I’ve always been curious about wedding chapels in Las Vegas. There are over 100 wedding chapels there, including three where you don't even have to get out of your car. Yes, you can actually get a drive-thru wedding in Las Vegas.
Recently I had the opportunity to satisfy my curiosity when I was in Las Vegas for the national BlogWorld convention. Driving up Las Vegas Boulevard (The Strip) from the airport, within 15 seconds of passing the iconic "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign I saw my first chapel: the Little Church of the West, which opened in 1942 and has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1992. Famous marriage ceremonies conducted there include one of Zsa Zsa Gabor's nine, one of Mickey Rooney's eight, one of Gregg Allman's six, one of Judy Garland's five … Well, you get the point.
That’s what comes to mind when I think about marriage chapels in Vegas—big on ceremony, small on commitment. But then I interviewed a couple who had just gotten married at the Little Church of the West, and I saw a slightly different picture.
Michael and Lindsey had known each other for more than four years. Rather than sink a ton of money and planning into a big wedding like their friends back in Dallas tend to do, they decided to go simple on the ceremony and save their money for the honeymoon right there in Las Vegas. While I think their decision to not have friends and family there to witness the blessed event wasn’t the best idea, I sure couldn't argue with avoiding debt for a three-hour wedding and reception. Turns out the average cost for a wedding in their suburb of Mansfield, Tex., is between $27,000 and $45,000, not counting the engagement ring or honeymoon.
Back in the car, I continued driving The Strip. It seemed I never had to go more than a few blocks before finding another wedding chapel. On just one side of the road I photographed 10 of them, and I wasn't looking very hard.
These chapels run the gamut from the ridiculous to the sublime. Each one seems to fit a niche market:
You've got your cowboy weddings, Star Trek weddings, military weddings, and of course your Elvis weddings, officiated by an authentic impersonator. Then there’s the more traditional fare like garden weddings, weddings by candlelight, and scenic outdoor weddings.
These weddings are going on non-stop in Vegas. In my short afternoon drive up The Strip, I witnessed no fewer than seven couples either in the middle of a ceremony, or just walking out of a chapel after getting married. Since Nevada law requires no blood test, waiting period or residency requirement, all it takes is $55 cash and proof of residency (anywhere) to obtain a license. Oh, and the Clark County Courthouse is open until midnight every night, including holidays. The cost of the ceremony is up to you.
As I made my pilgrimage northward, I came to a fork in the road where a palm-tree lined boulevard headed left toward downtown. It was so picturesque that I almost missed what was on the right. Emblazoned across the side of the white art deco building, it jumped out at me: "Say I Do" Wedding Drive-Thru.
How could I pass this one up?
As it turns out, yes, people can get hitched without leaving the comfort of their car (or motorcycle, or RV, or 18-wheeler). As long as they have a county wedding license, it works the same as any "traditional" Vegas chapel wedding.
The director there, Pastor Charles, was kind enough to sit down with me and answer my endless questions. As it turned out, what I learned about this particular place busted some of the myths I held about the whole Vegas chapel culture.
First, the director was a bona fide pastor. And there were also other clergy on staff. Second, he counsels couples before he marries them. Third, Pastor Charles had never married anyone who had been together less than two months, nor had he married anyone who was drunk. The vast majority of couples were from somewhere besides Las Vegas, including a huge number from other countries. In fact, when I first walked in, he was talking with a couple from China he had just married.
But what surprised me most was learning that the “Say I Do” Wedding Drive-Thru follows up with every couple. Within a few weeks the newlyweds receive a call thanking them for choosing the chapel and asking how they're doing. The staff tries to keep up with couples for a year or two.
Another thing that made this chapel different? Pastor Charles doesn’t buy into local conventional wisdom that couples today don't really want a religious ceremony. "They really do want it,” he says. “They may want it quicker than they could get at a church, but they still want it. And we realize that this is what's going to keep their marriage together."
At the end of our conversation I told him I worked with FamilyLife, and that we hold Weekend to Remember® marriage conferences across the nation every year. Any U.S. couple he marries is within driving distance of one, I said. At that point, he asked for as many conference brochures as I wanted to send him; he wanted to make them available to couples who came in to be married.
As I have reflected on our conversation, I wonder if there is really much difference between the weddings at Las Vegas chapels and those that occur every week in many churches across America.
It’s as if a drive-thru mentality for weddings and marriages pervades our culture.
Most couples invest huge amounts of time and money on the ceremony and reception, but little on the actual marriage. According to the 2005 National Survey on Marriage, only one-third of all couples receive premarital counseling, even though about three-fourths of first marriages are performed in a church. It's not that these couples don't want to prepare better. In that same 2005 study, 88 percent of respondents said couples should get premarital counseling, and nearly half said it should be required.
And Christian couples certainly need the help in their marriages. In possibly the largest survey of its kind—the Family Needs Survey—FamilyLife polled 90,000 individuals in churches. Surprisingly, only 57 percent of respondents reported having happy, healthy, satisfying marital relationships.
This sets up a tremendous challenge for the local church.
Style over substance may be fine for a Las Vegas chapel. For followers of Christ, it’s not. We need to move beyond the drive-thru mentality.
God tells us in His Word that the marriage relationship is to reflect Christ and His relationship to His church. In a culture that is obviously wearying of so many cheap imitations that call themselves marriages, Christians individually and churches collectively need to display a picture of what marriage is really meant to be.
Whether a couple is married in a church or a drive-thru chapel, after the "I Do," one is just as married as the other. At that point, it's all about the relationship and moving together toward oneness. Marriage requires a huge investment of time and patience in each other to grow toward oneness, which keeps a marriage strong.
We have the opportunity to teach couples how to make that work … and avoid the drive-thru marriage.
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