Pastor Note #77: Funerals and the Growing Number of Non-believing Neighbors

Moonrise over Venice Church
The Moon over Venice Presbyterian Church, Cecil Township, Pennsylvania; photo by GAC

Opportunities to represent my congregation in ministry in our community present themselves to me from time to time.  For example, along with the pastor of the local Christian and Missionary Alliance Church and I will be involved in the opening ceremonies for the local township fall festival later this month.  Although I was out of town this past Memorial Day, in past years I have been part of the local Memorial Day ceremony outside the American Legion Hall.

But by far the most common ministry I provide out in the community is to preside over funeral services for families who have no church home of pastor of their own.  I’ve done ten funerals this year, and six of them were for people who had no relationship to the congregation I pastor . . . or any other church.  Funeral directors in the area will call me and say that a family has asked them to find a pastor who would be willing to provide a funeral service for their deceased loved one.  I always try to say yes.

There are several reasons why I always try to be available to serve families in a time of loss when they have no other pastor to rely on.  First, it is the compassionate thing to do.  Each of these requests represents a grieving family with no one else to help them deal with their loss and grief.

Wheeling Suspension Bridge, Wheeling, WV; photo by GAC

These are hurting families who are longing for some comfort and some help in understanding the loss they are experiencing.  The apostle Paul shows us the way here:  “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”  (2 Corinthians 1:3-4 NIV)  These funeral invitations are one way I can do what Paul tells me to do in these verses.

A second reason I try always to say yes to these invitation to serve grieving families is that invitations to come into the lives of unchurched and non-Christian people are not to be wasted.  Each of these funeral requests represents an open door for me to step into a family’s life in the name of Jesus Christ and of my congregation.

The time is long past when churches could assume that folks living in our community are sitting around their kitchen table saying to each other, “You know, what we need is a good church.”  The Church can no longer wait for people in our communities to come to us.  We will need to go to them, and that means that we will need to take advantage of every available open door into the lives of our unchurched neighbors.  We need to step through every door our neighbors open to us, and we need to “good news” them with words and actions of God’s love.  That’s what I do every time I agree to do a funeral for grieving families in our community.

I do more of these funerals for unchurched people today than I did thirty-plus years ago when I started my pastoral ministry.  That’s certainly because there are more families in our communities today than there were thirty-six years ago who have not connection with a church.  So, when faced with the death of a loved one, more families today do not have a pastor they can call upon for funeral services for their loved one.

Door Amidst the Ruins
Door Amidst the Ruins; photo by GAC

Also, the nature of those “unchurched” families has changed over the decades.  In fact, “unchurched” isn’t really the right word to describe an increasing number of these families.  An “unchurched” person is generally understood to be someone who has a general familiarity with the Christian faith but who is not actually connected or committed to a church.  “Unchurched” people are usually folks who have grown up in a church or who were involved in a church at some point in their lives but then drifted away or left over some issue and now no longer maintain any relationship with a church.

We all know folks like that.  Many of us have people like that in our own families.  There are former members of my current congregation who were once active and involved but who have drifted away and now no longer attend church anywhere.  They may well be Christian people, but they have left the church and are now called “unchurched.”  These are people who may know quite a lot about the Bible and the Christian faith.  If you mention “David,” they’ll know that you’re talking about an ancient king of Israel who killed a giant, had an extra-marital affair, and wrote poems called psalms.  If you mention “Moses,” they’ll know you’re referring to an ancient leader of the Israelite people who led them out of Egypt, parted the Red Sea, and delivered the Ten Commandments.  “Unchurched” people may well read the Bible sometimes, pray in Jesus’ name, and think of themselves as Christians.  But when someone they love dies, they may well have to ask the funeral director to find them a pastor, because they won’t have one of their own to call on.

What I am discovering more and more is that some of the families I do funerals for are more correctly described by a different term.  They are not really just “unchurched.”  They are in fact simply non-Christians.  It’s becoming more and more common for me to encounter young adults at these funerals – folks in the twenties and thirties – who have never been inside a church in their lives except to attend a wedding.  It’s more and more common to find that the parents of these young adults have also never been involved in a church anywhere.  In fact, it may be the grandparents of today’s young adults who were the last to have any church involvement, and it might well be that these grandparents were only involved in a church when they were kids.

Let me just summarize this situation in simple terms:  there is a growing number of adults in America who are two or three generations removed from the Christian faith.  These folks may never have looked inside a Bible, may have no idea what an Old Testament and a New Testament are or what makes one “old” and the other “new.”  They have never heard any stories from the Bible.  Names like Samuel, David, Isaiah, or Paul mean nothing to them.  They will certainly know the name of Jesus – and mostly use it as a curse word.  They will probably know that he died somehow involving a cross and that somehow he is supposed to have come back to life again, though why all that happened or what he did after it all happen may be very vague to them.

When asked in surveys about what religion they are, more and more of these folks are answering “none.”  In the most recent such surveys, somewhere around 30% of Americans now say that they have no religious affiliation.  Please, understand, when they say this, they are not simply saying that they are not Presbyterian or Baptist or Catholic.  They are saying that they are not Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu.  They are saying that they have no particular religious beliefs.

An Up-state New York Apple Orchard; photo by GAC

These are the folks who ask our local funeral directors to find a pastor like me for them.  These are the folks I chat with about their loss.  These are the folks I pray with and read the Bible to, often for the first time in their lives.  These are the people who invite me to do that and to explain what the Bible has to say to them in the face of this terrible loss that they are experiencing.

And this is the world we live in and where we are doing our ministry.  If you’re thinking that that’s a bad thing, you aren’t understanding things right.  In my experience I find that these non-Christian Americans are often quite curious about Christianity, especially when they are facing a crisis in their lives, such as the death of a loved one.  Often our non-Christian neighbors and co-workers are very open to hear about your Christian faith, more open to hear than we are to tell.  Be alert for situations in which non-believing people in your life open a door for you to share something about your faith.  Then be bold – in a gentle sort of way – and tell them about the hope that is in you.

© 2018 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights resevered.

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