In my various experiences in the Episcopal Church I’ve been to a lot of funerals. Up until now the experience has always been only slightly uncomfortable. The Congregation has always played the part: Dressed usually in black, or occasionally brightly colorful as befitting the celebration of an older member’s passing. Intellectually though, I knew the funeral this past Saturday was going to be different.
As part of my mentored ministry, I am currently engaged in a cross-cultural setting, and I was asked to help out at the funeral of a 17 year old young man that was killed in a drive by shooting. He was a baptized and attending member of the congregation, and I envisioned him as an innocent bystander. There was no real official information about his death to respect both the ongoing investigation
and the family’s privacy. Nevertheless, I expected the funeral would be a lot like the ones I’d experience in the past, only this time with an all Black congregation.
Visually I was expecting the funeral to look a lot like this, and initially it did. I arrived early to help set up, and offer my condolences to the grandmother who was the matriarch of the family. Her side of the family was all turned out in suit and tie, or their Sunday best dresses. She then warned me that the boy’s mother’s side would probably arrive late, and there would be a lot of them. To my surprise, a few young people began to show up dressed more for the club than church.
My surprise grew as a few turned into at least 60 of the young man’s friends and acquaintances. The thing I found truly shocking was they were all wearing a screen printed shirt in addition to their bling, sagged pants, or revealing attire. The shirt had a caricature on the front depicting a dread-locked man with a side cocked hat, gold grill and the caption
“RIP Bobo.” I found out Bobo was the young man’s street name.
My first thought was, “Oh my God, How can they glorify the life that got him killed like that?” “How disrespectful to the family?”
As the small church was packed to overflowing, folding chairs were added to all the aisles, and a pew that normally sat 4 or 5 was wedged in with 7. Even still the crowd spread to standing room only in the back with a few of the “young thugs” not even coming into the church.
Despite this unexpected audience, the funeral began like all in the Episcopal Church do…The cross processed, a few hymns were sung, and the Bible lessons, including the ubiquitous Psalm 23. Then the young man’s Uncle stood up to deliver the eulogy.
Here the real curveball began. The deliverer of the eulogy was a Baptist Minister by trade. He began by apologizing to the family, because he was going to step on some toes, and then proceeded to throw out his prepared statement and address the young crowd and give them a “come to Jesus” talk, and tell them that death was coming for them. It’s coming for us all, and if they weren’t prepared they were going to hell. At first my reflection was positive, these people may never come to a church again, so they need to hear the gospel.
The Pastor began to talk about when you find Jesus, you can still go out, you can still have fun, and you can still get high only its high on the Holy Spirit. I heard a lot of “amens” from the congregation. As he continued preaching, I became more and more uncomfortable. The sermon had become and “us” vs. “them” all about how they needed to change their lives and get what we had, or end up dead like their friend there. Not only that but it seemed to trample on the needs of the family.
The grandmother had partially raised this boy. He was baptized as an infant, raised in the church, and had been to church the Sunday before he died. This woman was in agony, wondering whether her grandson was in heaven, and here the pastor began using his life as a case study. I don’t know the full circumstances of this young man’s life, but I do know this. Even after I became a Christian it was a long time before I stopped doing stupid stuff.
Reflecting Theologically, Is Evangelism ever appropriate at a funeral?
- It’s an emotionally charged situation. These people are not coming there to be converted.
- It’s patronizing. People need to reach rock bottom, and want to receive help and want to change. The church becomes yet another nagging voice.
- We need to preach the gospel that God is love, merciful. This 17 year old’s death was not just a part of God’s plan to provide the opportunity to witness to his unsaved friends.
- We are saved by faith not works. Hammering away at people to “come to Jesus” and “turn their lives around” misses the point that none of us are righteous by our own merit.
Given these factors should we never evangelize at a funeral…Despite the potential for it to go wrong, I say No. A funeral is an opportunity to share the very heart of the gospel of God’s love, and to show that love to others. It’s an opportunity to invite people to reflect on life, and how short it is. The role of the gospel here is consolation for the family, despite any setbacks or relapses into sin this young man was washed clean in the blood of the lamb, and we trust that he has eternal life.