Eight months ago I transitioned from worship ministry to become the pastor of a small community church in Southwestern Ontario. In that time, I have conducted funeral services for three different people and those experiences, draining as they were, have had a powerful and formative impact on my life and ministry. I have gained insights that I wish I had known while doing worship ministry, so I offer them to you now in the hope that it will help you as you shepherd at all points in their Christian walk.
Worship in the shadow of death:
…will be more (or less) powerful than usual
While it's moving to sing 'from life's first cry to final breath / Jesus commands my destiny' at any time, the power of that affirmation is amplified exponentially when you are singing it with a group of people gathered to celebrate the life of a loved one who has taken their final breath.
While that's true, it's also possible that your sung worship time will be even less emotionally and spiritually exhilarating than usual (and that’s ok). The mix of sorrow and fatigue can very naturally cause a numbness that limits your ability to really engage. I led a small Christmas Scripture and Carol service in the hospice with a now departed member of our community and while I loved and affirmed the truths that we sang, I didn't feel moved the way I had expected to. In that case, though, I celebrated the fact that the sung worship was not the only worship happening – by gathering together to recount and respond to the truths of the Gospel, we were building one another up, exactly the way worship in 1 Corinthians 14 is described.
…will drive you back to the Bible
When talking with people who are dying and people who have lost loved ones, you quickly discover that pat answers will not suffice. You need to speak with comfort and authority and the only authority capable of addressing questions like 'How do I know God accepted me?' and 'What will I experience one minute after my final breath?' is the Bible. Going to Scripture takes the pressure off the pastor - you don't have to marshal impressive rhetoric to give people confidence - you just need to show what God has already said. And God has already said some powerful things. For example:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: "For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered." No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:35-39 NIV).
Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed--in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory." “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1Cor 15:51-57 NIV).
In addition to those powerful assurances, Scripture gives us permission to really wrestle with the circumstances. God doesn't want people to stuff their feelings as they die or mourn a loved one; He invites us to bring those heart wrenching experiences to Him, even with raw and messy words. I found great strength being able to pray Psalm 31 along with one brother:
Be merciful to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and my body with grief. My life is consumed by anguish and my years by groaning; my strength fails because of my affliction, and my bones grow weak. (Psalm 31:9-10 NIV).
Those sentences captured the pain of the moment, and God's Word itself was inviting us to pray with brutal honesty and confidence.
…will increase your lyrical sensitivity
Given that the Bible talks very freely about life and death, worship songs of every generation have picked up the same themes. While these are meaningful and important, some songs say it better than others. Sitting with those who are mourning will give you greater sensitivity as you choose songs. For example, Jared Anderson's Great I am begins: ‘I wanna to be close close to your side / So heaven is real and death is a lie.’
The average worshiper will understand 'death is a lie' as a poetic eschatological expression – ‘at the end of the age, death will be non-existent, so a lie’ - but mourners are feeling the exact opposite - death is a terrible truth that has irrevocably torn their loved one away from them. I have found myself becoming more sensitive to how life and death are talked about in worship songs, with a real conviction that we do nonetheless need to present the objective truths of God regarding life, death and resurrection regardless of the circumstances. In Christ alone and Christ is risen from the dead (Maher) are a couple examples of songs that do this well – still not so sure about the ‘death’s dew’ bit in verse three of My Jesus I love Thee. ;)
If you are a worship leader or worship pastor in a large church, it may not fall naturally to you to be a part of end-of-life pastoral care, but if you have or can make the opportunity, engage in it. It will strengthen your ability to serve your congregation, whatever their circumstances, and deepen your relationship with God, pushing you to rely more on His endless strength and love, when your personal resources run dry.