What Is the Unofficial Dress Code at Your Church? Does it Matter?

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This past Sunday, Easter Sunday, was the most dressed up that I've gotten for church in a long time. I wore a dress. I ironed my husband's shirt and put my two-year-old in a bow tie and navy pants. We made an effort and the term 'Sunday best' seemed to fit.  

This is not the norm. Most weeks I wear jeans and a sweater. In fact, the clothes I wear to church are often more casual than what I wear to work. 

But it was Easter Sunday. And I remember how carefully my mom choose elaborate dresses (often with big bows) for my sister and I to wear on Easter Sunday. We had white baskets and curls in our hair. And it felt special. In a way, these preparations helped get our hearts and minds ready for a big celebration.

As I was thinking about this over the weekend, I began to wonder: Are we missing out on something by becoming more and more casual in what we wear to church? Is there a heart and mind preparation that takes place when we make an extra effort? Or, on the flip side, are we able to be more authentic and more welcoming by placing less of an emphasis on 'church clothes' so to speak? 

I'd love to hear your thoughts. 

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Community Builder

I go careening all over the place with this issue, because my husband and I are definitely "church clothes" kind of people. We tucked in shirts on our four sons and did ties and suspenders for special days (like Easter). And . . . as soon as our guys graduate from high school, they are positively thrilled to start wearing jeans to church. I am studiously keeping my mouth shut because, so far, each one has continued in their faithfulness to church attendance, even when they have been attending college away from home. At this point, I'm thankful they are committed to being there, so I smile on "bad in plaid" Sundays when it happens that everyone is home that week, and they all message each other and show up in flannel shirts.  

I do think that we're missing something by not showing up in our "best" for worship. There's a great verse somewhere in the minor prophets in which God is chiding Israel for offering Him less respect than they would show their king. As a culture, we do still have a sense that there are certain occasions for which we will make the effort to dress more formally. It saddens me that worship is not one of them.

 A wise man once told me: "Every form is an art form, and every art form has a message."  I don't know if that statement is attributable to someone other than him, but it matters me not. 

I think there are dual dangers in the "church clothing" conversation: First, to assume (and act as if) clothing says/means nothing; and second, to assume (and act as if) clothing says/means everything. 

The challenge for me, personally, has been to care much about how I approach worship (including clothing choices) without thinking I can quickly judge or reach conclusions about others based on how they dress. 

I think it is the wrong approach to allow culture to dictate how we approach worship.  So, I never concern myself that my attire will drive away a seeker.  There is no compelling reason for me to believe that a church visitor who is loved by those he/she encounters will be scared by attire.  They will, however, quite quickly pick up an attitude of dismissiveness or indifference based on appearance.  If I had to chose between children who dressed to the nines but grew up to disdain others who did not, and children who demonstrated little concern for attire but poured themselves out in love for others, I'd chose the latter any day (in I Cor. 13 fashion).  But, of course, we need not pretend that these are the only two choices.  It was always my hope with my children that I could convey a sense of awe and honor in worship that would lead them to understand that it does matter how they approach worship, including clothing choices.  At the same time, I hoped to instill a mentality that also was slow to judge others for different choices and quick to demonstrate the love of God despite appearances.  I'm sure my own careless comments or actions have at times undercut my best intentions. 

I think our churches can and should be places where we strive to be very intentional and honoring in how we approach God, while not succumbing to the temptation to give a honored place to those who present the best or judging with unrighteous judgment those who do not meet some standard of neatness or propriety.

Community Builder

Yes, to your nothing/everything clarification. 

In the past we fell off the everything side of the horse, and maybe today we're falling off the nothing side.

Also, your thinking about awe and honor without judging others is so spot on, especially in light of James 2.

Community Builder

 In our congregation, which is definitely a suburban one, the people who wear jeans to church don't do so because they can't afford "Sunday clothes" but because it doesn't matter to them.  They wear suits and ties all week for work and see Sunday as a day when they can.relax and wear jeans.  We used to have a member who was poor but didn't wear jeans, but she has since gone to be with the Lord, and now we have other people who are also poor, but who wear their Sunday best to church.  I think that choosing to wear jeans to church is more a matter of culture than financial means. 

To be "more authentic and more welcoming" to me has everything to do with the attitude of our hearts and how we approach people, and has little to nothing to do with attire.  I see nothing "inauthentic" about a well-coiffed individual, unless they are projecting an air of "having it all together" while demonstrating a lack of love for others.  I've also met plenty of poorly dressed people who were extremely unwelcoming.  The old song says "They will know we are Christians by our love" (as does John 13:35).

Profound opening statement!  

This is what we wrote on our website in our Q&A section about church dress: "The dress here is diverse. Some people wear business or business casual (like khakis and button downs) while others wear jeans. You should wear what you are comfortable wearing and think is appropriate for worship."

On a personal note, growing up there was a growing emphasis that you didn't have to dress up for church. I think it stemmed from the idea that not everyone has or is comfortable in dressy clothes and it becomes a barrier from entering church.

Participant

OK, I struggle with this. I'm someone who does dress up a bit for church, and who mentally sighs at casual clothing. But then again, I'm old, so a lot of this is sort of a legacy standard on my side. That said, I think there are two doors to the topic.

First is what clothing means at a personal level. What we choose to wear conveys who we identify with, how we see ourselves, and even something about our status. From a missional stance, how folks wear clothes in a congregation will communicate directly whether one might belong or not; gaps open or close. And it's not just the fancy clothing -- the brands, the shoes, the haircuts can all speak of a social location. I don't know that there is any way around this, other than being mindful of what one chooses. If I know what I've chosen then i am able to engage the other, put them at ease, sense the cultural speed bumps etc. So mindfulness about clothing can make me mindful about outreach, too.

The second door is that of worship. What dress seems appropriate depends on what we understand to be happening in worship. How do I participate? How passive am I? How active? The more I understand myself as a participant then the more I want to be deliberate about the clothing choices. My clothing at the least should not distract others. At a personal level, I have found that I get less work done if I'm dressed casual; a certain professional attire helps me concentrate, and the same goes for church.

 

 

My intention was to go to  church last Sunday. I would have worn my lined jeans, quilted shirt and my hoodie. But cough, fatigue and mind fog were bad so I stayed home as usual. Had both of us been up to trying to go to church getting dressed in fancy clothes would have beyond us. When I was in university starting in 1959 I often stayed in my room on Sunday am. I only  owned one suit and it was almost always at my parents home. 

Dawit

I grew up in the Episcopal church in my hometown of Stroudsburg Pennsylvania. That was a "dress shirt and tie" kind of church and the pastor always wore vestments. I found that very stuffy and decided that IF I ever went back to church, it wouldn't be like that. Well, I spent 23 years in the military and rarely set foot in a church until I met my wife. I began attending Paw Paw CRC in Paw Paw, MI and it was much more relaxed, although the pastors always wore ties.  Unfortunately, Paw Paw CRC closed its doors in June 2008, and from those ashes rose RedArrow Ministries in the same location in November of the same year. Dress code is jeans. I rarely will wear a t-shirt, but it is super casual. The pastor wears jeans, a button-down shirt, and Vans.  I sincerely believe this casual philosophy is the reason our congregation has tripled and we have attracted so many young families.

Everyone has their own comfort zone and not every church is for everyone. Some folks from Paw Paw CRC came to RedArrow when it first opened and were disappointed. That's OK. They have all found a place to worship where they are comfortable and I honestly believe singing our Savior's praises and praying have absolutely nothing to do with the clothes you are wearing.

Why dress up for a wedding and not for a church service?

I agree wholeheartedly!  The Church is the Bride of Christ, Whom we gather to worship. 

Community Builder

There is too much casualness. 

Community Builder

This is a great discussion. Up front I'll say that my church is mostly of the 'get dressed up for church' mindset. There is freedom however, to come in jeans or casually dressed which I occasionally do. There is so much more to it than that, though, and I'm appreciating this discussion. If we get dressed up to hide our vulnerability or to make ourselves feel good, then it's wrong. For several years my family sat in the balcony of the church we attended, and let me say that if (when) you are going through a season of suffering or struggle, watching everyone come into church all dressed up, smiles on their faces, and looking 'perfect' makes you feel like maybe you don't belong here. And in reality, that's exactly the opposite of what we want to say as Christians - that none of us have earned the right to be there - we are all broken and in need of grace, forgiveness, and healing. So I agree with several already in this discussion, and would say that heart attitude is far more important than outward appearance.

I remember a situation that happened with a person we'd been inviting to church for a long time but she had never accepted our invitation (she did not go to any church). One warm Sunday morning we'd extended another invitation because my daughter was doing a liturgical dance to The Lord's Prayer - and this person showed up in hot pants and high heels, probably what she thought was the nicest thing in her closet for a warm day. It was surprising on several levels, but we were so delighted to see her there, that we did everything we could to make her feel welcome. It was so much more than outward appearances that day. It was all about caring for her, asking God to touch her heart and soul in places that we couldn't reach, and trusting that the Holy Spirit would speak to her what she needed that day.

I wonder what kind of new 'clothes' we'll wear when we worship eternally in heaven? (fun to think about).

 

Community Builder

 I've been through hard times when I was so depressed as to be suicidal, but other people being all dressed up didn't make me feel as though I didn't belong.  Maybe because i like to dress up even to go shopping.  Anyway, eventually, I realized that I felt better emotionally when I wore make-up than when I didn't.  For me it's a matter of psychological hygiene, so I put it on.  

We shouldn't assume that dressing up necessarily makes people feel excluded.  It depends on their mindset.  My sister is a lot more grunge than me, but she doesn't go to church, so that wouldn't make her feel excluded per se.  She is used to seeing me wear dresses or skirts and blouses on weekdays as well as Sundays--that's who I am.

I personally grew up with getting "dressed up" when going to church...wearing our "Sunday best" as it were. I still try to do that for the most part...however, I would definitely not be concerned about what others are wearing or want them to feel unwelcome because of what they are wearing.

That being said, sometimes a congregation as a whole, when everyone seems to be dressed up, can cause newcomers to feel uncomfortable or even as "not acceptable" as a result.

I made a error in judgment a quite number of years ago, when I expressed my opinion about wearing sneakers rather than dress shoes to church, not thinking that there are people who simply cannot afford "Sunday Best" shoes and clothing. I have never forgotten that lesson, and will hopefully not make that mistake in other areas as well. Rather than judging and making assumptions based on outward appearance, but instead accepting and loving others as they are the way Jesus would have. 

It seems to me that this discussion is closely tied to the tension of immanence and transcendence.  God's immanence leads us to a sincere and close relationship with a God for whom there is no pretense, no pretending.  If we prize our clothes and outward presentation, we may miss real intimate communing with God.  God's transcendence leads us to a proper sense of awe, creaturely unworthiness, and honor.  If we feel like it is appropriate to approach God with no sense of propriety whatsoever, we do not honor his holiness.  We know full well in other areas of life that simply showing up is not enough.  We honor a wedding couple by wearing clothes appropriate for the celebration.  We honor dignitaries by presenting ourselves with propriety.  Scripture teaches us both that God is near, familiar, and intimate as well as God being high and lofty, worthy of great honor, and due only the best we have to offer.

Community Builder

 I think we're becoming a bit TOO casual.  There was a time--pobably when there were more members of the older generation from Holland in our congregation who have since moved either westward or heavenward in our midst--when people dressed up more to go to church.  I still do, but then I'm not the grunge type anyway.  But I see more and more blue jeans and I don't like it.  Can't people make the effort to at least wear a nice pair of pants to honor God?

Community Builder

25 years ago we were part of a church in which one of the deacons made a point of wearing his suit and tie once a month, scruffy clothes once a month, and kahki's and a polo shirt twice a month.  His response to the church folks who complained (of the scruffy or the white-shirt days) was that he was consciously working to make the church comfortable for whoever dropped in.  I was impressed.  On a practical level, I appreciate it when churches tell you on their website what their dominant "dress code" is.  When we travel and visit churches, I always look for this.  One feels pretty weird showing up in a strange church if you are the only one in a dress or the only one in blue jeans!

Community Builder

I have wondered about this, too, and I am glad others have weighed in.

One time not too long ago, a younger family member (I am 61, she is in her 30's) remarked that she does not "dress up" the way that the women in our church do. I am not positive if she meant that as a reason she felt uncomfortable or not, but she does come to the church often, so I hope not.

My perception is that most of the women at the church -- and myself -- dress the same way for church as they do at work. I guess you might call it business casual but I actually wear jeans to work every day, and tennis shoes, although other women dress up more and some less. Same with church - I wear jeans and tennis shoes there, too, and some dress up more, some less. I kind of feel, at least here in California, that pretty much anything goes. I myself don't wear t-shirts to church (or work) so I guess there is that distinction.

The men at my church don't wear suits (ties and jackets) but once in a while someone will, or maybe put on a jacket or something (ties are pretty much only at funerals and weddings now). With men, too, it seems like they're pretty casual and as far as the "t-shirt distinction" I don't think they even have that -- very frequently they wear t-shirts.

As others have touched on, I wonder how much it matters what the minister wears. Do visitors/people take what he/she wears as a kind of metric for what is acceptable?

Participant

I usually wore a suit when teaching at the college where I was on the faculty, too, unless it was a day when I needed a T-shirt to make a point in geology class (such as one with two hands pushing North America and the continents of Europe and Africa together with the label "Reunite Gondwanaland!"). How could I not then wear one to church?

After retirement I became more casual, but sometimes thought I should dress as well for church as I did for weddings and funerals. However, after a heart attack and stent emplacement I needed to carry a supplemental card wallet. There wasn't room in the wallet in my back pocket for the stent cards (for EMS) and other medical care cards, soon joined by my Red Cross blood donor card, library cards, frequent diner cards, etc. That got me back to wearing a suit or sport coat because I needed pockets. I was wearing cargo pants or shorts the rest of the week and using most of the pockets.

Joining the local senior men's club with bimonthly luncheons with "jackets suggested" reinforced the decision to wear a jacket to church.  Should I dress less for the Lord than I do for my senior friends?

I was now one of only a few in church with jacket and tie. The deacons sometimes wore jeans, or even shorts on hot days, to take the offering, and the pastor had taken to an open collar. I guess this was to make new members and visitors feel more comfortable if they were more casually attired. I found myself explaining, perhaps not quite truthfully, that I wore a jacket only for the pockets.

Perhaps I will ditch the jacket or suit and get one of those vests with pockets for everything. I really can't expect my wife to carry my stuff in her purse. Besides, I would worry that a cell phone might get against a card with a magnetic strip and cancel it.
Sometimes it's difficult to know right from wrong, and what is the right thing to do! Maybe we will soon have another denominational office to give us guidance on this.