.
  4. A prayer committing the body of the deceased to the earth as we trust the person’s soul and spirit unto the Lord. Sadly, we know if there is no salvation, there is no Heaven. When there is no clear testimony of faith in Jesus, I leave that up to the Lord by saying, “as we trust their soul and spirit unto the Lord.”
  5. When closing, I like to lead in the Lord’s prayer by inviting all to pray it with me either out loud or silently in their heart. What a blessing this practice has been. Make sure you tell them which version you are praying (e.g. debts vs. trespass).

4. Familiarize Don’t Memorize

It takes a lot of time for me to memorize a message, so I don’t. My brain doesn’t work that way. But, when I work to familiarize my heart and mind with what I took the time to write out, I find that I am well prepared as a speaker to be used of the Lord by His Spirit.

Learn to balance some reading with speaking from the heart while making eye contact. Throughout the service, have moments where you can leave your notes, look up, and make extended eye contact for a minute or two. Having those brief moments separated by parts of the service reading your notes is required and expected by the audience. For example, I know I am going to read the obituary. That is why it follows what I call “opening words” and “opening prayer.” Throughout the opening words and leading up to the opening prayer, I have familiarized the statements I felt the Holy Spirit wanted me to say while making a good connection with their hearts through careful eye contact. Looking up and looking into the eyes of the crowd is needed here, especially at the very beginning. It puts the crowd at ease, and it reassures them that this service is going to be both personal and professional as their loved one is being remembered.

Develop a good repertoire of Scriptures that relate in most funeral services. These become the “go-to” verses that seem to leap out of your heart as you minister to the bereaved.

5. The Four Do’s

  1. Do meet with the family a few days before the service. Ministry to the family begins with that first meeting. Plus, you’ll get most of your information for the service at that time allowing you to go back to your busy schedule. I use the meeting rooms at the various funeral homes. The family is already acquainted with the location of the funeral home, and many times they have things to drop off, like pictures and clothing. So attempt to work with their schedule. To do this well, plan on the meeting taking about an hour. Hand out your business card, making it clear they can call on you leading up to the service as well as long after the day of the service has passed. Pastors are in for the long haul when it comes to working with our communities.
  2. Show up to the funeral home an hour before the service. This is my best time for final prep as well as an opportunity to see the family making sure all is on track for the service the way you have planned it. The funeral directors I work with really appreciate this practice.
  3. Do treat the funeral director as someone you are serving. They need ministers they can count on and who demonstrate a high level of respect for their work with the bereaved. Learn their ways and learn their needs. It will minister to them in great ways. This is why I have so many funeral directors with my number on their speed-dial.
  4. Do treat every funeral service as the most important service—it shows.

6. Funerals Take Time

At a minimum, it takes one hour meeting with the family, two hours typing out the service and getting a sense from the Holy Spirit the direction He wants the service to go, one hour before the service checking on the family and reading over my notes several times, 40 minutes for an average service, the time it takes to travel to the cemetery for the committal service, and 10 minutes for the committal service (my part). Add 15 minutes if there is a military rites team involved. That’s around five hours of time well spent every time a funeral director calls and asks, “Can you help me with a family that does not have a home church or a pastor?”