By Jay Sanders
There’s something you need to know about the rural South.
Everyone is a Christian.
If you don’t believe me, just go to a funeral in a small southern town.
The deceased could have spent his entire life smuggling dope, abusing his family, cheating on his taxes, and kicking his dog but when the preacher steps up to say a few words, suddenly the dead man was the Apostle Paul.
It is called preaching people into heaven, and it’s one of the most egregious perversions of the gospel you will ever find.
In the rural South, we take our funerals seriously. Busy highways still come to a complete stop as the funeral procession passes through town. I have even seen a guy stop his riding lawn mower, get off, and stand to the side to pay his respects.
You have heard about the folks who only come to church on Easter and Christmas. Those folks are in the South too, but down here the funeral is the third event that gets people to darken the door of the church. There are some who will go even if they didn’t know the deceased or the family.
Maybe it’s the free fried chicken and potato salad that always follow.
Nevertheless, the funeral you preach could be the best chance you will have to reach many people in your area. Here are three reminders to keep you from wasting the opportunity.
1. You can be honest without being rude.
Let us go back to our drug dealing swindler I used as an example earlier. You do not have to stand up before his family and friends and remind them what a tyrant he was. However, you disrespect them just as much when the person you are preaching about doesn’t match the person being buried.
If there is not much good to say about the deceased, you can do far worse than just talking about how good Jesus is.
2. Use the occasion to shatter common myths about sin, salvation, and the afterlife.
Let them know it’s okay to cry. Show them death is not natural but rather a result of sin and one day Jesus will put an end to it forever. Most important of all, teach your audience that no one is good enough of a person to earn their way into heaven. If you have to, share your shortcomings.
Whatever you do, show them Jesus is the only way. There is no need to do theological gymnastics to convince everyone that the deceased was a good person. Just point them to the only perfect person who has ever lived and tell them His goodness is enough for them.
3. Avoid clichés.
People in the rural South love old sayings. We say things like, “He was madder than a wet hornet.” I have never seen a wet hornet but judging from the saying, I want to keep it that way. These types of sayings are part of what makes the South great, but we need to be careful we do not reduce our theology to a cliché. Doing this at a funeral is easy.
When we say things like, “God just needed another flower in His garden,” to a grieving family, we are more likely to make them angry than we are to comfort them or point them to God.
Also, you will make mistakes at funerals. One time, I showed up at the wrong funeral home and made two completely different families get into a fight. Good luck topping that one!
We are fallen. We are not perfect. But that is no excuse for us to say whatever we want, it is a reminder of how heavy we need to lean on Jesus.
We need to remember how badly the grieving family needs Jesus. They do not need to be lied to or given false assurances. They need hope, and that can only come by carefully and faithfully telling the truth about Jesus.
Pastor, don’t waste your rural southern funeral.
JAY SANDERS (@jaysanders714) is senior pastor of Towaliga Baptist Church in Jackson, Georgia.