Thursday, November 30, 2006

When the Secular Meets the Sacred in a Moment of Grief

John W. Loftus of Debunking Christianity has an interesting post on what it's like, as an atheist and former evangelical preacher, to attend a Christian funeral. At this particular funeral, as is often the case, the preacher delivered an evangelistic message to his captive audience, using death as an occasion to use the threat of hell and the promise of heaven as a means by which to solicit conversion.

I highly recommend reading the post, and if you so desire, participating in the most interesting conversation which has grown up around it.

Here is my take on the situation, yanked from the comment I left on the post:


For once let me simply say, I could not agree with your post more. I was a pastor long enough to do only one funeral, but I saw my role there as a pastoral, not evangelical, one. I was there to honor the memory of the deceased, and to help tend to the emotional and spiritual needs of the bereaved. For me to spend that time having a "come to Jesus" would have not only been in poor taste, it would ultimately have served my own ego rather than God.

Those who engage in evangelism so often, I'm afraid, do it for the wrong reasons. They/we (I stand too often condemned as well) do it because we are trying to prove something to ourselves and to God. They/we are trying to distance ourselves from our past, or trying to prove ourselves in the present moment. Too often they/we are working out our own issues rather than seeing a need and trying to meet that need.

Ultimately, I don't think that evangelism is in all cases inappropriate. After all, there are some people looking for direction, who may well desperately need what you are selling. But those who continually engage in evangelism should recognize that they too often come off as just that: God's salesmen, treating their own salvation as a kind of commission to be earned from the salvation of others.

Theologically I think this whole mode of evangelism stemmed from a flawed understanding of grace. Socially I think that it robs those who don't share the assumptions of the evangelist of their ability to participate in the moment. If, as in your case, the evangelism comes at a funeral, then those who do not share the assumptions of the evangelist are robbed of their moment to grieve in public, joined with the community of the bereaved by their joint love for the deceased. Instead they are cut off from that community, and are thus less able to work through their own grief. If this happens at, say, a wedding, something similar happens. They are robbed of their ability to share in the joy of this new love and commitment with the community that has gathered to witness and support the bonding of two persons.

Ministers need to balance several interests at events like weddings and funerals, in which their spiritual community joins with a broader social community for a more public event. This can be a difficult task, but I think that when they engage in such shameless acts of evangelism (that is, turning a funeral into a chance to "win souls for Christ") they ultimately fail to serve any of their interests. The evangelism both fails to convert those who might be open to conversion (no one likes to be emotionally manipulated when they are vulnerable - even if you get a "conversion", it probably won't last, since it was coerced) and fails to meet the emotional and spiritual needs of both the religious community and the broader social community which has gather to share either joy or grief.

I'm sorry for your experience, and sorry for your loss. While I have a hope that you don't share, I'm sure you know from your long experience as a Christian that even that hope grows dim when grief is fresh. Death is no respecter of religion, and religion, for all its help and comfort, does not inoculate one against grief.


SuperSkeptic said...

Insightful post.

I have rarely thought of pastors as "God's salespeople," but in a sense, that's exactly what they are.

I am currently reading a book on SPIN selling, in which it says that for big sales that require a large commitment, the more "closes" that are attempted, the less likely a sale will take place.

In my personal case, I think there's no bigger "sale" to be made than a religious commitment. And those evangelicals who use closing techniques on me drive me away, like a bad used car salesman. The only people I'll, um, "do business with," to extend the analogy, are those who I perceive as truly interested in my spiritual needs, who strive to answer my questions, who are honest about the "product", and who seek to develop a relationship with me, whether or not I am a customer.

The analogy might be a bit offensive to Christians who don't wish to think of Jesus as a product (or service), but it's entirely appropriate in a lot of ways.

In fact, the only time the "hard sell" works is with low value products that require little commitment.

Food for thought.

Troy said...


To paraphrase John's own post: you care more about relationship than argument. I think this is a great gift, an essential trait to have if one is to dialogue over issues as heated, personal, and complex as religion.

Superskeptic echoes the important truth here: I am not going to talk with anyone very long who is trying to change my fundmantal world view if there is not genuine interest in my spiritual needs fact, I can't put it any better than he did in his 3rd paragraph. We have to be honest about our own understanding of the 'product.'

You manage to do this naturally, though I believe you extend real effort.

As always, best. Hope your wrist is healing.

PamBG said...

I found the posts on John's blog quite interesting food for thought.

I've got lots of "hands" here.

On the one hand, I don't think that a funeral is a time for trying to convert people in the congregation; as John points out, it's a time to help them mourn.

On the other hand, I do see a problem if you've got a predominently Christian family who wants to hear the gospel preached - which was certainly the case at the funeral I took recently. I was heartened by John's response that he could deal with a Christian funeral as long as (this is my interpretation) it is respectful to the deceased and friends and family present. Reducing a person's entire life to her death-bed conversion seems profoundly disrepsectful to me.

So my "third hand" here is my general bug-bear with the sort of Christianity that reduces Christian life to the time of conversion. If we have become a Christian at 30, it should not be the only thing we have to say about God when we are 80, but sadly it seems to be for a lot of people.

Sandalstraps said...

Thoughtful comments, and I don't have the time this morning to respond to them with quite the depth I would like. This is especially true of Superskeptic's comment, which surely merits its own response.

So for now let me say these two things:

Superskeptic, Troy and PamBG,

Thank you for such thoughtful comments. I will respond to them the next time I sit down to blog.


I agree with you wholeheartedly, and see our shared Wesleyan theological heritage as in part an antidote to this. If God's grace both precedes and follows the moment of conversion, turning that moment into an ongoing process of sanctification which began long before the believer ever became aware of the presence or even existence of God, then salvation, much less the whole course of the life of the one saved, cannot be reduced to a single defining moment.

In other words, on the long road to sanctification, every moment matters. To sat anything less is to deny the full reach of the grace of God, a grace which reaches us and transforms us in each moment.

Sandalstraps said...


I loved your comment. To it I would particularly like to add, however, that I never said that a pastor is a salesperson for God. Rather, I said that anyone who engages in evangelism is, a class which goes far beyond just clergy.

In fact, most of the people who, as you note, engage in the hardest sells of the Gospel are laity. Many pastors, in fact (despite John's example in his post) are more than a little fearful of evangelism, seeing their job as principally one of nurturing those who do the evangelistic work and providing them with tools and training, rather than actually engaging in the work themselves.

Though I was never ordained, I saw this shift in myself when I entered into professional ministry. As soon as it was known that I was in some way connected to ministry, ever conversation I had changed. I couldn't have done overt evangelism if I'd wanted to, because everyone - Christians and non-Christians alike - would have their guard up around me.

You don't know awkward, unintentional comedy until you've been a pastor around college students, and one of them let's some profanity fly, only to remember that they are in the presense of a pastor. I think I spent most of my time trying to persuade people that they could be themselves around me.

In other words, I think that your analogy is apt, but many more than just clergy stand rebuked by it.

Grace said...

I think it's always wrong to use a salesmanship approach to the gospel. Faith is a gift from God, and can never truly be coerced.

But, I think it's not wrong at a funeral to share concerning Jesus, and the hope of the resurrection. There are people who all their lives are in bondage to the fear of death, and who need to hear there is something more even beyond the grave, and that their life truly has a purpose in the here and now as well.

Sandalstraps said...


I think that you have nailed perfectly the balance that pastors try to acheive between pastoring and evangelism. Simply put, to those who are in the bondage to fear that you describe, evangelism is pastoral, and it is pastoral to give an evangelistic message. But, not an exclusively evangelistic message which loses sight of the fact that the community has just lost a loved person whose life is to be remembered and celebrated, and whose passing is to be marked and mourned.

To this end, the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead in the Gospel of John (John 11), while probably not a historical story, is very instructive. In John 11:35 the text reads simply, "Jesus wept." He is standing before the grave of his friend, understanding not only that there is a ressurection of the dead, but, in fact, that in just a moment he will raise his friend from the dead. But still he weeps, still he mourns, for his friend has died, and that passing must be marked with grief.

The problem with a purely evangelistic funeral message is that it fails to account for the emotional needs of the spiritual community (the need to grieve), and if fails in any way to provide a meaningful outlet for the braoder community which has gathered to mourn the passing of a loved one.

Anyway, thanks for your thoughtful comment.