As participation in faith groups has declined among young Americans, so has the number of people getting married in churches and other houses of worship. According to research by the wedding website The Knot, in 2012, 35% of couples surveyed held their weddings at a church or other religious site. That number fell to 17% in 2022.

Religious venues are so irrelevant to couples getting married today that in The Knot’s report on weddings in 2022, they weren’t even included on the summary chart of the most popular places to get married, which include banquet halls and barns.

With secular wedding venues came the need for secular officiants. These have expanded beyond justices of the peace and mail-order ministers to where “just about anybody” can perform a wedding, according to one such officiant, writing for The Conversation. This is certainly true in Massachusetts, where any resident over the age of 18 can apply for a one-day certification to perform a marriage, and in a handful of states where “self-solemnization” is a thing.

“Self-solemnization” is exactly what it sounds like — essentially, the bride and groom marry themselves. But these events seems to lack an essential thing that a lifelong commitment to another person should demand: a modicum of solemnity amid all the celebration. And there is a slippery slope evident here. In self-solemnized ceremonies, cats are being designated official witnesses, and dogs are “signing” the marriage certificate.

You can be crazy about animals (as I am) but still worry (as I do) that perhaps we’re starting to take marriage ceremonies a little too lightly.

The amount of money spent on weddings, however, suggests not. The average cost of a wedding in 2023 was just under $30,000, according to Brides magazine, with weddings in big cities costing thousands more. A big part of this cost is the venue. Event planner Dana Allison told Brides, “these days, you should expect to pay $10K (when you) walk in the door with the venue as is.”

Well, that’s one quantifiable cost of the decline of religious participation in the U.S., given that in many churches in the U.S., it’s free for church members to get married there.

People who get married in churches usually make a donation to the church, and an honorarium is expected for clergy, but that still will cost substantially less than $10,000. In fact, as a marriage-planning website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops points out, the Catholic Church “makes clear that the First Commandment forbids simony, which is the buying and selling of sacred things.”

That description of marriage — as something sacred — is what is missing in the secular Instagrammable weddings that so many modern couples seem to prefer. Without ecclesiastical requirements — a waiting period or pastoral counseling chief among them — secular weddings can devolve into parties that are planned months or even years in advance, the actual ceremony and vows taken from the internet the night before.

Advice for officiants on The Knot’s website includes “inquire about the dress code,” “write the actual ceremony” and “arrive early.” As undemanding as that is, it’s fairly complex compared to drive-through weddings, where couples don’t have to bother to get out their cars.

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To be fair, many weddings that are held in secular venues still have religious themes, at least for a few moments. The Knot’s survey of weddings in 2022 found that slightly under half of couples said they had religious ceremonies; for many, this meant religious readings.

And, of course, many marriages that begin in elaborate religious rituals end in divorce; Diana Spencer and Prince Charles were married in one of London’s grandest cathedrals. Simply being married in a church as a visitor does not convey any protection of the marital bond like deeply held religious faith does. Researchers Lyman Stone and Brad Wilcox have examined why religious people are less likely to divorce even though they are more likely to marry young. The reasons are complex, and include the fact that religious women are less likely to live with their partners before marriage, and after marriage, the couple has the support of their faith community.

That’s an argument for faith, and for being part of an organized religious community, not an argument for getting married in a church or temple. But there is one, and I thought of it recently when speaking with Ryan Burge, a leading researcher on the decline of religious participation.

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I’d asked about the characteristics of churches that are and aren’t in decline, and Burge said that nondenominational churches have “lots of churn” because they have low barriers for entry. “That’s good to bring new people in,” he said, “but I would say that churches need to think about how tall their walls are. If you make them too short, it’s easy to get in, but it’s easy to get out. If you make them really tall, it’s hard to get in, but impossible to get out.”

That seems true for getting married, too. Maybe engaged couples would benefit from taller walls that slow the journey to “I do” and make it a more serious endeavor. That dog who stood by so loyally at the self-solemnized ceremony doesn’t really have an investment in the union, so long as he continues to get fed. A pastor or rabbi who marries a couple, however, has a stake in how things turn out, as do the people who stand beside the couple at the ceremony. And perhaps where we get married does matter. Sacred things tend to be housed in sacred places.

Given the number of young people, especially women, who are choosing not to get married these days, we certainly don’t want to make it too hard to get married; statistically speaking, a barn wedding performed by your uncle is still better than cohabitation. In fact, one writer for The Free Press recently urged young Americans to “stop swiping, start settling.”

But when the bars for getting married are so low that “just about anyone” can perform a wedding, including the bride and groom themselves, perhaps couples need to think about raising those bars for themselves. Joining a faith community is a great way to start.

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