the shape of leadership

Altar Calls at Funerals

When is it appropriate to give an invitation?

Chris Colvin on March 5, 2020

One time an older pastor told me he would rather perform a funeral than a marriage. I completely disagreed with him. While funerals are a time when it’s important to comfort those in need, let’s be honest. We would rather celebrate than mourn. It’s not that I avoid funerals. It’s just that I look forward to weddings.

Then the pastor explained himself and made me realize I was being a bit selfish.

“People are at their most spiritually open at a funeral,” he said.

This pastor went on to count the number of people who had given their hearts to Jesus at funerals he had performed, as opposed to weddings he’d officiated.

The discussion about which is better — a wedding or a funeral — brings up a series of questions. Should a pastor give an altar call at a funeral? Is a time of mourning appropriate for a time of preaching? How do you make sure you’re doing it the right way?

I don’t want to give any absolute answers to these questions. Many pastors have given altar calls at funerals and seen God move. Others would never think of doing it. Whichever side you sit on this issue, there are some guiding principles that we all should take into consideration when preaching at funerals.

Show Honor to the Deceased

When preaching a funeral, you are not the center of attention. Every word spoken, every song sung, every story told and every poem recited should be done to honor the deceased. Many times, this will be the last time anyone speaks of them in this type of setting. So make it count.

That doesn’t mean you can’t give an altar call. In fact, there are saints who, before they pass, ask ministers to do just that during their funerals. To invite people to follow Jesus would be a great way to honor the believer’s life.

Frame your altar call at a funeral in terms of honor to the deceased. That means you highlight the positives of their life, their faithful walk with God, or their late-in-life decision to follow Him, for instance.

It’s never a good idea to suggest the person may not be in heaven and turn the funeral into a warning and plea for salvation. That may be the case, but such talk at a funeral is out of place.

If the wishes of the deceased are unknown, you will need to make a decision. Ask yourself what the person would have thought about an altar call during his or her funeral. If you think the person would have objected, it may not be the right way to honor him or her.

Think about how God can receive glory in the way you perform this ceremony.

Show Respect to the Family

Next, think about the family. What are their wishes for the ceremony? How will they respond if you give an altar call? Never surprise a family at a funeral with an altar call. Always discuss it with them beforehand.

When you think about the family, chances are there will be some who are Christians and others who aren’t believers. That can mean an open field for salvation on the one hand, but also an opportunity for division on the other. Check with family members to see whether there are any hurdles to an altar call within the extended family you should be sensitive to.

If the deceased is a Christian and you believe he or she would have agreed with an altar call at a funeral, getting the family involved may be a great idea. In fact, you can have one or two family members share personal testimonies of their own salvation experiences during the funeral. You can also ask them to pray with others during the ceremony. If nothing else, you can mention to all that you have their permission before giving a call for salvation.

Show Glory to God

Finally, think about how God can receive glory in the way you perform this ceremony. As I mentioned before, you are not the center of attention. However, anytime you gather together in a church setting, God should be. That means your altar call should reflect that.

An altar call demonstrating God’s glory is one that shines light on the positives of the afterlife. Yes, there are warnings throughout Scripture about eternal punishment. But when you celebrate a life well lived and a saint who has crossed over to his or her reward, give a plea for everyone to make a choice to join that person at the end of their own lives. That honors the deceased and gives glory to God.

Ultimately, God can receive glory whether you give an altar call or not. Let’s say the circumstances or conditions do not allow you to give a specific call during your sermon. That doesn’t mean this funeral doesn’t present an opportunity to share Christ with others and see people come to salvation.

Before or after the ceremony, be aware of the spiritual atmosphere. As the pastor officiating, it will be natural and normal to start conversations about heaven, the afterlife and salvation. A prayer in private can mean even more than asking a group to bow their heads and raise a hand in response.

Funerals are an opportunity to show honor to those who have passed, respect to the family left behind, and glory to God for life and hope. As you navigate the difficulties of loss, the decisions of which words to speak, the emotions of those who mourn, and the expectations of everyone attending, don’t neglect the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit will lead you into all truth as He prepares hearts and minds before you. Staying tender to the Spirit as others are tender in their spirits can mean a great opportunity to share Christ with others and see them enter the Kingdom.

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