Over this passed weekend, my grandmother passed away quite suddenly. She was very healthy for her age but life is fragile, so now I find myself in Florida, preparing myself for the funeral I will attend in the morning.
Because I just graduated from seminary, I am the token “minister” of the family, and given that hardly any of my dad’s family are even Christians, I was an obvious choice to speak at the funeral. Unfortunately, this has proven to be a difficult task. Not only am I fairly certain that my grandmother was not a Christian, but she wasn’t exactly the warmest person either. She could be pretty mean at times. So as I skimmed through Scripture looking for words of comfort, I couldn’t find any. What comfort is there for someone who never pursued the truth of Christ? There isn’t much.
Now for any person who has been in ministry for a significant period of time, this reality makes pastoral care very difficult. On the one hand, you can’t tell the family that their loved one is “in a better place,” because the fact of the matter is that you simply don’t know. To say that would be a lie. On the other hand, when someone is in the middle of grief it is not the best time to lecture them about hellfire and damnation. Not only will they not hear it, but it may drive them away as well. They need God’s comfort, not condemnation. Yet, judgment is indeed a part of the Gospel, so as I prepare my words for the funeral tomorrow, what on earth am I going to say?
I think there are three ways to respond to this situation, two of which are very wrong. The first way is to simply speak truth boldly and without discretion, and let God deal with the consequences. That kind of approach is generally foolish, because it puts every human being into a formulaic box. What’s more, it merely masks a brazen arrogance in which we pride ourselves in being “bold” and “saying the hard things” without considering that there is more to evangelism than saying the right words. In this approach, we expect everyone to understand the Gospel just like we did, so if they don’t get it, it’s their fault. But with this approach, we ourselves are often the ones preventing someone from hearing the Gospel. We are so self-involved that we don’t pause to think about their thoughts and feelings, or where they are in life. For instance, at a funeral people are vulnerable and grieving, so they need hope rather than condemnation. Storming in like a bull in a china shop, telling the grieving family that their family member is now burning in Hell, will only serve to turn people away from God, not toward Him. Yes, there is always the possibility that you might scare a person or two into repentance, but on the whole, these people need to hear the part of the Gospel that is about grace, not wrath, so we must be sensitive to that need.
On the other hand, there is a second, equally destructive form of evangelism, and that is a strategy that is all about grace. I could go in there and tell them everything they want to hear, that we all go to heaven no matter how we live or what we believe. The problem with this method is that it not only cheapens the Gospel by belittling the importance of following Christ, but it deliberately deceives people. While comforting a grieving person is indeed important, that doesn’t mean you should lie to them, especially in matters of eternity. While a time of grief requires one to emphasize the grace of the Gospel, that doesn’t mean we can completely ignore the other less comfortable parts of the Gospel.
With all of that in mind, I think there is a third method of evangelism, a holisitc method that incorporates all of the Gospel message, not just parts of it. That method involves a sensitivity to one’s listeners (ie. grace), mixed with a trust in the Holy Spirit (ie. bold truth). On the one hand, we must discern what it is that a non-Christian needs to hear. To go into a conversation with someone, having already determined what you are going to say, forces your agenda and your timing onto them, rather than meeting them where they’re at. However, we should not trick ourselves into thinking that we control whether or not a person hears us. We can be as convincing as possible, but if the Holy Spirit is not at work there then we will not be heard. Conversely, we can also present the Gospel in horrible ways but God will still use us to draw others to Him. This knowledge should be liberating, because we are reassured that no matter what we say, God can move mountains through us if He so chooses.
In the end, evangelism is a careful balance between truth and grace. Depending on the situation, you will emphasize grace more than hard truth, or hard truth more than grace, but the important thing is that we are careful about using the popular “salvation formulas,” because no individual is ever the same, so we shouldn’t assume that everyone will come to Christ in the same way. We need to be open to new and creative ways in which God will lead us. In doing so, we will resist the temptation to trust in calculated words and formulas to save, rather than trusting in God.
That being said, please pray for my family this week. Not only is this a difficult time, but it is a time for me to minister to them. Pray that God will give them ears to hear, and that God will also give me the right words to say. I will speak primarily about comfort, but I will by no means omit the hard truths. Just pray that my few words will be refreshing water for thirsty individuals, and hopefully it will be refreshing enough to keep them going back for more.