Church Planting Through Death
None of my church-planting books address funerals.
Discipleship programs, outreach events, publicity – sure. Worship style, ministry style, clothing style – aplenty.
But I’ve found myself lately – planting a church here in Buffalo, NY – learning how to lead people through death.
I’ve done many services since moving back to my hometown in January: Ash Wednesday, Easter Vigil, Compline, Eucharist, House Blessing. But I never thought that the service for Burial of the Dead would be part of my path to establish a new Anglican congregation in Buffalo.
I’ve officiated two in this summer. I would like to share three lessons I am learning by church-planting through death, but first let me tell you about the funerals.
Recently, I was at Buffalo’s oldest, largest cemetery, saying prayers over the remains of a 92-year-old woman. I never met her – she was the mother of a friend in Washington, DC. It was uncanny to bury her in this old family plot, for her ancestors had donated the land for this cemetery to the city. A dozen of us gathered on a windy day to pray and commit the urn to its grave: ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
The other funeral was more unusual. The decedent was, again, a mother. This mother, though, was Sri Lankan and living in Sri Lanka at the time of her tragic death. The daughter, here in Buffalo, was a friend of a friend. Sarah (I will call her) occasions a non-denominational church that supports my ministry, and our mutual connection wanted to help Sarah. Sarah had been advised that due to the status of immigration issues in the U.S. right now, if she went back to Sri Lanka for her mother’s funeral, Sarah might become stranded and unable to return.
So I was contacted to put together a funeral service on the other side of the world – for this Sri Lankan woman I never met, but more importantly for Sarah, who was grieving her mother. I thought there would only be a few of us, but the service was attended, in the end, by ten or twenty friends of Sarah as well as dozens of Sri Lankan family members who came in from Toronto, Pennsylvania, Virginia.
There is nothing like death to make you think, and not only think but think from a deeply feeling place. These lessons are forming out of the experiences:
1. Be a better evangelist.
At my church planting events, people want to be there. Either they like Jesus, or they like me, or they like the person who brought them enough to tag along willingly. At funerals, there is not so much choice. Of course, people want to support their grieving friend, but there are many who would not be at a religious service, given the choice.
At the family plot, I could see the eyes of grandchildren who certainly would be happy for me to move along and finish early. For the Sri Lankan funeral, my main point of contact was Buddhist (though the dead mother had been a Christian, and so is the daughter). In those situations, I was not trying to win them over, or hold their attention long enough. We weren’t in a coffeeshop and I wasn’t finding ways to make Christianity plausible. I was leading a burial service. Whether they liked it or not, we were doing a prayer service together (some of them reading Scripture), referring constantly to the resurrection of the dead, living out our baptisms, and Jesus Christ “our” Savior.
At that moment, I am Christianity incarnate for them. I don’t explain the liturgy as I go, I don’t make apologies, and I don’t try to be relevant. More than anything else, they are trying Christianity on. If the religion of Jesus Christ made any impact on them, it is not because of any clever arguments I came up with. It is because they saw what Christianity looked like from the inside. I underestimate how powerful that kind of evangelism is.
2. Find Help
I had no previous experience with the Anglican funeral service before church-planting. My first stop, therefore, was to the rector of a large Anglican church in the suburbs, who helped me understand the use of an aspergillum and coordinate the Prayer Book rubrics. Father Ward had allowed me to help him at a funeral a few months before, so the instruction was reinforcing.
My second stop was to a Catholic priest. As an Anglican, I am catholic and evangelical, but at funerals we seem to have more in common with the Roman church.
So I made an appointment with Father Leon, who leads one of the largest parishes in the Buffalo diocese. He had officiated the funeral of my great-uncle over the winter, and I appreciated the tone and approach of his homily. Father Leon clearly knew what he was doing. “Father Bryan” – he was gracious enough to refer to me as a fellow priest – “we do about 220 funerals a year at St. Gregory’s.” Father Leon really knew what he was doing.
And so we talked for a good long while about ministering to families, about funeral homiletics, about situations where the military is going to play Taps and present a flag, about whether to allow eulogies. I’ll never accrue the funeral experience this man has gained, but I never would have thought to go to him before this.
3. Appreciate the Full Human and the Full God.
I work with a lot of young people. I minister to a lot of healthy people. I lead people who get excited. But in funerals, I am forced to be a priest of pain. Pain that won’t go away because I said the right thing.
I was having trouble preparing for my homily of the Sri Lankan woman. What do I say? What is my role as a pastor with respect to these people in grief? I was feeling uncertain about my approach a few hours before the service, so I decided to enter into their pain.
I drove downtown to the site of an important death. My close friend, Ben, died tragically three years ago. We grew up together, and our friendship really lit up again when he had a strong conversion experience five years ago. Actually, it was through conversations with Ben at that time, helping him figure out where the healthy churches were in Buffalo, that my wife and I began talking about what it might look like to see a Buffalo Anglican church, and whether we might be the ones called to start it.
In fact we were, and Ben’s tragedy later imprinted an element of death on that calling. This is painful, but I was able to enter back into that pain this summer. Hours before the Sri Lankan service, at the place of Ben’s horrible end, I myself became a mourner again, and I understood what these family members needed to hear.
As a church planter, I love when people meet God. But this happens in many ways, and lately I have found divine connections in death, coming back to the old words of the litany:
From plague, pestilence, and famine; from battle and murder, and from sudden death, Good Lord, deliver us.
In all time of tribulation; in all time of our prosperity; in the hour of death, and in the day of judgment, Good Lord, deliver us.