Sarah and Luke Lillard met in 2008 as college freshman. They began dating in 2009, got engaged last July and said "I do" on May 4. Almost immediately after they announced their engagement, the couple wrote down wedding goals to help them plan the day they believed their wedding should be.
The Lillards wanted their union to be a genuine celebration rather than a big production. They wanted their wedding day to be representative of them and not unique for the sake of being different. But most importantly, they wanted their wedding to defy the current trend that defines the formal event as the final step in married life. Their special day would emphasize the beginning of their life together. For the Lillards, the "movie was not going to cut out after the reception."
Today's weddings are big productions, a trend that includes everything from exorbitant wedding budgets to fantastical themes and locations. Some pay more attention to the décor, spending extra dollars on the right color ribbons, the perfect genus of flower or the most magical lighting scheme. Some focus on the perfect dress, shelling out thousands of dollars on designer bridal gowns, while others ground their budgets in gourmet meals, top shelf champagne and multiple wedding cakes.
No matter where the excess shows up, many of today's weddings have become more about impressing guests and making sure the event happens according to plan rather than the true celebration of a lifelong commitment. Christian wedding professionals say the focus on the externals reflects the dwindling view of marriage as a sacred spiritual bond.
Amy Hayes, Christian wedding planner and author of Christian wedding guide All Things Ready, sees the big-production trend as "more of a desire to celebrate and have a huge feast." The norm in the 1980s and 1990s was a reception with cake and punch, Hayes said. Now most weddings include a sit-down dinner or a large buffet followed by dancing - features that can get expensive.
In March, Business Wire reported the average wedding budget in 2011 grew for the first time since 2008, reaching $27,021. The statistic was part of TheKnot.com's annual Real Weddings Survey, which compiled responses from nearly 20,000 U.S. couples married in 2011. The survey discovered that one in five U.S. couples spent more than $30,000 on their weddings, and 11 percent spent more than $40,000.
"Our research shows that couples and their families are less concerned with the economy and are increasingly comfortable investing more in the once-in-a-lifetime occasion of their wedding," TheKnot.com cofounder Carley Roney told Business Wire.
Weddings in 2011 also saw a spike in the percentage of destination weddings and luxury weddings - those costing an average of $100,000, 74 percent of which are three-or-more day events.
Bonnie Luther, co-founder of the Christian Wedding Planning Center in Orange County, Calif., has seen a trend toward less traditional weddings develop over time. She began as a wedding photographer in the 1970s and gradually moved into full-time wedding planning with her husband, Gary. Together they have planned thousands of weddings.
Thirty years ago, it was the exception to have a garden or beach wedding or one in a winery or on a boat, Luther said. But today many weddings take place in unusual locations, some simply for the sake of being different or unique. Luther even planned one wedding in an airplane. Fewer weddings are in a church or chapel because fewer people are oriented with the church, she said.
Locations aren't the only way to spin a non-traditional twist. The most popular wedding month in 2011 shifted from June to September, according to TheKnot.com's survey, because couples wanted unique wedding dates, like 9-10-11 or 11-11-11. Weddings also are becoming increasingly casual and more interactive, with 22 percent of brides incorporating custom guest entertainment, like photo booths or comedians.
The Lillards got married in their early twenties, but on average, brides and grooms wait until their late twenties or early thirties to marry, according to TheKnot.com's survey. While many are waiting to commit to marriage, they aren't waiting to live married life.
Even among her Christian clientele, Luther sees an increase in couples living together and starting families before they marry and a decrease in couples who concentrate on the spiritual value of their wedding.
The shift stems from a loss of the value of a vow, Hayes said. Because a marriage vow can be broken with very little trouble, the marriage is not taken seriously and so the wedding is not taken seriously either.
"For those couples, the wedding is more about 'oh this is just us expressing our love to one another' so they get married jumping out of a plane or they get married in Vegas or plan a wedding with a crazy theme or destination," Hayes said.
The difference between a God-centered wedding and a secular wedding is a sense of gratitude and Christian rejoicing, Hayes said: "We're not just rejoicing, we're rejoicing before the Lord in what He has done to bring two people together."
For the Lillards, personalizing their wedding was as simple as using the small, local Mexican restaurant that they visited almost weekly for the last three years as their caterer. They served Moonpies instead of a wedding cake, a favorite treat for them both. And Luke's band, Brock's Folly, played music during the ceremony and reception. The whole thing only cost them $4,000.
After hundreds of hours writing 135 letters to each of their wedding guests, the Lillards walked down the aisle. Their letters gave personalized appreciation for the way each guest had supported their relationship. The communion they took together signified Christ and His promise as the center of their marriage. Their vows represented the life-long bond they now share.
"I didn't want to spend a year planning a $45,000 wedding, wake up the next morning and feel a sense of loss," Sarah said. "We wanted the focus to be on what Luke and I had. We wanted to acknowledge the fact that this was really the beginning of the rest of our lives, not the end."