Feature

Happily Ever After

A free wedding weekend

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After one of our worship services, people were gathering to talk with one another as I made my way from the platform to the back of the sanctuary to visit with a few people. About halfway there, I noticed a family packing up to leave. One child was in the car seat and another clung to her mother’s side watching her father clean up the Cheerios she had spilled on the floor. Another young boy was playing with his toy car, running between the rows of chairs and having the time of his life.

I had not met this family, so I introduced myself. She told me her name was Anna. And then I did it—I said, “This must be your husband!”

They looked at each other awkwardly. “We are not married yet,” Anna answered. She must have felt compelled to fill in the blanks so she continued, “He is the father of two of our kids, but he is not my husband.”

We exchanged a few more pleasantries, but all I wanted to do was escape. I had made an assumption, and I hoped it didn’t come across as judgmental.

Freshwater Community Church of the C&MA (St. Bonifacius, Minn.) is full of people from a wide array of religious backgrounds. They also come from a myriad of family situations. Some Freshwater couples grew up in traditional families, but more than three quarters of the attendees grew up in single-parent homes or blended families or were raised by someone other than a parent. We have always known this.

What we didn’t realize is how many couples attending Freshwater had never officially tied the knot. Many already had children together or from previous relationships. We don’t really care what background they come from, but we do really care about helping them honor Christ now.

Statistics show that most couples cohabit before they get married, if they choose to get married at all. Studies also reveal that these couples have a higher divorce rate than those who marry first and then live together. Rather than frowning at the statistics, we began to ask what, if anything, we could do about it.

My conversation with Anna and Mike planted a seed that began to grow. The pastoral team had planned to do a three-part series called “Happily Ever After,” addressing marriage from a biblical perspective. A recommitment ceremony was to take place during each service the third week of the series, followed by a marriage seminar the following Saturday. But we felt that if we really wanted to impact our congregation and community, we needed to take it a step further in order to create a significant cultural shift.

Our leadership team all knew couples who were cohabiting or planning on getting married but were not. Within minutes, a short list emerged. We casually contacted the couples and asked what was keeping them from getting married. No one was offended by the question; they were actually glad we asked. In our completely unscientific, informal study, most of the people we spoke with said the main reason wasn’t because they didn’t believe in marriage or thought cohabitation honored God; they were not married because they didn’t have the resources or ability to pull it off. This was Anna and Mike’s situation.

Armed with this new information, we began to dream. What if Freshwater helped couples like Anna and Mike get married by helping them plan a wedding? What if we paid for everything: the facility, a professional photographer, wedding cakes, hair stylists, nail techs, printed programs, premarital counseling, the marriage license, everything? What if we even decorated the sanctuary with topnotch décor—all for free?

We were so excited we decided to extend this free wedding weekend offer to the entire community. The only stipulation was that couples had to marry on one specific Saturday so we could prepare everything. We didn’t want to do cheesy, Vegas-style weddings, so we allocated two hours for each couple so they could take pictures, celebrate with a ceremony and hold a reception.

The free wedding weekend created a huge buzz after we publicized the details. Four couples, two from the community and two from Freshwater, immediately filled the Saturday slots. Four more Freshwater couples were inspired to plan summer weddings. All of them participated in the pre-marriage sessions we offered, which helped to establish new friendships.

The day of the weddings was electric. Photos were taken, hair was touched up and family and friends gathered, smiling from ear to ear. One of the local news channels sent a videographer, and two other reporters from local papers also picked up the story. But most importantly, God was honored. Couples who were not married were now married. Those who had no connection with a church now have a connection. Isn’t this what it’s all about?

The day after the weddings I stood up to speak and noticed one of the couples who had been married the day before. Normally, they don’t attend church, but they were in attendance that day. In fact, they had brought their entire family, which took up 20 seats. After the service I was shaking hands with parishioners in front of the platform when I noticed the groom walking toward me. With a huge smile on his face he embraced me, sharing that the wedding was best thing that had ever happened to him.

One of the reporters asked me, “If this helps build better families and better communities, why don’t more churches do it?” After thinking about it for a few seconds I replied, “As Christians, we need to do whatever it takes to make disciples, and building healthy families is part of that.”

Traditional weddings are expensive, and couples use this as an excuse not to get married. By offering free weddings, we were saying that marriage matters. A marriage is a commitment that creates a sense of security between a man and a woman. If couples were willing to honor Christ in marriage, we wanted to honor Christ by making it happen.

The harvest is ripe, so now is the time. A. B. Simpson wasn’t afraid to reach out into his community and make disciples; we shouldn’t be either. Performing free weddings was just one way Freshwater was able to reach out to our community in the name of Jesus.

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