Dr. Paul Powell was a major leader in the Baptist General Convention of Texas and the Southern Baptist Convention. His leadership in the Green Acres Baptist Church in Tyler, Texas, as well as his writings, served as an influence in my early pastoral ministry. Sadly, on December 28, 2016, Dr. Powell passed away at 83 years of age in Tyler.
I only had the privilege to meet Dr. Powell a couple of times, but I will never forget reading in one of his books about conducting and preaching someone’s memorial service. Although exceptions occur, I have practiced these three principles to this day. I must admit that while I remember the three principles from many years ago, I do not remember exactly what Dr. Powell said about each one. I have, however, learned a lot about each of the principles over the years. It is amazing that I am still sharing with other pastors the things that I learned in these principles in my very early 20s. These three basic principles are from the overflow of pastor and leader Paul Powell.
1. Be Biblical
A sermon for any person’s memorial service needs to be based upon a biblical foundation. It may be from one verse, a section of verses, or even a chapter. Whether a person was a Christ follower or not, the sermon people hear from the pastor conducting the service should be a biblical sermon.
In this sermon, the pastor should be unapologetic in his conviction relating to salvation being in Christ alone, experiencing eternal life and the promise of Heaven to everyone that believes. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the one who died or the uncertainty of any matters relating to it or to the family themselves, as pastors we need to share the message of salvation for each person who believes and that God has given us a future and a hope.
Therefore, be biblical when you preach a memorial service.
2. Be Personal
Regardless of the size of the church membership, it is difficult for the pastor to be personal with every member. You are called upon at times to perform a service for someone you may not even know. What do you do?
Ask the family to send you anything they would like for you to share that would be helpful for those who attend the service or would at least provide background that may help you to understand the person more. This information can be shared via email or a phone call, but nothing is more valuable than a personal meeting. Pastor, your message will rarely surpass your intentionality in being personal with those who attend. It just takes it to another level.
For example, two weeks ago, I preached the memorial service for a member of our church that I knew quite well. Yet, his condition the past few years, had limited my interaction with him and the family. I asked the family to send me anything they would want me to share, or to call me to talk. (I was out of town and arrived home the evening before the service, so I was unable to meet with them personally prior to the service.) They not only sent me some interesting information, some of which I knew already, but a member of the family called me.
When you preach a memorial service, be biblical and be personal.
3. Be Brief
While being biblical and personal can always be done, being brief is dependent on the person and the desires of the family. I realize people are not there to simply hear a sermon; they are present to show their compassion toward the family.
Most of the time, preaching a brief sermon at a memorial service is best. I consider being brief to usually be somewhere between 18 and 25 minutes. Yet, there are times when we have the privilege to preach at the memorial service for someone who was deeply connected to us or to our church – perhaps even a person who has left a living legacy. While this may take the sermon more into the 25 to 33 minute range, we do need to remember, the message is not about us, but about how Christ was exemplified in this person’s life and legacy of leadership.
There may be experiences when several people are asked to speak. In that case, plan on each of them having three minutes or less for their comments. If you have three people speaking and any goes over the time limit, you should cut your time, being sensitive to the moment and situation. The family will be appreciative, and the guests attending will be, too.
Pastor, whenever you are called upon to perform the grand task of preaching someone’s memorial service, always practice these three principles: Be biblical. Be personal. Be brief.