Sharing the Gospel with the Grieving

by Rev. Daniel Coffin

With Easter Sunday services fresh in my mind, I am reminded about “how desperately the lost need to hear the good news.” There is hope in Jesus Christ! Christians the world over gather every Easter to celebrate the glorious news that Jesus conquered sin, death, and the grave. As ministers of the Gospel, we know very well that our hope is not in empty wistfulness that there might be something better after death. We believe God’s Word and rejoice that every promise in the Bible has or will be fulfilled. When Jesus told the disciples that He was going to leave, they wanted to know when and if they could go with Him. “My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come” (John 13:33).

If we are ministering to one person or an entire family struggling with grief, and we know that they are not fellow believers, we have both a privilege and a responsibility to share the good news with them. When we consider the sense of hopelessness they are experiencing right then, we know how our own hearts grieve in similar circumstances. However, the Apostle Paul reminds us that believers should not grieve as those who have no hope (I Thess. 4:13). So then, how do we as pastors share both the very real grief and the wonderful message of hope available through Jesus?

This article is the third of three dealing with the topic of grief, and I would encourage you to read them also as I deal with this subject in the broad spectrum of pastoral ministry. That said, please be aware that our approach to grief and our conversations are precious opportunities. A caution that you have heard before is fitting at this point. Do not treat these dear people like a project or as an opportunity to neglect their grief for your need to share the Gospel.

I write these articles not as an expert on the matter but as one willing to share my insights which I pray will encourage you in your own ministry as situations arise. The greatest joy I have experienced has been to see people, many of whom I met only through the death of a loved one, come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Keep in mind that your invitation to become involved with each situation was to help them through the immediate need in their life, the loss of someone dear to them. I stressed in my second article, “Preparing and Preaching the Funeral Sermon,” the importance of prayer even before you make the initial contact with the family. Part of my personal prayer is always for God to give me the opportunity to show His great love and compassion and then to be ready for an opening to share the source of a believer’s hope in such situations.

Many families have no church home or even a remote understanding of God, His Word, or salvation. It can be easy to think your priority is to evangelize the lost. Scripture is replete with examples of how Jesus approached human suffering and need, always addressing the need and giving hope for a brighter future. The adage I have heard for years is, “people don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care.” If we neglect the pain of grief to share the Gospel, we are saying that our message is more important than your pain. I have encountered extreme situations where I was told right up front that they do not want to hear about God; they just want someone to assist them with the funeral. In those situations, I have respected their instruction and have focused on the immediate need to have someone care and walk with them through their grief. In planning the funeral service – note I said service, not sermon; I guided them through the process I outlined in my article on the “sermon,” asking questions about the things they felt important, not my personal agenda. In every event, doors opened to share God’s love and ultimately to share the essence of the Gospel. In many cases, family members visited my church following the funeral because of being drawn to something loving and caring. This afforded many occasions for deeper discussions about God and salvation.

When a person or family loses a loved one, their immediate reaction is usually one of deep pain, often accompanied by anger or confusion. By immediately trying to share the Gospel, you can miss out on great opportunities for meaningful conversations leading to hope via the Gospel. Pastors must remember that no one can push or drag another human being into the Kingdom of God. Holy Spirit draws people to God, and our testimony of faith gives way to inquiries about God. By addressing their felt needs first, we “earn” the deeper privilege to share our hope in Jesus. I have been amazed at the way circumstances turn around when following this process.

Sharing the Gospel with Grieving People is no different that sharing the Gospel with any person you encounter; it is only the matter of timing that is different. Let me clarify that. During our daily business, we talk to people and often discover that they have never heard a clear message of hope pertaining to salvation. Through a series of questions, we seek to ascertain what they believe and perhaps why they believe that. Moving the conversation forward, we often uncover something hurtful in their past. Addressing that hurt with compassion can lead to our sharing our testimony briefly. As we continue to talk, we want to be sensitive to listen more and talk less until the person begins asking questions. Not every such encounter will result in a decision for Christ. However, if we have effectively and lovingly shown the pathway to salvation, we have kept the door open for further discussions. When I spoke of my greatest joy earlier in this article, this was the object of that joy, the follow-ups that resulted in professions of faith.

Grief may be compounded by things like confusion, anger, fear, and timing. Many situations will be known to you as the pastor, but if you are in a ministry that affords the challenge of conducting funerals for strangers through referrals or recommendations of someone in your congregation, you will eventually face the unknown. Please, count these situations as blessed or divine encounters because you are God’s arms and heart at that important time. God will give you courage, wisdom, compassion, and strength to walk through the “valley of death” with people He has placed in your path. No one I know will tell you that these are easy times, but if they are honest, they will agree with me that a blessing is waiting to unfold before you.

When talking with young pastors, I often hear such statements as, “I hate doing funerals” or, “I have no idea how to approach a family of grieving people.” May I remind you at this juncture, we all struggle with those feelings at some point in our ministry. I like to remind you that we are shepherds, God’s under-shepherds, and as such, we must take the bad with the good. Sheep need to be fed, watered, nursed, protected, and if injured, carried for a season of healing. So, consider your role as a shepherd as one extending beyond the membership of your immediate flock and consider that God has raised you up for just such a ministry in the moment. Attitude has a great deal to do with how you prepare, conduct, and accomplish the goal of sharing the Gospel –in any situation.

One of my college professors once observed that God was using the many funerals I was involved in to build His church. I stepped back and realized that over several years, many of the decisions for Christ and subsequent new members into the body had come through the funeral of a loved one. How are we to argue with God about how He brings people to Himself? It was at that point that I learned to give thanks for the difficulties we face as pastors. I urge you to revisit your approach to pastoral ministry if you feel that you do not want or need to do funerals for non-church-related people.

Talking to several funeral directors over the past few years, I learned that more people than ever are forgoing any funeral at all and just doing direct cremation with maybe a quick burial. To me, this is an indication of a culture adrift from God, meaningless, empty, and hopeless, with nowhere to turn for comfort or guidance. One director (a non-believer himself at the time) I worked closely with for many years told me that part of that situation was related to the expense, but the larger part was because of being put-off by past experiences with pastors who pushed their own agendas onto the family in some earlier situation. Why should only Christians have a service of love and sharing as they process their own mortality? Jesus did a reverse funeral for Lazarus when He called him out of the grave. But before He raised Lazarus from the dead, He ministered to the grieving family.

After conducting hundreds of such events, I still struggle to prepare myself for yet another encounter with grieving people, yet I find great joy in ministering to the hurting and sharing Jesus once I go. Through this article, my prayer for you is that you will allow God to use you mightily in sharing the glorious news of salvation through Jesus Christ.

My dear mentor was renowned for his admonition to his mentees. In every meeting we had together, he would implore me to “Go, and give them Jesus!”  I rarely conducted a funeral without sending him a text to ask for his prayers for me to do just that, in the power and might of our Lord. If you break down that simple phrase, you will see that I intentionally inserted a comma after the “Go.” I see that statement as two important parts, and thus I pause after the word go. We must first go, in answer to the call, and then, having gone, only then can we give them Jesus. Nowhere are we told or promised that pastoring is easy.

In closing, allow me to encourage you to cherish every opportunity that pastoring presents. In the full circle of life, we see births, salvations, baptisms, sicknesses, weddings, heartaches, and yes, death. Through the entire cycle, we must remember that we are called by God, for God, and will be used of God for His high purposes. So, my friend, having read this far, thank you for considering my thoughts. And now, if I may encourage you – “Go, and give them Jesus!”