When June died, people who cared for her surrounded her, but they were not lifelong friends or even relatives. They were members of a Wesleyan church who had become her family.
After battling addiction and mental illness for years, June (not her real name) was finally stable, sober and attending church faithfully. She had alienated most everyone she loved, however, so when she became ill, there was no one to care, except the church.
Members visited her in the hospital and were with her when she died. And after the Rev. Joshua Johnson, pastor at the time, claimed her body, the church celebrated her life.
"It was the talk of the small town. Why would a poor church and poorer pastor spend money we did not have on a grand celebration of a ‘nobody with nothing?'" Johnson said. "We did not. We celebrated the life of a child of God, made in God's image, who was found by him late in life."
The next Sunday, a couple living near the church finally attended worship after many invitations and eventually became members. Queried why, they said, "We figured if you all would love that woman, you might put up with us, too."
Johnson, now pastor at Grant United Methodist Church in Fairmont, Indiana, was not surprised. When Interpreter magazine asked if funerals and weddings could be a means of evangelism, he and other pastors said "yes," but with one caveat: not as a venue for recruitment.
No time for an agenda
"If evangelism means sharing the good news of God, then most any setting is a means of sharing (that message)," said the Rev. Skip Armistead, a retired Tennessee Conference pastor.
The problem, he said, is the tendency to equate evangelism with "getting members or bringing people to Christ.
"The ‘evangel' is one who takes Christ to whomever in whatever situation," he said. "Church membership is purely a byproduct, a result of what God may or may not do through us."
"People respond to the way they are treated during the transitional events in their lives. ... While I have never ‘recruited' while providing funeral services, I have had individuals join the church because of how they were treated during such a vulnerable time."
The Rev. Lynn Reece, University United Methodist Church, Redlands, California
The Rev. Martha Touchton, a deacon at St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, said sharing that good news at funerals is particularly appropriate because family and friends often seek answers to questions about life and death.
"A funeral may be the only time they have an opportunity to hear what Christ is about and what it means to live a God-centered life," she said. "If you don't know how to preach or speak that message of hope and faith, you're missing that opportunity."
Conducting a funeral in a way that's "grace-filled and welcoming ... and gives folks who aren't in the church a really positive experience" may also dispel any negative connotations they might have, Touchton said.
The Rev. Laura Speiran, a deacon at Clarkston (Michigan) United Methodist Church, said officiating at funerals and weddings for nonmembers is part of her calling because deacons "are bridges from the church to the world.
"It is a unique opportunity to share the love of Christ at a very emotional and intimate time of peoples' lives," she said. "My mission is to make disciples. How am I to do that if I only serve church members?"
Speiran estimates she conducted six to eight community funerals annually during her last appointment and said many people expressed interest in attending worship afterward.
"I never push a religious agenda," she said. "I respect where the family is, while also explaining that I am a Christian clergyperson and ... coming from that point of view."
Speiran believes weddings provide even greater opportunities to talk about a relationship with God because of the premarital counseling done with couples.
"I explain that (marriage) is not just a legal contract, but rather a covenant before God and what that means," she said. "I talk about how much stronger a marriage is with God at the heart of it."
The Rev. Donald Sensing, pastor at First United Methodist Church in Nolensville, Tennessee, requires non-member couples to attend worship regularly before the wedding.
"It allows more time for me to work with couples who have a religious interest in their interpersonal relationship without the deadline pressure of a wedding date," he said. "When they see me as their pastor, rather than contracted officiant, it serves our relationship much better."
Most couples agree to the arrangement, he said, and about half continue attending after the wedding. Many join.
Witnessing through hospitality
Respondents to a Facebook survey asking about weddings and funerals as opportunities to evangelize said making guests feel comfortable both inside and outside services is key.
At Brooks Corners United Methodist Church, part of a three-point charge in the West Michigan Conference, members prepare dinner for family and friends attending a funeral.
"We see this service as a form of evangelism because ... we are sharing the love we feel for Christ with those who attend," said the Rev. Bryan Kilpatrick, pastor. "They receive smiles from the volunteer workers and an enormous amount of hospitality."
Some guests have attended worship and joined afterward, he said, "because they remembered how open, friendly and courteous this congregation had acted toward them in their time of need."
"You never know what connection you have made with people ... who have had a good ‘taste' of church," said the Rev. Kenneth Baker, pastor at Eureka (Kansas) United Methodist Church.
Making people feel welcome, even if they do not immediately return, "is a great start," he said. "We should be glad when a seed is planted."
Tita Parham is a communications consultant, writer and editor based in Apopka, Florida.
"If the message at a funeral causes people to feel the comfort and grace of God, a sense that what is spiritual is real, it is not at all unlikely that at the time God nudges their spirit, they would attend the church of the pastor whose sermon brought a blessing. But this works not because of some sort of gimmick ... but because there is genuine quality in what is done."
The Rev. David Oliver Kueker, First United Methodist Church, Kinmundy, Illinois, and Wesley United Methodist Church, Patoka, Illinois
"Evangelism isn't an altar call at a funeral. It's showing the love of God and the comfort of the Advocate during a person's darkest hour."
The Rev. Charlie Baber, Highland United Methodist Church, Durham, North Carolina