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Wedding season is about finished.

I presided at only one wedding this summer—a bright couple I’ve known quite a while. Officiating at such weddings can be so joyful and hopeful and meaningful. People you’ve literally seen grow up before your eyes, people with whom you’ve shared many milestones, and now you have the honor of being part of this big day in their lives.

I need to be careful because I’ve developed a bit of a reputation as an anti-wedding curmudgeon. I don’t like that. I definitely don’t want to push away or demean people whose wedding I would be pleased to be involved with. I really don’t want to be the wet blanket, the fun hater.

A Great Center Aisle

Our church building is considered prime wedding space—traditional, great backdrop for photos, a long center aisle. If we wanted to, we could probably host a wedding here every week from May to November. If we wanted to. Summer Saturdays are a pretty wonderful and rare commodity. You just don’t want to give up too many of them.

No, this isn’t the center aisle in our sanctuary!

Honestly, weddings of strangers take a toll. Wedding people can have a demanding edge. “I paid and now I want…”Everything else in their wedding plans—florist, caterer, photographer, etc.—is a commercial exchange. A church simply isn’t set up that way. Our staff—custodians, secretaries, musicians—isn’t used to working that way, being treated that way. It is draining.

We’ve all noticed that increasingly weddings are held at “destinations”—parks, mountaintops, museums, party-barns, tropical beaches. The presiders are justices of the peace, specialized wedding officiants, people who purchased an ordination online, or good friends. Many of my ministerial colleagues wring their hands in dismay over these changes.

I think it is a bit of a relief. “Post-Christendom” allows for weddings to be honest and free. Couples who have no faith, who have no connection to the church, who have no desire for a Christian wedding no longer need to pretend. No longer hear words and say vows they don’t especially understand or mean. No longer take up my time.

We could be hopeful-unto-naïve here, that weddings for the couple looking for a great photo op are opportunities to share Christ, to introduce a couple to the church, to leave them with a positive impression about Christianity. Again, I have colleagues who contend this. Christian ministry is a long, slow game, waiting years, decades, sometimes generations, for seeds to sprout. Honestly, I have never seen “wedding seeds” sprout or bear any fruit.

Four Weddings and A Funeral

Weddings and funerals—both are staples, yet odd digressions in the minister’s life. Often they put you among different people, in front of different audiences. Both are high profile, and they can be high stress.

Friends are often surprised when I say that I find presiding at funerals more rewarding than weddings. Aren’t funerals sad and somber, while weddings are bright and joyful?

Most people come to funerals in a receptive state, looking and hoping for something. Even the most hardboiled cynic has a few cracks of openness and curiosity at a funeral. I feel like I’m doing genuine ministry at a funeral, like we are having Christian worship. Most people come to a wedding to evaluate the bride’s dress, pilfer ideas for their own wedding, or be seen themselves. I feel less like a minister and more like an emcee or game show host.

Of course, this isn’t always the case. Weddings can be not only beautiful, but are such signs of hope. Against all odds, here is a couple so in love that they want to make a public commitment, in the context of worship and the church. They truly seek God’s blessing on their marriage. To all this, I say, Hurrah! Thank You! Bless You!

This is one reason I so wish the church were more open to same-gender weddings. When couples today have so many options about location and officiant, a handful still seek out the church. I think back on all the straight weddings I’ve done where faith and the church weren’t much more than window dressing. Now, a couple comes genuinely wishing to make faith and the church a strong element of their wedding, and we turn them away!

Cultural Captivity

Being “captive to” or influenced by contemporary culture seems like about the worst accusation Christians can make these days. So I’m surprised—nay, disappointed—that no one has successfully aimed this cultural criticism at today’s weddings. So much pressure. So much expectation. So much competition. So much money. So much excess. So much privilege. So consumeristic.

Where is the section of little paperbacks—maybe with titles like I’ve Kissed Production Weddings Good-Bye, God’s Design for Christian Weddings, When God Writes Your Wedding Plans—in the Christian bookstore (do such stores exist anymore?) or gauzy websites aimed at godly young women filled with Pinterest-like ideas on having a “Christ-honoring” wedding?

Seriously, are there models out there that could help couples recast a beautiful, joyful, Christian wedding?

I’ve suggested, more than once, that we hold weddings within Sunday morning worship. I haven’t found any takers.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

9 Comments

  • Phyllis says:

    I wonder why. people choose to marry in the church when they “decorate” the chancel by removing pulpit, font, table — even setting the cross aside cross — and replacing liturgical furnishings with barn board backdrops adorned with gauzy fabric, lights, and flowers. The identity of “church” is lost. If they want it to look like a hotel ballroom, why get married in the church? That’s my rant.

  • Loretta Smith says:

    Thirty some years ago we were attending a Presbyterian Church in New Haven, CT. One Sunday, unannounced as far as I can remember, in the middle of the worship service a young grad school couple stood up to be married. It was beautiful. It was simple. It was sacred and it felt like we, the congregation, were really part of blessing this marriage. I didn’t even know the couple personally, but it still, all these years later, stands out as one of the most meaningful weddings I’ve ever attended. The reception was coffee and cake following the service. I ,too, have hoped this practice would “catch on”.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Thank you for saying what I have long felt. As a newly retired organist with 51 years of playing, I was always honored to be asked to play for funerals, but declined all weddings after the first ten years. High stress, high drama, too many summer weekends. For many the vows they make are a sidebar to the dresses, the flowers, the reception and it’s disc jockey, and, as you have pointed out, one-upping the last wedding at church. I find it interesting that often it is not so much the bride, but her mother who begins the escalation as soon as the ring appears. Perhaps it is wishful thinking that the church could show a different way.

  • Aleta Shepler says:

    Forty years ago, Doug and I were married during the Sunday morning worship. The reception was held in fellowship hall. My Sunday School students set the tables. If you were a visitor to church that morning, you were invited. I highly recommend it.

  • Mike Borgert says:

    Thanks, Steve, for your reflection. I’ve had some of the same thoughts, though (usually) not verbalized or put to paper. For what it’s worth, and as a potential help to other colleagues out there with the same misgivings, the congregation I serve has long had a policy about weddings. I realize referring to “a policy” seems a bit cold and unfeeling, but I’ve found that it has helped to set the stage for healthier conversations about what a wedding is for. I’m open to having an initial meeting with couples not from our church, but always made it clear that in the pre-marital counselling and the ceremony will be for a Christian marriage. It’s opened some doors for conversation, and I’ve also had a few “thanks, but no thanks” responses.

  • Mark Ennis says:

    Pam and I were married at Brighton Reformed Church in Rochester. The whole congregation was invited and there was a reception in the lodge, catered by the women’s group. It was cheap and meaningful, unlike the wild parties that pretend to be weddings.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Having the ceremony during or after a church service is a great idea. Young couples should get back to simple, inexpensive weddings. Our tradition of big expensive weddings is often a bad decision for for young people and their families who, in many cases, are still making payments on their college tuition.

    Imagine if, just like college, the Federal government subsidized the wedding industry through easy-to-obtain marriage loans. Money would flow into churches (both non-profit and for-profit) and soon vast bureaucracies would form. Each church would have matrimonial administrative positions for officiants, counselors, decorators, and arbitrators (to negotiate between Scylla and Charybdis, otherwise known as the mothers). There would also be enough money sloshing around to erect grand banquet palaces made entirely of reclaimed brick and barn wood. In order to stay competitive and enhance their brand, each church would have to develop their own in-house craft beer and small-batch whiskey labels to ensure an unforgettable (albeit regrettable) reception experience.

    I have a couple of sons who are dating wonderful young women who hopefully will be agreeable to marriage proposals. My dark little prayer is someday soon they come home and announce their elopement. I’d buy them dinner.

  • Tom says:

    Excellent post, thank you. Google ‘Jim Gaffigan weddings’ for a very funny take along the same lines.

    As with many things (marriage, Christmas being the most obvious examples), the further we move away from the true, deeper meaning, the more we hoopla we create around the event. Makes me wonder which is the chicken and which is the egg – does the added hoopla pull away us from the true meaning? or, do we create more hoopla because somewhere, deep down, we’re trying to replace something deeper that’s been lost?

  • Paul Janssen says:

    I’ve seen a few seeds develop over the years. Believers in Christ who, for some reason or other, were shunned or shut out from their “natural” church homes, and came looking for refuge. (Pella. 😉 ). Doesn’t happen often, but does sometimes. And not just for the couple but for all those other more-or-less unaffiliated folks who may experience a moment of grace. I don’t do what I consider to be schlocky nonsense for my part – not looking to be part of a viral video. For a homily I talk about stuff that matters – love, death, anxiety, redemption, gospel. Thankfully I’ve not been in places where THAT many weddings are requested – probably never done more than 4 or maybe 5 in a year. I totally understand the “payment for service” aspect. But, even that, I try to put into context with a couple that speaks of ministry. Worst wedding? When the bride and groom, saying the “I, groom, take you, bride,” (and then vice versa) repeated those vows- and looked at ME when they said them! (Turned out to be a shotgun wedding that lasted less than a year and ended somewhat tragically) Do I put weddings at the top of my list of favorite things in ministry? No. But do I run from them? No again. Not being an anti-curmudgeon. Contrarian, I guess.

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