18 January 2011

life at a funeral

"Why is it that we rejoice at a birth and grieve at a funeral? It is because we are not the person involved." (Mark Twain)

I begin with a somewhat anecdotal observation, which got me to thinking about the bigger picture . . .

In the last three weeks I have been asked to preside over the funerals of two people I have never met, whose families were unknown to me. In both cases I arrived at the service itself having never met anyone involved before that moment, now asked to lead them in a proper remembrance and committal. Since this has never happened to me before, and I haven't seen this dilemma cross the pages of Christianity Today, perhaps it is just a simple pattern of three weeks. But since I am consistently reminded to find ministry opportunities in every avenue I pass, I had to pause and look deeper.

If we are to accept the trends of increase detachment from church life, and I do, then this is more than a random stumbling of coincidence. The numbers given to us suggest not simply a decline in church attendance in the past however-many-years, but demonstrate an increase cultural break between the church and those who do not attend. For the first time in the history of American culture we are seeing second and third generation non-churchgoers as a significant segment of our population.

Even though this ecclesiastical detachment exists, people are still searching for the deeper meaning of life. Which means that, when faced with the sudden and certain reality of death, they are going to be looking for a meaning to it all. And while this may be all-too-late for the person who has died, those gathered still have the opportunity to find that sacred significance.

I think that more and more families are going to be looking to the church in order to obtain a 'facilitator' for the funeral service. So, those who are ministers of the gospel are now going to be faced with a choice. (It will not be a choice of presiding over the service, that is simple logistics for the majority in the ministry.) The decision will be whether we interpret the funeral service as an opportunity to speak the word of God into the lives of those who grieve, or see our role simply as a religious extension of the funeral director, who quietly takes his leave (and pay) after services rendered.

I'm not interested in referring to this as 'funeral evangelism' or anything ridiculous like that, because it needs neither to be programmed nor a soul-crusade. But it is an opportunity for those who work as ministers to meet people with the biblical message of hope, peace and comfort at their most vulnerable point in life. (I believe that death - or the prospect of death -is the most vulnerable point, births are second.) The key will be to present the full gospel message without taking away from the funeral, or letting the grieving process shy us away from bringing people into the full encounter of divine love.


Anonymous said...

The visitation pastor at our church is doing an increasing number of funerals and graveside services for people who are not members of our church or any church. Some may be part of churches that did not come to see their loved one while they were sick and since they encountered Pastor Tom and his wife, that's who they call on. Fortunately, he is gifted in this area and sees it as real ministry.

:mic said...

I'm glad that your pastor is viewing this as a ministry opportunity. Before one of my services I was speaking with the director of the funeral chapel about presiding over services of people who are not attached to a church. During the conversation he remarked that over the years he has met a number of pastors who are more irritated than helpful in such situations. That's a sad commentary for church leadership.