Published on 9/17/2013
by Pastor John Braland
Freshwater Community Church, St. Bonifacius, MN
The couples who participated in the free wedding weekend were able to focus on each other, while Freshwater Community Church handled everything else—including a professional photographer, the wedding cake, decorations and other details.
After one of our worship services, people were gathering to talk and touch base with one another. 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 clinging to her mother’s side starring down at her father who was cleaning up the Cheerios she had just spilled on the floor. Another young boy was playing with his toy car, running between the rows of chairs having the time of his life. I had never met this family before 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 with an awkward stare and said, “We are not married yet.” 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’re not married.” So I was kind of right. We exchanged a few more pleasantries, but all I wanted to do was escape. I had made an assumption and I hoped that my assumption didn’t come across judgmental.
Freshwater is a church full of people who come from a wide array of religious backgrounds. They also come from a myriad of family backgrounds. Some Freshwater couples grew up in traditional families, but over three quarters of the attenders grew up in single parent homes, blended families, or were raised by someone other than a parent. We have always known this. However, what we didn’t realize is how many couples attending Freshwater have never officially tied the knot. Multiple couples at Freshwater were cohabitating and many already had children together or from previous relationships. We don’t really care what background they came from, but we do really care about helping them honor Christ now.
Statistics show that most couples cohabitate before they get married, if they ever choose to get married at all. These statistics also reveal that couples who cohabitate have a higher divorce rate than couples who marry and then live together. Rather than frowning at the statistics, we began to question what we could do about it, if anything.
My conversation with Anna and Mike planted a seed that began to grow. We planned on doing a three part series called “Happily Ever After,” addressing marriage from a biblical perspective that coincided with Valentine’s Day. A recommitment ceremony was planned 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 culture shift.
Our leadership team all knew couples who were cohabitating or planning on getting married but were not. Within minutes a short list of people emerged. We casually contacted the couples we knew asking what was keeping them from getting married. Nobody 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 why they were not interested in getting married or could not get married was because they didn’t have the money to pay for it or the time to plan everything. It 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 reason.
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, pre-marriage counseling, the marriage license, everything. What if we even decorated the sanctuary with top notch décor, all for free!
We were so excited that we decided to extend this free wedding weekend offer to the entire community as an outreach. The only stipulation was that couples had to do it 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 to 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 immediately filled the Saturday slots, two from the community and two from Freshwater. Four more Freshwater couples were inspired to plan summer weddings. All of them participated in the pre-marriage sessions we offered.
In the weeks leading up to the free wedding weekend, the brides buzzed with excitement. The pre-marriage classes brought people together establishing new friendships. The day before the wedding, three of the women had their hair and nails done together by professionals. The day of the weddings was electric. Photos were taken, hair was touched up, family and friends gathered, smiling from ear to ear. One of the local news channels picked up the story and sent a videographer. 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, he and his wife had brought their entire family and were taking up twenty seats. After the service I was shaking hands and talking in front of the platform when I noticed the groom walking towards me. With a huge smile on his face he embraced me, sharing that this 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.” 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. Performing free weddings was just one way Freshwater was able to reach out to our community in the name of Jesus.
Dr. John Braland is the Lead Pastor at Freshwater Community Church located in St. Bonifacius, MN. They are committed to planting Great Commission churches and sharing the life-changing love of Jesus Christ in a real, relevant, and relational manner. www.freshwaterchurch.org
Leadership Network is launching a Marriage Ministry Leadership Community this November. For more information, visit the Marriage Minsitry Leadership Community page.
This article was submitted by Dr. John Braland as part of the Leadership Network Guest Writer series. For information on how you can submit an article for consideration, click here.