How to Dress for Church

September 21, 2008

So how should we dress for church on Sunday morning? When I was growing up, the answer was easy.

Women wore dresses.
Men wore suits and ties.
Children dressed neatly.

Pretty simple. And it worked for a long time because the church reflected the norms of the surrounding culture. 

Now we have “business casual” and “dress-down Friday” and “wear whatever makes you feel comfortable.” If you work from home, you can wear your bathrobe while checking your email. My impression is that most churches have moved to fairly casual apparel. From my travels around the country, I’ve observed that younger congregations almost always favor casual dress. And the further the west you go, especially west of the Mississippi River, people tend to wear whatever they want to church.

Some churches make casual dress almost an article of faith. “Come as you are. God doesn’t care what you wear.” I’m sure that appeals to a certain segment of the population. I say that without irony because I’ve learned to always ask when I am speaking at a new church, “What should I wear?” I never like it if they say, “Wear whatever you want.” It’s hard enough preparing to preach without worrying about your appearance. As a guest speaker, I prefer to fit in as much as possible. I appreciated the pastor of a large church in Michigan who said, “Our speakers wear suits on Sunday morning.” Fine with me. And I’m fine with a church that says, “We prefer our ministers to dress casually,” as long as they explain what that means. 

I started thinking about this after reading two different articles on the subject:

Going to Church? Leave Flip-Flops at Home 
Wearing Your Sunday Best  

Like it or not, every church has a “dress code.” That is, every church has unwritten rules about what they expect from members and visitors. And sometimes that code varies between services—traditional more formal, contemporary more casual.

In general I disagree with people who say it doesn’t matter how you dress when you go to church. It matters because your dress says something about who you are, and how you dress impacts others around you. “Dressing down” to go to church may say something about your own expectations, and it may convey something to others as well.

Obviously there is no way to define appropriate dress for every church in every culture. But modesty (however defined) never goes out of style. I love this little vignette about Tony Campolo:

Sitting on a couch in the tabernacle’s modern vestibule, Campolo recalled the time a group of visiting teenagers from Canada showed up in T-shirts and jeans at the predominantly African-American Mount Carmel Baptist Church in West Philadelphia, where he worships.

“Well, the ushers turned them away,” Campolo continued, “and the kids got all mad. They said, ‘What, you don’t let poor people in your church?’

“And the ushers said, ‘Oh, we let poor people in. But you’re not poor. We’ll let you in when you come dressed with respect.’ “

Dress with respect. That’s a good rule to follow on Sunday morning. Respect for yourself. Respect for others. Respect for God.

My final thought is that churches could help people by addressing this more openly. I think there is value in occasionally saying, “This is what we expect.” There are social rules and there are moral rules. Since every church already has unwritten rules about what they expect, you might as well spell it out so that people aren’t mystified. It’s not a bad thing if you occasionally urge people to “dress with respect” when they come to church. What that means varies widely, and that’s why it would help everyone if we knew what to expect—and what was expected—when we decide what to wear on Sunday morning.

What do you think? Your comments are always welcome.

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