The Apostle Paul writes, “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity” (Colossians 4:5). Special occasion sermons are one of the ways we preachers “make the most of every opportunity” to proclaim good news to “outsiders.” Weddings and funerals are worthy of the preachers time and energy because inevitably non-Christian family members and friends of the couple or the deceased will show up for such events. There will be people present who don’t know or accept that Christ loves them. Some will never attend a Sunday morning church service. So, as often as I can, I say yes to these special occasion preaching opportunities. And I pray and work harder than usual in developing these sermons that have the potential to reveal the power and love of Christ to those who may have never experienced or embraced this love. While every wedding and funeral sermon is different due to the situational factors surrounding the marriage or death, there are a few guidelines for these special occasion sermons that can be generalized to most contexts.
SIMPLE BUT PROFOUND
The special occasion sermon should be accessible to all kinds of people, since all kinds of people will likely be in attendance. A 10 point doctrinal treatise on the meaning of “original sin” will lose people. Simple does not mean simplistic or trite. Some of us have heard and maybe even preached funeral messages that overly simplified the pain and angst of death and grief. This is not what I mean by “simple.”By simple, I mean presenting a clear and focused message about marriage or death in light of the love and hope we find in Christ.
The simple message should be profound as well. Since most people in attendance will have been to many weddings and funerals over the course of their lives, I want what I say and how I say it to be creative not typical. One way to do this is by using biblical texts that are not usually included during these special occasions and by pointing out realities of marriage and death that are often overlooked or ignored.
SHORT AND SWEET
Unless you are officiating the funeral of a long-time saint of the church, keep the special occasion sermon short. “Short” means different things to different people, so I should probably explore the parameters. A special occasion sermon should, in most cases, last no more than 15 minutes. The rationale is that people in attendance who are unchurched are not used to listening to a talking head for any length of time without channel surfing. 15 minutes might even be a stretch. You want “outsiders” to hear your message and seriously consider attending the church you serve. Keep it short or they may never step foot in your church.
Keep it sweet too. By “sweet” I do not mean sugar-coat the challenges of marriage and death. By sweet I mean make the message appealing, interesting, and engaging without being so clever that you overshadow the couple, the deceased, or, worse, God. The special occasion sermon is not the time to preach your favorite hellfire and brimstone in-your-face-kind of message. One of the premier goals of the special occasion sermon is to not only guide the couple or honor the deceased, but to move people in attendance at least one step closer to the God who made, knows, and loves them.
CHRISTIAN NOT CLINICAL
The special occasion sermon should incarnate Christ. The love of Christ flowing into and through the couple is the necessary ingredient for a love-filled and lasting marriage. The hope found in Christ can do more for those experiencing the grief of death than hours of expensive therapy. To the point, when it comes to the special occasion sermon the preacher should present Christ and not a therapy session. This is not to say that counseling does not have value, indeed it does. Therapy can help married couples overcome obstacles and the grieving get over their grief. People can get therapy from a therapist, but from the preacher they must get Christ. In our efforts to guide people in their marriage and grief recovery, we must present sermons that present Christ. Something happens to people when they encounter Christ through the words of the preacher. Let’s not allow our message to deteriorate into a self-help speech that is less than a proclamation of Christ.
Simply put, weddings and funerals are special opportunities that allow a pastor to address the deepest needs of people by proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. Most pastors would agree. These occasions bring many people to a Christian service who would normally never step foot in church or who haven’t been in church in many years. You have a God-sized opportunity to share the reason for the hope you have in Christ with “gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
1. Let’s develop a well of biblical texts from which to draw for special occasion sermons. List five themes of a wedding homily that can address the couple getting married and proclaim the good news of Christ to those in attendance (i.e., love, forgiveness, commitment). Now, list at least one biblical text that might guide, inform, or inspire each of the wedding homily themes.
2. List five themes of a funeral homily that can address the grief of a loved one’s passing and proclaim the good news of Christ to those in attendance (i.e., hope, heaven, grief). Now, list at least one biblical text that might guide, inform, or inspire each of the funeral homily themes.
Dr. Lenny Luchetti presently serves as Assistant Professor of Proclamation and Christian Ministries at Wesley Seminary of Indiana Wesleyan University. He began his 15 years of pastoral ministry when he was 23 years old. During that time he has served as the Pastor of a small rural church, the Assistant Pastor of a large church, and as the Lead Pastor of a congregation that grew from a small to a large missional and multi-ethnic church during his tenure. Lenny has taught preaching courses for ministers since 2003. He has preached at churches, camps, and colleges in the United States and around the world. His passion these days is to invest in those who are investing in local churches.