Interestingly, on the same day in which there was an extensive discussion in an online professional networking community of which I am a member regarding the manner in which so many Christians dress today for church or chapel, I also stumbled upon, quite by accident, an article on CNN from this past April entitled “Stop dressing so tacky for church.” The article, by John Blake and appearing on CNN’s Belief Blog, includes a picture to lead the article with the caption “Remember when people used to dress up for church? Casual Friday has now morphed into Sloppy Sabbath.”
Blake introduces his readers to Rev. John DeBonville, rector at the Church of the Good Shepard in Massachusetts, who has a real concern about the overly casual approach being taken by so many today when it comes to church attire. “It’s like some people decided to stop mowing the lawn and then decided to come to church,” he said. “No one dresses up for church anymore.” Blake’s description of the matter goes like this: “They saunter into church in baggy shorts, flip-flop sandals, tennis shoes and grubby T-shirts. Some even slide into the pews carrying coffee in plastic foam containers as if they’re going to Starbucks.”
This is all part of Blake’s introduction, designed to set the stage for the question of what really is appropriate to wear to church, or does it even matter? “The answers to these questions are not as easy as they may seem. The Bible sends mixed messages about the concept of wearing your Sunday best. And when pastors, parishioners and religious scholars were asked the same questions, they couldn’t agree, either,” Blake writes. Where they did find agreement, though, was in the fact that American culture has become more comfortable with sloppy dress in just about every area of life, from the workplace to the grocery store.
Blake allows Jennifer Fulwiler to introduce one reason for this change, one that I find entirely convincing. Reflecting on the fact that her great-grandfather would put on a coat and tie to go to the grocery store and that her grandparents–and many of their generation–would wear their very best clothes to fly on an airplane, Fulwiler comments, “We dress up for what we’re grateful for. We’re such a wealthy, spoiled culture that we feel like we have a right to fly on airplanes.” This mind shift has carried over into church: “Church is like air travel now – it’s no longer a big deal because people have lost their sense of awe before God.” Fulwiler offers the same approach I have used when having this conversation; if someone were invited to meet the Queen of England (her example), it is highly unlikely they would show up in jeans and a T-shirt. Several years ago there was a mild uproar over the fact that some college athletes had attended their meeting with the President of the United States wearing flip-flops for the same reason.
Yet, Blake writes, the idea that the importance one attaches to an occasion is reflected in his or her wardrobe choice is an idea that is “hopelessly old school” in many places in the United States, including many megachurches. Interestingly, though, Blake–whether intentionally or not–proceeds to provide a reason for that that supports the point Fulwiler is making above. “[M]any of the popular megachurch pastors are middle-aged men who bound onto the stage each Sunday dressed in skinny jeans, untucked Banana Republic shirts, and backed by in-house Christian rock bands,” he writes. “They’ve perfected a ‘seeker-friendly’ approach to church that gets rid of the old formal worship style with its stuffy dress codes.” In other words, those who recognize the importance, significance and meaning for coming into the House of the Lord to worship Him have consciously decided to “dress down” so that those who do not recognize that will not fell uncomfortable. I am wholeheartedly opposed to the notion–once common in some churches–that individuals who do not arrive at church dressed in “Sunday best” should be turned away, shunned or chastised in any way. Ones attire cannot be permitted to become a stumbling block that would prevent that person from coming to know the truth of the gospel or the love of God.
Blake next turns back to the other side of the argument, quoting Constance M. Cherry, “an international lecturer on worship and a hymn writer.” She says, “Many young people and boomers judge the value of worship service based on personal satisfaction. If I get to wear flip-flops to Wal-Mart, then I get to wear flip-flops to church. If I get to carry coffee to work, I get to carry coffee to church. They’re being told that come as you are means that God wants you to be comfortable.” Therein lies the real heart of the matter, I believe; a worship service is not about “personal satisfaction.” It is also not about what anyone is wearing, of course, but the external reflects the internal, and those who approach church attendance with a casual “whatever works for me” attitude are quite possible going to approach the Bible and their relationship with God with the same attitude.
Much to my satisfaction, Blake includes in his article this statement regarding the notion that “God wants you to be comfortable”: “The Bible says that’s not true – people had to prepare themselves internally and externally for worship.” Citing Cherry again, Blake points out that in the Old Testament Jews had to be ceremonially clean before entering the temple and that both the Old and New Testaments teach that God should not be approached casually.
Blake also cites Carl Raschke, though, a professor at the University of Denver, who says that the early church did adopt a come-as-you-are approach to attend church and who points to Mark 12:38 where Jesus reproached the Pharisees for their fine clothes. The reality, though, is that Jesus was not mocking or criticizing the Pharisees’ attire. Rather, He was chastising them for focusing so much on the external and ignoring the internal. The Pharisees were masters of looking good without actually being good or doing good. They were all about the show, all about appearing impressive and above others. Jesus took them to task for that and He would do the same today if someone were to show up in church dressed to the nines but completely focused on themselves and impressing others.
Blake points out that others who espouse the come-as-you-are approach to worship point to James 2 in which James instructs the first century church not to show favoritism to those who are well-dressed, giving them preferential treatment over those who are poor or poorly dressed. Again though, James was not condemning dressing up for church; his letter cannot be interpreted to mean that God does not want us to dress well when we gather to worship Him when we are able to do so. Rather, James was condemning the practice of treating those who were well-dressed in a better or preferential manner out of a desire to impress and please the wealthy attendees. There is absolutely no place in Christianity for treating anyone different based solely on their clothing.
Therein lies the root of the issue. What anyone wears to church is not about, should not be about, what anyone else thinks. I dress up for church every Sunday. The only nod I have made to being more casual is that I seldom wear a suit jacket anymore, but it’s always dress pants, dress shirt and tie for me. I am in a very small minority in my church that dresses that way–it is not even unusual for me to be better dressed than the pastor. I often speak in other churches, and it is the exception rather than the rule for there to be anyone else in those churches wearing a tie when I am there. I do not think those in jeans and t-shirts or in khakis and polo shirts are any less holy than me or that I am any more mature in my faith than they are simply because of the difference in our dress, and I certainly hope others do not think I think that or think that I am in any way better because of my attire. I dress up to go to church because I think it’s the right thing to do. If I can wear a tie to work every day there is absolutely no reason I cannot and should not wear one to church. If I will put on my best to attend a wedding or a funeral there is absolutely no reason I should not put on my best to worship Almighty God.
The bottom line is this–I do not think that one’s attire has anything to do with their ability to worship God and I certainly do not think any church should have a dress code. I am sure that there are Sundays when those in t-shirts are more in tune with the Lord or receive more from the service than I do in my tie. So please do not interpret anything I am saying here to mean that I think you better get your act together and start dressing for church. What I do think is that you should take time to ask yourself why you dress the way you do when you go to church. If you dress up, is it because you are doing so as an act of worship and as a reflection of your attitude toward the Lord, or is it so that you can impress others? If you dress casually, is it so that you can be comfortable or because you don’t think God cares what you wear anyway, or is it because church is just one more place to go, no different than any other activity?
I’m not judging you and I hope you’re not judging me…but we should all take the time to judge ourselves and take a look at why we dress the way we do. God doesn’t really care about the clothes themselves, but He does care about the why.