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4 Lessons from our First Death

A few weeks ago, I chatted to a pastor who has been a great encouragement to me since I began my training for ministry. It had been three years since we met up. I had recently planted a church so there was a lot for us to discuss. But he asked a question that I found ridiculous at the time, “How do you conduct your funerals?” I was like, we are still a young church in every respect! The majority of our members are in their 20s or 30s. Let’s talk about weddings. We’ve had 6 of them in the last 2 years. Or let’s discuss babies. We’ve welcomed no less than 15 in the last 2 years. Death didn’t seem an appropriate thing to discuss for a young church plant!

Death imposes real and honest questions… we get to know where our trust and confidence rests—where our hope lies

4 Lessons from our First Death

But just a week later, as we resumed ‘normal’ church business, I received news that one of our members, William, had died in a car accident. It was unbelievable news. How could that have happened? He was a vibrant soul, only 31 years old. He was a hearty, sociable, godly, caring and entrepreneurial young man. He’d been coming to our church for the last one year. And a few months later after I got to know him better, he’s gone. This has been hard to process for us. We had no previous experience and hadn’t planned for death. But through it all, God has been very kind. Our Lord has taught us four valuable lessons through our first death.

1. Always Preach the Gospel

God calls gospel ministers to proclaim the gospel, Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:1-5). One question that we, the elders of GracePoint Church, have been asking ourselves is “did we give William the gospel? Did we hold Christ up to him?” It is so easy to give our attention to other things in ministry. But the gospel charge is clear, “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:1-2a). Woe to us elders and church leaders if this isn’t our singular aim—to make Christ known.

People’s eternities are at stake. The gospel is what saves and shapes them. We must not waste time preaching things at the expense of God’s tremendous announcement in the gospel

People’s eternities are at stake. The gospel is what saves and shapes them. We must not waste time preaching things at the expense of God’s tremendous announcement in the gospel. The task is not how many we’ve converted (that’s the work of the Holy Spirit) but the faithful proclamation of the gospel. Thankfully, from personal conversations with William and in Growth Groups and other ‘every member ministry’, it was clear that the gospel was shared with William and he always sought ways to apply gospel truths to his day-to-day life.

Another thing that I was forced to think about is the reality of the many non-Christians who come our way each Sunday. Assuming theirs is a fate like William’s, would I still be confident that I shared the gospel with them? The call is as urgent as ever!

2. Shepherd the Flock

Pastors are called to shepherd the flock that God has put under their care. In John 21:15-17, Jesus repeatedly charged Peter, “Feed my lambs … tend my sheep … and feed my lambs.” This is the clarion call for every pastor. Paul, in his last address to the Ephesian elders, charges them to “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).

Shepherding is a work beyond the Sunday gathering. It will involve pouring oneself into people’s lives—really knowing them

This is the work of shepherding. It involves preaching the gospel, praying and visitation, counselling, catechising and helping God’s flock to discern and avoid wolves. Shepherding is a work beyond the Sunday gathering. It will involve pouring oneself into people’s lives—really knowing them. I must confess that this is an area that has brought much guilt to my heart. I knew William. We had shared quite a lot and met outside of Sunday. Yet I still feel there’s more that I could have done! There’s the flock of God, under our care, what are we doing in shepherding them?

3. Know the Flock you Belong To

It is one thing for pastors to know the church members. But it’s another thing – arguably as important – for church members to know each other well. After William’s death, we had many gatherings as we processed the loss. We encouraged each other with the gospel and shared how we knew and lived life with William. At first, it seemed awkward. But then people freely shared and it was encouraging to hear how quite a number of people had things to share: memories, encouragements, and challenges they faced with our brother. It was quite sobering to hear one brother remark how he had gotten to know William ‘properly’ the Sunday before his death. They shared a lot that Sunday. They planned to have coffee. Now, question is: will there be coffee in the new creation?

As members, our work is to speak the truth in love. We each have our part to play in the body, helping it grow up into maturity. This can only happen if each member is committed to the whole body and thus to each other

As we shared in these meetings, the question was what if he wasn’t known by anyone? And I am not saying, as we sometimes think in Africa, that I need to build relationships so that people will have lots to say at my funeral. The issue is: if we are family, members of a church, then we ought to know and be known. This will mean investing in meaningful relationship with other church members and not just being a faithful attendee on Sundays. At our church, we keep encouraging people and creating the environment where ‘one-anothering’ is happening. As elders, our commitment is and should be to equip the saints for works of ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12). As members, our work is to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). We each have our part to play in the body, helping it grow up into maturity (Ephesians 4:13-14). This will only happen when each member commits themselves to the whole body and thus to each other.

4. Cling to the Hope we Have in Christ

This was one of the most challenging parts for us. Death imposes real and honest questions. We contemplate deeply and feel true emotions—not just emotionalism, elicited by a style of music. These reflections come back to our own lives. Pain, and indeed death of a loved one, is as C. S Lewis put it, “God’s gramophone shouting to us”. It is in this time that we get to know where our trust and confidence rests—where our hope lies.

We can be very theoretical in our approach to life. But in many ways a death moves us towards practical reflection on what we believe

In our meetings, we got to remind ourselves what God says about death, life, resurrection, judgment, and new creation. We got to ask whether we truly believe these things or not. You see, we can be very theoretical in our approach to life. But in many ways a death moves us towards practical reflection on what we believe.

These have been moments for us to remind ourselves what we truly believe. The gospel influences all seasons of life. Paul offers a great reminder. “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19). Our hope is beyond the grave. It is beyond the here and now. We look beyond this earthly tent to a house not made with hands— our eternal home in the heavens.

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