In the evening in Montreal in our hotel, Chandler and I watch cable television when a promo piece comes on for a show called “Four Weddings.” Chandler says, “This is one of my favorite shows! We have to watch it.” Thinking it had to be better than the one we were watching – a show involving hidden cameras following unwitting people in order to critique their eccentric fashion choices – I agreed. For the next thirty minutes I got an exclusive look at one small corner of the church in its new disestablished state.
For the uninitiated, “Four Weddings” pits four brides in a competition, the winner of which receives an all-expenses paid “dream honeymoon.” Each bride’s wedding will be judged by the other three brides on such areas as venue, food, entertainment, and – yes! – the pastor (or other officiant). They rate the overall experience from one to ten, and the bride with the most points wins.
I will leave for now the distasteful – even creepy – spectacle of a ceremony that should be a celebration of love and joy among family and friends being opened to reality show cameras and a numbering system similar to the Olympics.
What most fascinated me were the specific criticisms of the various brides, particularly as they related to the “venue” (read “church”) and “officiant” (read “pastor”). Inevitably, if the wedding was happening in a more traditional setting, presided over by a pastor or priest, one or more of the brides would appear befuddled. “He was dressed like royalty,” sneered one bride about the priest in full vestments while the camera slowly panned up and down. About another pastor who was preaching from Galatians – “I had no idea what he was talking about – this is supposed to be about the couple, not whatever he was saying.”
On the other hand, pastors were praised who spent their time talking about the couple, sharing cute stories about how they met, personal quirks, and an occasional joke. These were celebrated as more hip because they understood the real meaning of the ceremony, narrowly defined as these two human beings and the love they feel for each other.
I asked Chandler, “Is this how they talk about all the pastors?”
“Pretty much,” she replied.
“What would you say the main complaint is about them?” I asked, knowing already I would not like what I heard.
“That they go on too long about stuff not related to the bride and groom. You know, too ‘preachy'”.
“Too preachy?! But they’re PREACHERS for God’s sake!” I was exasperated, and it was late, so I continued –
“This is nothing more than a celebration of narcissism. It is not all about the bride and groom, no matter what the “wedding machine” tries to tell you. They are in a church. They have a Christian pastor officiating the wedding. It should be a worship service. They should be focused on God. To focus on themselves alone is a rather small canvass, don’t you think, on which to paint their future. This is just selfishness. No telling how much they are paying for all this spectacle. They should spend less time planning the wedding and more time planning their marriage.”
I thought I made my point rather well, and waited, somewhat out of breath, for Chandler’s accolades and agreement.
“Well, duh, Dad. What do you expect them to be? Not everyone’s Presbyterian, you know. Most people aren’t even religious.”
The youth of our time are, to paraphrase Annie Dillard, more “sufficiently aware of conditions” in our post-Christendom era. I had traveled all the way to Montreal in order to experience and reflect on what the church might look like in a time when more and more people do not claim allegiance to any church, and my sixteen year old daughter became one of my primary teachers. She had reacted with more compassion, openness, and, yes, hospitality toward the children of God on the television screen than had I, and she opened a new understanding of hospitality with her simple question, “What do you expect them to be?”
If I expect them to be fully formed disciples of Jesus Christ and spend all my time sneering at those who are not while huddled with the like-minded behind the stained glass windows of the church, then those stained glass windows will slowly close in on me. Likewise, if I cater to the whims of a largely shallow and superficial culture in order to be “relevant” or, worse, “to grow a church,” then the power of gospel is diluted and the church ceases to be the church, becoming yet one more social club or special interest group that lives and dies by public opinion and polling.
But there is another way, beyond a self-imposed Christian ghetto or an anything goes capitulation.
The brides on the show (and the grooms hidden in the shadows) may not be aware of it, but they are beloved, and not just by their fiancés and their families and friends. They are beloved by a God who created them, who pursues them, in spite of their selfishness, in spite of the brokenness which they share with us all, and who will never cease this loving pursuit. The longing they feel for this love is what lies deep within and behind all the flailing about on display in the frenetic search for “the perfect wedding.”
But they will not hear this word if it is spoken from high and haughty places. They will not hear it if it is spoken from a position of privilege, as if we alone have found the only proper way. They will only hear it if we can speak to them where they are, not where we want them to be, and speak a word of humility and authenticity.
This may be the biggest challenge facing the church in our time – how to engage a culture like the one exhibited on “Four Weddings” with an alternative word that acknowledges our common humanity while also calling us to go deeper.
I think this happens – albeit imperfectly – each time we open the doors wide and gather around font, table, and pulpit, proclaiming a God who did not stand at a distance from humanity, but came in Christ and suffered the cross for the sake of the whole broken beloved world. I hear the Lord saying to this pastor so prone to forgetting – “Now go and do likewise.”