When I decided to go into worship ministry there were a lot of reasons swirling around. However, leading worship at funerals was no where even on my radar. In this past year though I have had to face the reality of what it means to worship in the face of death. I personally have lost two grandparents, one of which was my spiritual hero. Additionally I have lead worship for two funerals of our church family.
Before I illustrate some of the truths I learned about how to both worship and lead others in worship in these difficult times I’d like to set the stage a little.
My Grandfather was the most godly man I have ever known. He loved Jesus, The Church and his family with everything in him. In January of 2013 I made the trip back to Oklahoma because he was in the hospital and I knew things were getting worse. I wasn’t prepared to see him in the state that he was. He was barely lucid and incredibly uncomfortable but there wasn’t really anything that could be done before they moved him to hospice.
As I sat in the hospital room and held his hand I found that all I could do was begin singing. I found myself singing songs like “Because He Lives”, “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art”. As I sang my grandpa began to calm down and even cleared up and recognized me enough to tell me he loved me. My Granny sat beside me singing and even though she can’t really sing we had a worship service right there with songs, tears and truth.
The other two funerals I have lead worship for this year I’ll never forget. They both were of men in our church who had been battling cancer and did so with immense grace and faith. They sat in our worship services for years singing the songs my team and I lead each Sunday. Before Carl passed away he told his wife that he would like to have the band from church lead some of his favorite songs. When I agreed and asked what he would like us to do his wife responded can you please sing “One Thing Remains”, “Ten Thousand Reasons” and “Oh How I love Jesus”. I was shocked. Not only do most people not request a full band for this kind of service but they were asking for us to do music that got really big musically and called for exuberant expression with big electric guitars and drums and hands held high.
It was then that I realized not just the hymns we sing each week but the modern worship music was helping people in their struggle as they were coming to the end of their earthly lives. When Leon passed away his family asked that we do the same kind of service as we did for Carl because they loved it and felt like they wanted people to worship and celebrate and not just mourn. I will never forget beginning to sing “In Christ Alone” and seeing Leon’s wife and widow stand from the front row unprompted but followed by everyone in the room.
Through all of this I want anyone to know that the songs we sing in worship are powerful and serve the following purposes for God’s people as they deal with death.
We Sing Songs of the Future- When we sing we are declaring that God has a place prepared for us beyond this earth. That our new home, unlike this one is a place of no suffering, tears, sickness or loss. It is an eternal sabbath were everything we have ever longed for comes to completion and satisfaction. Our bodies will be new and glorious and we’ll be free of the brokenness that destroys relationships. We will see Jesus face to face and know our creator as it was meant to be in the garden.
We Sing Songs of Defiance and Victory- This world while still beautiful is under the influence of the evil one. He has done everything he can to steal and destroy the good of God. When we worship we are declaring that the evil one is already defeated and is fighting a losing battle. The grave does not hold the final word because Jesus is risen and has overcome this world. We don’t have to fear death because it has already been beaten and we have been promised what Jesus proved he would do for those who follow and serve him.
We Sing Songs of Comfort and Perseverance- Jesus himself experienced the very worst of this life and we look to him and find comfort that it wasn’t in vain. He persevered through even the darkest and most painful trials. When we sing of the suffering Savior and the cross, we see that he is able to understand as well as find our comfort knowing that he is with us. We focus our eyes on him and know their is hope in the midst of suffering and that there is strength through His Spirit.
We Sing Songs of Testimony– We not only sing about what Christ has done in general but also in specific to how he has worked in our lives. We can sing through the tears because we have seen with our own eyes the faithfulness of God in the middle of our sorrows in the past and know it will continue. There are always people in the middle of a worshiping community that are questioning whether Jesus is real and Christianity is true. Our worship of him in the middle of grief and death are powerful testimony to those who don’t yet believe.
We Sing Songs of Preparation- If we are in a season of peace, joy and contentment our worship often prepares us to respond in worship when sorrow does inevitably come. Many times people act surprised and angry at God when the pain of sin and brokenness intersect with us personally. When we worship we are learning the words to use in future struggles both physically and spiritually. This is much like an emergency 1st responder practices what he will do in an emergency so when it actually happens they will not panic but respond in a effective powerful way.
I fully understand that everyone responds to death and difficult times differently but as a worship leader these are some of the ways that I have personally found hope and have witnessed the power of God’s people singing in the middle of the tears. I’m pretty sure this is why much of the psalms where written. Additionally, I am not saying just hymns or a solemn approach is right or wrong for funeral services. I was just surprised that many of the older people in my congregation have asked for musically updated arrangements of hymns and even wanted modern songs because they felt they helped them say the same things as hymnody like “One Thing Remains”. We are called to pastor and care for our congregations and the music we choose each Sunday may very well be preparing people to sing through the tears.