By: Dr. Barry C. Johnson
In this article, we will explore the challenges of ministering to the hip-hop generation during a time of bereavement. Because of space restraints, the article will appear in two parts. This text represents Part 1.
The time has come for the service to begin. The sobs, the tears, the emotional wailing – present are signs of the typical, sorrowful funeral service. Ushers assisting with tissues; church nurses (if available) trying to comfort; family members rearranging the seating of mourners to better handle their grief are signs of the typical, sorrowful funeral service. Pallbearers straining to hide their awkwardness, the uninterested looking down at the floor, and the friends wondering when the service will end.
Heads adorned with bandanas and mourners dressed in coordinated photo-shirts, saggy jeans, and shorts and sandals. Older men who refuse to remove their caps and younger men who likewise do not remove their hoodies. It is easy to identify the traditionalists in this crowd, i.e., the funeral directors and those that are probably connected to the church. At this funeral, they look oddly out-of-place: men in business suits and women, in posh pantsuits and dresses. Yet, does the remainder of this ongoing description characterize a typical church funeral?
In the background, the moving lyrics of Smallwood and Hairston do not assimilate with the crowd. Nonetheless, it is obvious that the people gathered for this service are genuinely hurting and are filled with uncontrollable grief authentic in its display (and otherwise, its intimacy). How best does the traditional pastor approach this type of service, around which the environment is so distracting? The marked casual dress makes its own statement, but it is also evident that many mourners most likely despise being inside the church and are only there because of the death of their loved one. This is tragic, regardless of the circumstances that have occurred. Our intent is not to fault but to mourn yet another wasted soul.
In the church, does this disparity (in dress and in perceived sentiment) make a statement? It is apparent that the service described here is not a traditional funeral service, especially one held in the church. However, this type of occasion is, unfortunately, one that occurs far too often in our diminishing society. The traditional funeral has had to adapt to deliver services that embrace the trappings of society and contemporary culture, somewhat softening its need or reliance on the church. Many churches today have moved away from “traditional dress” (suits and dresses), while espousing a “dress down” casual style of polo shirts, jeans, and sandals, depending upon the season. Does the chosen attire of our churches’ worshippers reflect the values of our culture and make a statement as to the cultural identity we wish to embrace? Many older members of the church continue to dress traditionally and are hesitant to embrace the casual style, as they feel their chosen dress reflects their values and represents who they are.
More times than not, the “hip-hop” funeral held in church is a result of the connection of the deceased to a family member who is part of the local church. That grieved member usually convinces the nuclear family to have a church funeral, somehow, in hopes that the trappings will make the service “respectable.” There may be exceptions, but I have yet to encounter a pastor who has spurned this type of request or turned his back on these families. It is a pastor’s desire to provide comfort and his calling, to use the tools of the faith to combat the ills that have befallen these people in their loss and subsequent grief. However, the question must be asked: Why the church? It is certainly not where the non-believer wants to be. Why the church? Non-believers do not aspire to church systems, the church atmosphere, or church beliefs. Why the church? Having a funeral in the church will certainly not save the deceased.
Although there is no good place to cut this article, please see next month’s Part 2 conclusion, when we will continue to present the poignant questions that have to be asked when the church is called upon to funeralize a member of the hip-hop culture. We hope to have stimulated your genuine concern thus far.