What sort of worship is the most meaningful to people? The answer may surprise you. It is not traditional or contemporary. It is neither liturgical or free-styled. It is a funeral.
I realized this truth while conducting a United Methodist Beginning Lay Speaker class. Since it was the beginning course there were a lot of aspects of lay speaking possibilities upon which we touched – including leading worship. I asked the class – regular attenders at church services – to describe their most meaningful worship experiences. A few students told worship stories. I went to an old-fashioned chalk board to make notes. I saw a patterned emerging. When everyone in the class had a chance to share their experiences, I stepped back from the board. It was evident to everyone in the room. The most meaningful worship experiences were funerals. No one mentioned Christmas Eve or Easter worship times. Weddings were left off the list. Some students mentioned celebrations of Baptism or Holy Communion. Yet, funerals dominated the discussion. Why? What is so different about funerals?
When I lead funeral worship times, I have three goals in mind – worship[ God, honor the deceased, and comfort the loved ones. Mourners arrive to offer and to receive comfort. A funeral is not a time for guilt or warnings of eternal damnation. Funerals are opportunities to worship with eternal blessing in view.
Properly conducting a funeral begins before the person dies. We have all heard someone say something like, “Arnold preached his funeral by the way he lived.” This statement is a truism that sticks with us. The pastor should visit the sickbed of the dying person and the family in order to listen. Visiting the family after a death is important for listening as well. Of course, pastors ask questions about what should be included in the funeral service. Listening at these times allows the pastor to learn more about how the family and friends of the deceased feel about the person. Too many pastors rely on stock funeral sermons loaded with talk about salvation and heave. Mourners want to hear about these matters. More importantly they want to hear about the person who has just died. Stories and anecdotes of the deceased’s experiences are good. Quirks of someone’s personality or behavior can be shared (if appropriate). The deceased’s favorite statements or turns of phrase can be repeated. God can be praised for the person’s life even if a story about falling overboard while fishing makes the mourners laugh through their tears.
The message of divine love in the life of the person and the mourners is always what funeral worship times are about. Praise, honor, and comfort are goals that allow the family and friends of the recently deceased begin to let go of their beloved and continue to love each other.