Weddings Are Out of Control

What is a wedding worth? Some proverbial wisdom for the modern bride.

October, leading for years now, will be the most popular month for weddings in the United States, according to the Real Weddings Study from The Knot. Last year, 43 percent of U.S. weddings were between the months of September and November — even before the pandemic. That was 36 percent in 2019. Plus, the study said, December is the top month for engagements, not surprising given the holidays. This is wedding season.

When I got engaged last February, I had already been pinning different wedding themes on Pinterest boards like a millennial bridezilla. A charming, local New England barn wedding? A destination wedding in Portugal or Mexico, near my fiancé’s relatives? But reality slowly poked at my inflated American wedding expectations until they fizzled to a more realistic size for reasons both practical and financial.

In the last two decades, I’d attended intimate church basement weddings, where guests trickled down from the sanctuary for a cake reception, drinking lemonade out of paper cups and perspiring from the lack of air conditioning. I’d peeled piles of apples for a dozen pies and walked barefoot down the aisle at a backyard wedding in the countryside, which magically ended with dancing under willow trees and starry skies. I’d also attended an elaborate Indian American wedding that featured an upscale reception with six courses — and a golden fork to eat gold-lace desserts on a gold-accented plate.

As I planned my winter nuptials, I wondered which kind of wedding was right — or wise — for us. Prudence is a virtue, but so is generosity. Hospitality is a spiritual gift, yet Ecclesiastes 5 warns that money will never feel like enough. Modesty and humility are virtuous pursuits, but aren’t celebration and feasting and laughter a few of the best gifts in life? Scripture doesn’t give a clear answer, but it does offer some guidance for how to factor finances into planning a wedding.

In 2022, the average U.S. wedding cost $30,000, not including the engagement ring, which averaged around $6,000, or the honeymoon, according to a study from The Knot of 12,000 couples. Contributing factors to that number include, of course, the number of guests, and the biggest expenses tend to be the venue and the services provided for the wedding — such as caterers, photographers, and florists. With inflation and increased demand for wedding services in the wake of the pandemic, costs have only risen, and many people increased their budgets in the planning process to accommodate the rise.

But the costs aren’t all necessities: Many brides simply want the wow factor. Couples are “seeing these incredible weddings on social media and Pinterest, and they want the same level of design, experience, and so forth,” Minneapolis-based wedding planner Gretchen Culver told Brides. Never mind destination weddings, which some estimate cost an average of $5,000 more than local weddings.

For some cultures, the wedding celebration is not merely one day. Cambodian weddings can span three days, Russian weddings a week, and a traditional Muslim Pakistani wedding celebration can last up to 10 days. The average Indian wedding hosts 524 guests, according to a survey conducted in 2019, and Spain and Italy are close behind the U.S. for the most expensive weddings.

The Bible shows us that ancient Israel was no exception. After the traditional marriage ceremony, the families would throw a “great feast” hosted at the bridegroom’s house, and it  could last one or two weeks, according to French priest Roland de Vaux. The stories of Jacob and Rachel (Gen 29:27) and Samson (Judges 14:12) reference these lengthy celebrations.

The most lavish wedding banquet is the future, heavenly one, in which the church is united to Christ. “People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God,” Jesus tells his listeners in Luke 13:29.

Those who tend to downplay or minimize the value of a wedding should consider the significance of their wedding. The paradox of gathering for something like a wedding, argues Priya Parker in The Art of Gathering, is that there “are so many good reasons for coming together that often we don’t know precisely why we’re doing so.” To consider gathering close friends and family for an (ideally) once-in-a-lifetime event is to honor the marriage covenant and reflect not only the future uniting of Christ to his church, but also to mirror the extravagance of the wedding banquet.

Whether simple or extravagant, a couple’s celebrations can honor the guests and make a wedding a space for feasting, community, and joy.

Certainly, a humble wedding can be practical and prudent: to avoid going into debt, to expedite the marriage, to use savings on more judicious expenses such as a house or building a family. But a homespun wedding hosted with love can sometimes turn into a less virtuous, cheap wedding: cutting corners on guests (and banking on the guests for their cash gifts), hoarding cash for the honeymoon, or even just getting the wedding “over with.”

But a Christian couple that chooses to prioritize a ceremony in community, however humble the arrangements, shows where their values lie. The heavenly wedding banquet won’t take place on paper plates, but lavishness can bleed into the vice of greed, leading to a downfall. One 2014 study found that U.S. brides who spent more than $20,000 on their weddings were about 3.5 times more likely to divorce than brides who spent less than $10,000 on their wedding. Paradoxically, the study also found weddings with a greater number of people in attendance correlated a lower rate of divorce.

After all, there are creative ways to be prudent and hospitable: The wedding at Cana, where Jesus performed his first miracle, was a modest one. The family had run out of wine, but Jesus didn’t let the party stop (John 2:3). He transformed 180 gallons of water into wine.

Ultimately, Scripture doesn’t tell us whether it’s more virtuous to have a church basement reception or a lavish community celebration. But divine wisdom is rarely remembered in our $70 billion wedding industry: the wisdom to think of others more highly than ourselves (Phil 2:4), to give generously (2 Cor 9:6), and to understand the higher purpose of marriage — a covenant that joyfully mirrors the church’s glorious covenant with Christ.

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