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Follow These 4 "P's" to Conduct Gospel-Centered Funerals
I’ve given two funerals in my short pastoral ministry: one for a 34 year old man who died too early from cancer, another for a 64 year old who died suddenly from health complications; the former was co-led, the latter I flew solo.
While I took a class on pastoral ministry during my M.Div. program, I wish I would have had a new ministry guide to help, called Conduct Gospel-Centered Funerals.
This compact guide by Brian Croft and Phil Newton is more than a manual for the logistics, challenges, and practical matters of leading funerals. In it they aim to help you shape these experiences to be gospel-centered.
What is a gospel-centered funeral? “Gospel-centeredness is making the gospel of Jesus Christ the primary purpose and focus of the funeral.” (14)
Croft and Newton believe planning, preparing, preaching, and performing funerals should be infused with as much of Christ and His hope of salvation as all the other areas of life.
These 4 essential “P’s” will ensure you don’t merely perform a funeral, but that you conduct a gospel-centered funeral. Let's take a look at each point in brief:
Because funerals tend to come with little advanced notice, we must plan ahead by understanding our role and recognizing important do’s and don’ts during death.
“The responsibility for the pastoral care of the family belongs to you. There are six areas of responsibility you need to consider”: (17)
- Offer guidance and care during this significant event;
- Offer comfort through the Word and your presence;
- Represent Christ, the Church, and the gospel;
- Declare the sufficiency of the gospel, which gives joy even with death;
- Build deeper relationships with the immediate and extended family;
- Be ready to offer long-term counsel and care.
If these sound like a lot to accomplish, that’s because they are. But Croft and Newton provide tips for navigating the challenges in these ministries.
Planning will go a long way in being organized during the chaos of death, while serving grieving families and providing a good witness in the community.
How do you prepare for such a thing as a funeral?
Thankfully Croft covers the details relating to leading a funeral service, broadly outlined around five key areas: prayer, music, Scripture readings, eulogy, and sermon.
Pray for the spouse, children and grandchildren, and friends of the deceased, that they would be comforted by God and find their hope in the gospel.
Ask the family if they have specific songs they’d like played, while also selecting songs that reflect the Savior.
Carefully choose Scripture that is gospel-centered, such as Romans 5:6–11.
One of my favorite insights from this section is about the sermon. Croft shares advice he received: “Don’t preach them into heaven. Don’t preach them into hell. Just preach the gospel for the people who are there.” (46)
At my first funeral I delivered the sermon, during which I walked through God’s Story of Rescue: creation, rebellion, rescue, and re-creation. Afterwards an older Christian woman thanked me for preaching the gospel and offering a response. She said I was the first minister she heard clearly present the gospel at a funeral service and invite people to respond. Remarkable!
Because the gospel is our primary responsibility, Newton outlines four essentials for gospel-centered funeral sermons:
The Unchangeable Character of God—“When a family loses a loved one, they may feel as if the world has collapsed. They will need the calm assurance that God is still on his throne and still at work in their time of need.” (54)
Clarity of the Gospel—“A gospel minister never wants to sound an unclear note when communicating the gospel message.” (56)
A Call to Respond—“Clarify the gospel during the funeral sermon presuming nothing, while calling for the hearers to give attention to their eternal condition.” (57)
Exhortation to Grieve—"Ministers should encourage grief, but exhort people to grieve appropriately…” (58)
Newton offers guidance in communicating each of these points in your sermon.
In the final chapter, Croft outlines all of the details involved in performing a gospel-centered funeral.
There are the pre-service details, during which you arrive early, greet the family, and more. Then the funeral service itself, where the single goal is “Christ and his saving work are on display throughout.” Finally, the post-service details include what to do at the funeral home, at the grave site, and with the family for long-term pastoral care.
While mastering all of these details can feel overwhelming, how we educate ourselves “can determine if the platform we are given for the gospel is credible in the eyes of those we pray [for, and whether those people] will find their hope in Christ in their darkest hour.” (79)
“Funerals pose unique situations and challenges that can leave a pastor unsure how to magnify Christ in the fog of the details and demands.” (14)
But if you take seriously the 4 P’s outlined above you will amplify Christ and ensure people experience the hope of His salvation.
In other words, you will conduct gospel-centered funerals.
This overview is a small taste of the helpful advice Croft and Newton offer to help you fulfill this sacred calling during this special moment. You will be happy you added this book to your ministry tool chest, and so will your people.
Jeremy Bouma (Th.M.) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and makes the vintage faith relevant at www.jeremybouma.com.
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