Preaching After the Unthinkable
The thing to do was to talk realistically about the situation and then later, when talking about our response to Jennifer's death, to bring in some statement of concern for him. It would be ridiculous to ignore him, but the focus was not on him. He is a human being, and we should acknowledge that and we should demonstrate concern for him … but not at any great length.
When someone's preaching after a tragic death, what needs to be avoided?
In a situation like this, there are plenty of opportunities to put your foot in it. One of the huge mistakes is to make unwarranted authoritative statements.
What do you mean by that?
To talk into the situation with more detail or assurance than you actually have. That is a serious mistake. Sometimes we sentimentalize things like this, but we need to be very careful what we say.
I noticed this after the terrible situation in Newtown. A lot of people were talking how these little children are "angels" now, and things like that. I understand why people say that. They're struggling with a tragedy. But it's a mistake to say things that are just designed to make people feel better without any basis in truth.
Of course you don't want to make them feel worse by being thoughtless, or by expressing opinions that are nothing more than your opinions. But there are many ways that this can go wrong, that can mislead or confuse people, even with the best intentions.
With this in mind, is a funeral the place to share the gospel with the grieving?
I'm very uncomfortable when people come to me and talk about the funeral as a "wonderful opportunity for the gospel." "Boy, what a crowd we've got in here! Give 'em a real evangelistic message, Stuart!" I always say to them as good as it is, this is not an evangelistic service. This is funeral. With that said, our hope is in the Lord, and so of course it's all about him and his work. Fine.
Remember, a funeral is not primarily about the deceased. A funeral is for the living. The deceased are in good shape if they're right with the Lord. Obviously we eulogize them. Obviously we talk about them and we thank God for them. But the issue is all the people who are there, who are remembering, who are grieving.
We're all about honoring the Lord in this situation. This means that we speak about his salvation. It does not mean that we give a rousing altar call "while every head is bowed and every eye is closed slip up your arm if you're going to say this prayer." That's not me. I think it's a misstep.
How do you handle funerals where the deceased was not a believer?
Well, you don't say things that are not true. But neither do you make definitive statements about that person's heart. In the end only God knows the reality of their faith. We all know we're in for shocks in eternity.
The spiritual reality is not always as apparent as it might be. We need to accept that. With that said, I don't believe in giving false hope. The situation is this—we are estranged from God, but he is actively in the job of redeeming us. That is predicated on the grace of God to take the initiative and the faith of man responding to that initiative. Only God knows the depth and the reality of that faith response. And so what can we say about our friend who is gone now? Well, God knows what his response was. We commit him to a God of love, of holiness, and of righteousness.