By Greg Webber Director of Aftercare/Community Care Certified Celebrant
In his song “Changes”, David Bowie told us to “…turn and face the strange”. The sixties Cultural Revolution was in full stride. It was an unsettling time of assassinations, Civil Rights marches, The Beatles, Joe Namath, Vietnam, Woodstock, the Generation Gap, Psychedelic, the Drug Culture, Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, “The Graduate, The Smothers Brothers, Neil Armstrong, Kent State, Watergate and Gas Pump Lines. As a product of the sixties and seventies, I had to “turn and face the strange” on a regular basis. It was my faith and commitment to my church community that helped keep my head from exploding. A generation later www.com became a part of our lexicon. Another decade later words like Facebook and Twitter were added. Even more so than in the sixties and seventies, this techno-revolution has been a game changer. Now I would like to believe that I am older and wiser, but what can I say when phones and T.V.s are smarter than I am? “Turn and face the strange”! While serving as as a pastor, I had to “turn and face the strange” in the local church for more than twenty-five years. The days of denominational loyalty have dissipated. The traditional church institution is rapidly aging out and increasing numbers of main-line churches are struggling to keep their doors open. The Generation Gap never went away and has widened. Traditional churches are struggling to attract Millennials along with a growing demographic called the “Dones”. These are “Baby-Boomers”, “Baby-Busters” and “Gen-X-ers” who have decided they are “done” with church life. The unique thing about these once highly active congregants is that they remain persons deeply committed to faith values who have simply lost confidence in the church institution. Local churches find themselves in a growing competition with secular claims on Sundays. Other factors such as control politics, doctrinal dogma and failure to embrace technology contribute to a palpable decline in church attendance. Many traditional congregations have abandoned their core mission, perceiving culture as the enemy resulting in a secular view of the local church as a form of tribalism.
I received my Masters-of-Divinity in a Southern Baptist Seminary, which prepared me in theology, homiletics, evangelism and all things Baptist. My training served me well for my first five years in the pastorate, until I discovered that many congregations had become inward focused, held captive by insecurity and tradition, not willing to reach the marginalized and lonely. I realized I had become one of many “Eleanor Rigby” pastors.
Father McKenzie, writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear, No one comes near. All the lonely people, where do they all come from? All the lonely people, where do they all belong?”
For the next 20 years I committed my life to leading churches in providing pathways for the disenfranchised, the recovery person and hopeless to embrace the love of God within the community of faith. This often required pleading with the church stockholders to rekindle a passion to embrace people as Jesus did, in the messiness of their deepest need without condemnation. The words of the Casting Crowns song, “Does Anybody Hear Her” became embedded in my heart and soul.
“Does anybody hear her? Can anybody see? Or does anybody even know she’s going down today? Under the shadow of our steeple, With all the lost and lonely people Searching for the hope that’s tucked away in you and me. If judgment looms under every steeple If lofty glances from lofty people Who can’t see past her scarlet letter… And we never even met her.
I found it difficult to hear this song and hold back tears. What saddened me is that I found few in the church who would cry with me. Traditional churches move at the speed of church and culture change usually brings pain. “Ch-Ch-Changes!”
Which brings me to why I am here. I currently serve as the Director of Aftercare and Community Care at Morrissett Funeral and Cremation Service. I also serve as a staff chaplain. I am here because of the opportunity I have been given to meet people at perhaps their most devastating place of need. Death is inevitable. We’re all going to die, it’s just a matter of when. And when death happens, people show up here; devastated, weary, sad, often angry and usually vulnerable. Aftercare allows me to counsel death’s survivors; wives, husbands, moms, dads, brothers, sisters, and kids…all deeply grieving. And I have discovered that an increasing number of families choose a funeral or memorial service here, instead of in a local church.
Upon arriving at Morrissett, I enrolled in “Celebrant Training”. I was not familiar with the Celebrant concept, but I observed a viable need for the Celebrant Service. We are serving increasing numbers of un-churched people who prefer a more up-beat, secular and less formal Life Celebration. For a veteran Baptist pastor, this required… “Ch-Ch-Changes!” … in the way I speak with families, as well as my service content and delivery. I embrace many families who have no church affiliation and reject stereotypical preaching or anything that comes across as “preachy”. Some families prefer a blended service where a secular Life Celebration service is supplemented with scripture, prayer and reference to the afterlife. Still, these families do not want to endure a traditional church service funeral. In either case, they desire a service where the celebrant demonstrates a knowledge of the deceased, having never met that person.
Celebrant training has helped prepare me to better serve grieving families. I feel I am a more effective communicator; able to relate to people, designing a service that meets their unique needs. As I listen to families, my objective is to develop a life tribute by painting a verbal portrait based upon the shared stories and memories of their loved one. The grieving family deserves nothing less.
I am so grateful to be a part of the Morrissett family of caring staff who warmly embrace the Celebrant concept, demonstrating respect for the grieving family and dignity for the deceased. It also communicates compassion and inclusion to an increasingly multi-cultural, spiritually diverse community as we walk with them through their grief. And in doing so, we are willing to help them “Turn and face the strange”.