by Warren Midgley
The entire concept of making a business of “Christian” weddings has sparked an ongoing and, at times, rather heated debate.
On the corner of the main road stands the impressive gothic cathedral of St. John’s. Up the stairs and in through the great arched doorways, one finds a tall sanctuary with polished wooden floors, stained-glass windows and a white marble aisle. About two hundred attendees dressed in their Sunday best take their seats in the classic wooden pews, as the pipe organ booms out the closing strains of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus." The minister in flowing white robes leads the congregation in prayer.
This is not a scene from the liturgical church tradition of the West, but rather an increasingly common social event in modern Japan. It is, in the vernacular, a "Christian" or "chapel" wedding. It could well be argued that this is something of a misnomer, because there are often no Christians in the pews, and although the building looks like a church, it is home to no congregation and hosts no regular worship services.
In the picture-book perfect wedding, the presiding minister will be a foreigner. He may or may not be a qualified or practicing minister of religion-indeed he may or may not be a committed Christian-but to the happy couple, the paying parents and the many companies whose sole business it is to produce and sell Christian weddings, that doesn’t seem to matter.
However to many missionaries in Japan, it does matter. In fact, the entire concept of making a business of "Christian" weddings has sparked an ongoing and, at times, rather heated debate. On one hand, some maintain that performing wedding ceremonies is an outreach strategy, giving it a ministry classification of its own: Wedding Evangelism. On the other hand, there are those who argue that performing wedding ceremonies is on a par with Simon the sorcerer’s sin of Acts 8, only in this instance the attempt is to sell rather than to buy the blessing of God.
It seems that there is no middle ground. However, in focusing on the extremes, many important practical and theological issues may be overlooked. At least three key issues need to be considered.
To begin the discussion, it is important to have an understanding of the amounts of money that are involved in the wedding business. In the Japanese city where I live, a foreigner teaching English part-time in a private school can earn about twenty dollars an hour. Teaching privately in one’s own home earns up to forty dollars an hour1, and teaching at a public university, at part-time rates, earns sixty dollars per hour. To put these figures into cultural perspective, the standard rate for a Japanese person taking a part-time job is seven dollars per hour. A Japanese university student may find private tutoring work that pays about twenty dollars per hour. In stark contrast to all of these figures, a foreigner performing wedding ceremonies is paid 150 dollars per hour. Six ceremonies in one day can bring in almost a thousand dollars. There can be no dispute that the wedding business is a financially rewarding one.
To many Western missionaries accustomed to living by faith, earning a thousand dollars in one day seems too good to be true. In fact, to some it seems almost sinful. However, the Bible nowhere denounces earning money, provided no sin is committed and nobody is exploited in the process. As wedding ceremonies are optional in Japanese society-to be legally married, a couple must register at the local city office-it is difficult to substantiate the charge of exploitation. What is more, the Apostle Paul insists that ministers of the Gospel have the right to be paid for their work (1 Cor. 9:7-12), even though he chose not to claim this right for himself.
Of course, when large sums of money are involved, a certain degree of suspicion about personal motives can easily arise. The fact that this suspicion is rarely openly discussed only adds fuel to the fire. Paul’s caution that "the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil" (1 Tim. 6:10) and Jesus’ dire warning that "you cannot serve both God and Money" (Matt. 6:24) need to be carefully heeded. However, who are we to say that a brother has fallen into the sin of worshipping Mammon? Surely we cannot sit in judgment upon the state of another’s heart in this respect.
Putting these issues aside, the main charge still remains. The strongest opponents of the Christian wedding business claim that these ceremonies are an attempt to sell the blessing of God for financial gain. This is truly a serious challenge and must be honestly addressed.
I am convinced that sincere Christians who perform wedding ceremonies do not think that they are selling God’s blessings. They believe that they are being paid for their time, or being paid for a service that they provide. However, contextualization theory insists that what we think is not the central issue. The real question is how do the people in the host culture interpret our actions?
Have a good, long heart-to-heart with most Japanese young people today and they are likely to admit that they have no religious faith. The Buddhist and Shinto rites they dutifully perform are of cultural and social value, but are not intrinsically related to religious beliefs. Given this context, it is likely that the couple being married in a Christian wedding would interpret the entire ceremony as a cultural or social event rather than as a spiritual transaction. Of course, there may be some who see it in spiritual terms, but it is difficult to assert that this is the norm.
Be that as it may, however, a serious problem remains. For generations, main line Buddhist and Shinto priests in Japan have taught that in order to get a blessing, you must pay a large sum of money. In Japan today, when you build a new home you pay the Shinto priest a lot of money to perform the land-blessing ceremony; when a member of your family dies you pay the Buddhist priest a lot of money to perform the funeral ceremony; and ever-increasingly, when you are ready to get married you pay the Christian minister a lot of money to perform the wedding ceremony. By quietly falling into sync, Christians run the risk of presenting their faith as simply another addition to the pantheon of Japanese cultural traditions that go by the name of religion.
There is, however, another side to the coin. As a church-planting missionary in Japan, I am only too aware of the stark reality that churches need money to pay the bills, and that money generally comes from committed Christians who earn it doing some kind of paid work. You don’t need a degree in mathematics to determine that a tithe of 150 dollars per hour will pay more bills than a tithe of twenty dollars an hour. There are some churches in Japan where an assistant pastor performs weddings and gives the entire income to the church. In this sense, performing weddings can be seen to be a means of providing financial support to the ministry of the church. In Japan, where churches are very small and costs are very high, the Christian wedding boom may be the manna from heaven that struggling pastors have long prayed for.
In Japan, most weddings are performed on Saturdays and Sundays. The Sunday morning weddings, of course, come into conflict with most churches’ Sunday morning worship services. The question here is an obvious one. Should committed Christians be absent from Sunday morning worship services in order to perform wedding ceremonies? Despite the best of intentions, once in the wedding business, it is very difficult to avoid working on Sunday mornings. Statistics from my own church tell an all too familiar story. At different times over the past year, four church members have been involved in the wedding business (two as ministers and two as musicians). The average Sunday morning attendance for each of these four members, while involved in the wedding business, was at best twice a month.
What kind of message is this sending to the younger Christians in our congregations? It looks very much like these mature Christians are regularly skipping church in order to earn more money. We may call it ministry or wedding evangelism or whatever we like, but how will it be seen by those we are trying to disciple? How will it be interpreted by those who struggle to get out of bed on their one and only day off each week because we tell them that they really need to come to church regularly? To be blunt, it begins to look a little like hypocrisy.
There are a couple of ways to approach this problem. For churches with multiple services on a Sunday, assistant pastors and lay leaders can perform weddings in the morning and still attend at least one service each week. One church I know does not even have a morning service on Sunday. The main service begins at 3:30 in the afternoon, which allows both pastors to perform weddings on Sunday mornings. However, most Christians in Japan still see the Sunday morning service as the main worship service of the week, so this remains a serious issue that needs to be addressed by those involved in the wedding business.
But isn’t it better to be out evangelizing on Sunday morning? This question raises another important issue: Is performing weddings an effective form of evangelism? The two figures that I have heard quoted in support of wedding evangelism’s effectiveness are the number of new contacts made, and the number of New Testaments handed to newly wedded couples. Neither of these provides very convincing evidence of evangelistic effectiveness.
I can recall my own wedding day. I was very nervous and much of the day passed in a blur. No doubt, many Japanese couples have a similar experience. Are our words getting through? Do they remember the hymns and prayers? Do they ever actually read the Bible that we hand to them, or does it go into the cupboard with the wedding album and video?
My own personal experience in the Japanese wedding industry extended over a period of three years. In that time I met about two hundred couples and their families, gave each couple a Bible with my business card, and invited them to our church. Not one of those couples has ever visited our church, nor, to my knowledge, have any of them been saved.
These disappointing results were not for lack of effort. When my ministry partner and I started performing weddings in 1995, we saw ourselves as pioneers. Until that time weddings in our city were performed by a consortium of Japanese pastors or-as we were shocked to learn-by non-Christian wedding company employees who were hired to play the role of minister. Although I am sure there were missionaries already involved in the business in Tokyo and other larger cities by that time, it was entirely new to us.
Seeing it as an outreach opportunity, we made plans to maximize our effectiveness. To begin with, we convinced the owner of the business to purchase Bibles for the pews, and started monthly Bible lessons for the staff. We also decided to give a Bible to each married couple as a present, at our own expense. We arranged monthly pre-marriage counselling nights. Couples came to practice walking down the aisle, and while waiting their turn, we would have a twenty-minute counseling session with each of them. At Christmas we arranged an outreach service and, with the help of the wedding company’s promotional expertise, had two hundred people attend a Christmas service in the "church" in which they were married. We also performed, for a much lower fee, engagement ceremonies, special services to celebrate Children’s Day (a national holiday in Japan) and Valentines Day. Our objective throughout was to convert the initial contact into an ongoing relationship that would provide openings for sharing the Gospel. Despite our efforts, however, we saw very few encouraging results.
This can be contrasted with another common outreach strategy that I have also employed: private tutoring in my own home. Within a three-year period from the time they started, two of my students were saved and baptized and another started coming to church services regularly. A fourth student started coming to our youth group after about four years. When compared to the disappointing results from my experience with the wedding industry, these figures speak volumes. With regard to effectiveness, I personally have no doubt that my time is better spent meeting regularly with a few people in a private tutoring situation, than making many random contacts with people at the front of a wedding chapel. For this reason, more than any other, I chose to quit the wedding business.
I think there are several reasons for the poor evangelistic results I observed during my time in the wedding business. The most obvious one I have already mentioned-the day a person gets married is not the best time to try to raise his or her awareness of spiritual issues. Most couples are so worried about getting all the steps, turns and responses right, that they cannot concentrate on things of deeper significance. The congregation, having no responsibilities other than witnessing the event, may be more responsive. However, the minister has little or no direct contact with them, which makes follow-up very difficult.
A second obstacle to effectiveness is that our verbal and non-verbal messages are in conflict. Mainline Japanese religion operates on a needs basis. People don’t attend worship regularly, rather they go to the appropriate priest or temple when they have a specific need, such as for a funeral, a land-blessing, a car-blessing, good luck for an exam and so on. The Christian wedding industry fits into this paradigm so neatly, it is almost as if we are saying to the general population of Japan, "Don’t come to us until you are ready to get married." No matter how enthusiastically we may verbally invite couples to regular church services, the context of our interaction with them implies that the Christian church is a place to go only for weddings.
This communication problem is compounded when a foreigner who speaks very little Japanese performs the wedding ceremony. In what is becoming an increasingly common scenario, the minister reads or recites the lines of the ceremony in Japanese, but must use either a translator or very broken Japanese to talk with the participants. This obviously puts severe limits on personal communication with couples and their families either before or after the ceremony. It also presents a ritualistic image of Christian worship-the minister who does not speak Japanese recites a lengthy ceremony in formal Japanese, giving the impression that it is the recitation of the words, rather than the meaning behind those words that is important. This image of Christianity as ritualistic religion conflicts with the verbal message of Christianity as a living faith that evangelical Christians seek to present.
A third explanation for the poor evangelistic results from performing weddings rests upon an understanding of the Japanese conversion experience. The Japanese social network is made up of a loose configuration of small, closely-knit social groups. Most people who are a part of Japanese society are involved in several of these groups, but because of the intensity of commitment required, usually one of them claims primary allegiance. Becoming a Christian in Japan means more than simply deciding to follow Christ personally; it means changing allegiance to a new primary social group. For socially well-integrated people, this is not an easy step to take. Allegiance is not transferred to a new group without first becoming convinced that a deep relationship of trust can be developed with at least some members of that new group. Once-only contacts, which seem to be the norm in the wedding industry, may certainly provide a moving and memorable experience for many people. However, for effective evangelism, longer-term relationships need to be sought and developed.
IS IT WRONG TO PERFORM WEDDINGS?
The heart of this issue, I believe, lies in our answer to the question, "Why are we here?" If we are here to financially support the work of God, then despite all the reservations mentioned above, I think there are a lot worse ways for a Christian to earn money. Handing out Bibles and speaking to large groups of people about God’s love cannot be all bad.
However, many Christians performing weddings in Japan are here because they believe God has called them to reach out to the lost in this spiritually needy land. They have come as either career or tentmaking missionaries. If our purpose for being in Japan is to reach the lost, then the question must be asked, are people being saved or at least drawn closer to God through our wedding ceremonies? Unless we can answer that question with a decisive "yes" then perhaps it is time to reconsider our involvement in the wedding business. The time is short, and the task before us is immense. No matter how much money we may earn performing weddings, it cannot buy back the precious time that could otherwise have been spent reaching the lost for Christ.
1. The conversion into US dollars ($1=120 yen) does not take into account cost of living differences. However, the main objective here is to show comparative rates of income.
Warren Midgley has been a church-planting missionary to Japan since 1994. With a team of Christians, he helped plant Praise Community Church in Sendai City, northeastern Japan. He now ministers as pastor of that church. Warren is married and has two children.
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