Monday, April 14, 2014

Does Jesus Have a Dress Code?

I am a fairly new Christian. If you had told me fifteen years ago that I would profess faith in God at all, let alone be an active church member who values my personal relationship with Christ, I would have told you that you must have the wrong person. After all, I was the one who wrote a three-page letter (front and back) when I was eighteen to an ex-boyfriend detailing all the ills that God and religion had caused throughout history after he invited me to learn about Jesus Christ in a birthday card. But, through a series of relationships and reading and examples set by men and women who live their faith beautifully every day and experiences that are very personal and sacred to me, my life changed.

Now, I guess, I find myself in the toddler stage of my faith. Which means, like any two-year-old, I am asking "Why?" a lot. (OK, truth be told, I've always asked that question frequently and will continue to do so, whether about matters of faith or family or politics or how cars work. I think it's a wonderful question and I want my kids to ask it often regarding their own experiences at church.)

One of the questions that has been running through my mind quite a bit recently, perhaps due to all of the ads for Easter dresses, is this: Why do we dress up for church?

I've engaged every member of my office in this discussion (I'm fortunate to work with people who love such conversations as much as I do), read about a dozen articles from different perspectives, and looked to Scripture for answers. I wanted to know if the inclination to "dress up" came from more than just our desire to impress one another and put on appearances. Is this just a ritual created by humans as part of our social mores?

The most common arguments I read in favor of donning our suits and dresses on Sunday mornings is that God deserves our best and that our time of corporate worship should be set aside as special.

When it comes to the notion that God deserves our best, I could not agree more. But doesn't that mean not honking at the guy who cut us off as we were driving to church and walking up to the person standing alone in a pew to give him a hug and admitting that we walked into the sanctuary sad or angry or resentful and not judging the mom whose young child can't sit still during the sermon? Shouldn't it mean giving Him the most open, honest and loving heart we have to offer? And not just on Sunday mornings, but every day. After all . . .

Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. -- I Peter 3:3-4

There also is the important truth that God is worthy of our respect. Absolutely. But does that mean wearing a tie? One of the articles I read offered a great analogy. Many people were upset a couple of years ago when members of a collegiate women's lacrosse team wore flip flops to meet the president in the Oval Office. But, would there have been the same outrage if we learned that Sasha and Malia ran to their father's desk to hug him and tell him they love him while flip flops were on their feet? Of course not. When we come to worship, is that not what we are doing? Are we not there to pour out to our Heavenly Father how much we love Him? There certainly are standards that are an understood part of job interviews or business dinners or even school. Adhering to those dress expectations come with operating and being successful within our society. But when you are at church, you are with family.

I wonder if the assumed expectations for dress keep some people from ever walking through the doors, from knowing that there is a family inside eager to receive and love them. For someone who has never been to church before, just entering the building can be intimidating (I know . . . I felt self-conscious in church for a very long time). Add to that the concern that they are not dressed nicely enough and that others may stare would leave many standing outside and never knowing that those on the other side of the walls are just as flawed and filled with fears and doubt and struggles as they are. God loves the fashionable and refined no more and no less.

And there, I think, may be the difficult truth. Do we put on our nicest clothes and present the picture of a happy and perfect-looking family to avoid looking beneath the surface? Do we not want people to know we cried ourselves to sleep last night or that our marriages are falling apart or we aren't even sure if we believe in God anymore?

I used to attend a large church in a wealthy part of Nashville. It was packed every Sunday morning and every person there looked amazing. One Sunday, the pastor handed out cards and asked those in attendance to share the strength of their relationship with Christ. The following week, he was almost in tears as he stood at the pulpit and shared that nearly 70% of the congregation did not feel they had a close, personal relationship with God. On the surface, the place and the people looked amazing. But it was just for show, to do the appropriate thing once a week and make sure others saw you there.

What if we put aside the pretenses, the expectations of a what a good church member should look like? What if we were free to walk up to our brothers and sisters on a Sunday morning wearing jeans and a t-shirt and say, "I am hurting today. I need your help." What if we fell to the altar with grateful tears while wearing those same jeans and t-shirt and said, "Thank you, thank you, thank you." Would our worship not be as important or valued or real because of what we were wearing?

When Christ traveled the earth with His message of love, He did not have a dress code in order to hear Him speak. His message was for all, equally. He told prostitutes and rich men and lepers and dirty beggars and refined business men and a bloody thief hanging next to Him on a cross that they were loved and valued. And we honor God when we love and value our neighbors, too -- when we fling our church doors wide open and say, "Come. Now. You are wanted here. You are loved unconditionally." Or, better yet, when we exit through our doors and enter our communities with that same message.

My questioning of what we wear to church is not to advocate that we all put on sweatpants and sneakers before heading out on Sunday mornings. Instead, I want to embrace the call to "come however you are." If you praise and pray best in a three-piece suit or a beautiful skirt and heels, come as you are. (I read somewhere that Victoria Beckham once said she couldn't even think while wearing flats. By all means, woman, wear those six-inch heels to the sanctuary! Do what makes you uniquely you.) Are you comfortable talking to God and singing for Him in blue jeans and a sweater? Come as you are. Can you be your honest self, the one who just wants to be loved and accepted, wearing shorts and a t-shirt? Come as you are.

Am I off base here? Am I missing an important reason to look our best on Sunday mornings? I know that I hardly have all the answers. But this issue is one that has captured my thoughts quite a bit these past few weeks. And it's the reason that I will be wearing my jeans to church this Sunday.


  1. Sarah, I think it's more fundamental than you've explored. Most religions seem to emphasize specialized religious garb, feast-day clothes, etc. In modern Christianity this translates into "Sunday Best." Sure, there's some element of "keeping up with the Joneses" but it's also about having clothes suited (pun intended) for the task.

  2. I get that. But I also question whether such superficial rituals detract or distract from the heart of what we are doing. Again, doing lots of questioning!