Witnessing at Weddings
by the Rev. Steven L. McKinley (September / October 2004 — Volume 20, Number 5)
I should not have read that article.
It was in one of my “pastor mags,” and in it some wonderful pastor from somewhere wrote about viewing nonmember weddings as “evangelistic opportunities” and went on to expound on the many opportunities for witness that this pastor had discovered at the wedding receptions following nonmember weddings.
Now, in general I feel about weddings the way your average rat feels about your average sinking ship and about the weddings of nonmembers the way your average rat feels about your average burning sinking ship. But the author made a good case, so when the secretary asked if I would be willing to do a wedding for nonmembers Brad and Jennifer (no, not that Brad and Jennifer) I went against all of my usual scruples and agreed.
Brad and Jennifer showed up in my office the next week for our first premarital counseling session. Brad fell into one of my office chairs and slid into a deep slouch. I knew better than to expect him to take his hat off but had to resist the urge to run around the desk and get the bill of the hat pointing straight forward the way God intended for the bills of hats to be. Jennifer was showing more of herself than people usually show in my office, leading me to idly wonder how she would explain that tattoo when she was 80 years old and her skin began to shrivel.
Jennifer explained to me that while she and her family were not technically members of House of Prayer, they always considered this their church. After all, Jennifer had an aunt (by marriage) who had a cousin who used to occasionally visit confirmation classes here with a neighbor back in the ’70s. Furthermore, Jennifer and her parents were going to come here for worship on Christmas Eve once, but then it turned out to be so cold that their car wouldn’t start and they never got here. This was clearly their church.
Brad made it clear that he considered Jennifer’s family to be religious zealots in light of all that activity; he himself had not been as involved in the church as Jennifer had been.
I was still trying to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. This was clearly an evangelistic opportunity. Maybe the author of that article was on to something.
Our cycle of premarital counseling evolved in the following weeks. We planned the wedding service. I was envisioning a service celebrating God’s activity in bringing Brad and Jennifer together, an occasion in which the worshipping community could unite in prayer for Brad and Jennifer and meditate together on the solemnity of the marriage covenant. Jennifer was envisioning an extravaganza that would put that other Jennifer and Madonna and the whole gang of them to shame with its sheer spectacularity (which isn’t a word but should be). Brad was envisioning a chance to drink a lot with his friends. Jennifer and Brad were both disappointed when I told them that I did not think our organist knew anything by either Nine Inch Nails or Linkin Park, and might not have time to learn.
Of course, there is more to premarital counseling than wedding planning. We also spent serious time looking at their relationship, including the use of a handy-dandy little instrument I’ve been using with couples for some time. This revealed that they weren’t very good at communication, conflict resolution, or financial management; that each disliked the other’s family and friends; that Jennifer was offended by Brad’s wearing of t-shirts with obscene sayings on them; that Brad was annoyed by Jennifer’s habit of popping her gum; that I agreed with both of them on those things; and that they had a truly splendid sexual relationship.
I tried to be pretty direct about pointing out the difficulties here, but Brad and Jennifer were unswayed in their eagerness to be wed. Now and then I tried to get into the evangelistic opportunity end of things and bear a certain witness to my faith and the activity of God in Jesus Christ in their marriage, at which times they looked at me as though I had started speaking to them in Aramaic.
We did talk about the matter of the financial obligations incurred in having a church wedding. Brad and Jennifer confessed to me that their financial resources were minimal (not surprising given their notable lack of common sense in dealing with all things financial) and that meeting the fees we requested would create immeasurable hardship for them. I went to the organist and the sexton and the wedding coordinator and prevailed upon these understanding souls to cut their normal fees in half, and made it clear that I was doing all this to the glory of God and would not expect remuneration of any kind.
The Big Event
Time marched on, and the time for the rehearsal arrived. It was an occasion of such jocularity that I had the feeling that some of the participants had been refreshing themselves prior to their arrival. Brad’s mother arrived with her husband of the moment, as did Brad’s father with his wife of the moment, as did the gentleman who had been married to Brad’s mother in between Brad’s father and her husband of the moment, along with his own wife of the moment. Each of these three gentlemen came expecting to be accorded some place of honor in the plan of things, and it was left to me to assign them to their respective places, amid considerable grumbling and uncharitable glances. The best man arrived 30 minutes late, having gotten lost trying to find the church in his drive from work six blocks away.
The day of the wedding dawned bright and sunny. When I arrived at church I caught my breath at the sight of a marvelous Hummer® stretch limousine sitting by the church door, which had delivered the entire wedding party from the nearby five-star hotel at which they had spent the previous evening. The organist, custodian, wedding coordinator, and I agreed that we had perhaps been too charitable in agreeing to the fee cut. Actually, the three of them agreed that I had been too charitable in agreeing to the fee cut. I thought I heard the word “sucker” muttered under someone’s breath.
While we have very explicit rules regarding the consumption of alcoholic beverages on church property, I had the feeling that the sharp legal minds involved in this occasion had concluded that the inside of the stretch Hummer® did not qualify as church property, for people seemed to be retreating there regularly and emerging increasingly confused and with increasingly extroverted personas.
Owing to the fact that the wedding guests seemed to arrive late and then had to visit the inside of the Hummer®, we were about 20 minutes late in getting the wedding actually started. At that point, the two two-year old flower girls, who had performed admirably at the rehearsal the night before, suffered a mutual attack of the vapors and were unable to march down the aisle until their respective mothers (who were also bridesmaids) shoved them down to waiting grandmothers. Somehow everyone else made it down the aisle, where I took one more crack at proclaiming the gospel and then declared Brad and Jennifer husband and wife.
A Change of Plans
My lovely wife came and joined me in my office as the assembled guests passed through the waiting line, and the two of us discussed the joys awaiting us at the wedding reception, to be held in a nearby American Legion hall. I contemplated the witness opportunities awaiting me there. Usually at wedding receptions, we are seated with the grandparents of the happy couple, whose hearing problems are not ameliorated by the guitars and drums throbbing a few feet away; or with Uncle Earl, who is eager to tell me of the negative experience he had with a priest 35 years ago, which experience has kept him away from the church ever since, and which experience he seems to hold me personally accountable for.
Then Brad and Jennifer came in with the best man and the matron of honor to sign the necessary legal documents. We offered our congratulations, and then I also offered an apology. “Something has come up,” I said. “I am afraid we will not be able to come to the reception.” They said they were sorry to hear that, but the look in their eyes indicated that they were not sorry at all, since they figured a wedding reception would be a lot more fun without a preacher there, especially one who viewed the reception as a witness opportunity.
And it was true. What had come up was my resistance to the whole idea of going to the wedding reception. Rather than dining in the splendor of the Legion hall, Patricia and I retreated to our favorite Thai restaurant and dined on spicy food and Asian beer and looked deep into each other’s eyes and then went home to see what was new on Trading Spaces.
There are pastors out there who can turn an event like this one into an evangelistic opportunity and an occasion for witness. I admire them and celebrate them, but I know that I am not one of them.
I should not have read that article.
Steven L. McKinley is senior pastor of House of Prayer Lutheran Church in Richfield, Minnesota, where he avoids weddings.