They could have eloped… but they didn’t.
The marriage still would have been legal at a little chapel in Las Vegas or at the courthouse in front of a justice of the peace. It would have been an intimate affair – no one else really is needed, right? Vows are personal and the only thing that really matters is that the bride and groom express their love and promises of faithfulness to one another with someone present who has the legal ability to marry them and sign the certificate. Right?
This past summer, instead of this private ritual, our beloved nephew and his new bride chose to say their marriage vows surrounded by their community of family and friends. With smiles bursting on their faces, the parents watched as their children said their vows. These are the parents who birthed them, cared for, loved and raised them to be the remarkable young man and woman each one is today. Siblings, cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles – all who have built memories with, prayed for, and invested in these individuals – were witnesses as well. As our nephew and his bride danced into the late hours of the night, friends, both of the couple and of the families, surrounded them as they have in the past to help, encourage, laugh, and rejoice together. To say this was a happy occasion seems an understatement for the love, laughter, and immense joy we all experienced.
This experience has me pondering the paradox of wedding styles and how it relates to my desire (or maybe my lack of desire) for a spiritual community. Do I like to be alone and private in my faith where it is just me and God or do I like to be surrounded by a loving community in whom I have invested in and they have invested back into me?
In the church, we often say, we are created for community, with one another and with God. But many of us want to experience God by ourselves and are either disillusioned or do not want to bother with a larger faith community. Someone once told me that they enjoyed going to church if it wasn’t for all the people. He just wanted to go, worship God, and leave. He didn’t want to talk to anyone. He didn’t want anyone poking into his private life. He didn’t want any invitations for dinner. He just wanted his faith experience to be about God and him. But was he missing something, something necessary and profound to his faith, by not inviting others in?
In his book, Letters to a Young Evangelical, author, sociologist and pastor, Tony Campolo tackles the question of why the church is important. (You can read an excerpt here.) First, Campolo reminds us that Christ loves the church and gave himself for it. The church is the bride of Christ and it is precious to him. I must admit, I don’t think I value the church as much as Jesus does. I have seen what I call the “underbelly” of the church and it isn’t pretty. But as a follower of Christ, I want to love what he loves…and if he loves the church, well, then I need to value it as well. Campolo also reminds us that while we can worship alone, the act of coming together for worship is important. This is what Campolo calls a “special fellowship” and this “oneness” that a group of people experience together is a place where sacred experiences are shared. When together, we become a community that encourages and admonishes one another in our sanctification. Last but not least, Campolo highlights that the church is not only Christ’s bride, it is also his primary instrument for social change and society’s transformation. Christ has commissioned the church to go into the world, and through this work, we participate in its redemption.
Pondering this, I believe there is something more to why a faith community is important. If done well (and this can be a big “if”), this community becomes a type of family. In the preaching and teaching of the Word, we share our family stories of faith and their significance. At a baptism, dedication, or wedding, we celebrate the overflowing of life’s joys and remember the love of God. At a wake, funeral or other solemn occasions, we grieve and stand with those who have heavy hearts, remembering the promises of the resurrection. The profound importance of a church community is not just in these big celebrations, but also in the momentary life experiences – the laughter around a meal, the holding of a hand in the hospital room, or the word of encouragement to someone who is struggling with life’s journey.
Yes, I could live a solitary life of faith, but it would not be what God intended. Our nephew and his bride could have eloped, but it was so much more rich and beautiful to have everyone there. Just like a big wedding, it might cost more, but I believe our spiritual lives will be more enriched, profound, and full because we choose to engage in community.