If you’ve been alive more than ten years, you’ve probably noticed that how people dress for church is drifting toward the casual. The church I grew up in was home to more than it’s fair share of suit-jackets, ties, and people’s Sunday best. This past Sunday, I preached (quite passionately, too) in black jeans, shirt untucked, hair sculpted into my customary fo-hawk.
What’s going on? Is this a lack of respect for God, plain and simple, mirrored tragically by our abysmal clothing choices? I don’t think so. Our clothing has been taking cues from two respectable sources: our theology and our values.
Theology. The past three or four generations have seen a shift from the belief that the church building is the house of God and therefore deserving of more respect than other places in our lives. More of us now understand that the church is the people and God indwells the fellowship. The church building is just where we meet with each other. If God is everywhere and that chapel is just a building, no more sacred than the living rooms our Small Groups collect in, why dress up when we go there?
Secondly, a generation ago theology leaned into the holiness of God. Today we’re leaning into the love of God. That changes how we live. It shapes our values.
My parents and grandparents, leaning into the holiness of God, took that to the logical conclusion that the primary attitude one brought to church was respect. Nothing wrong with that. Respect for God is critical. I dress with respect. I keep my voice down to a holy hush. Respect in its many forms was an act of worship.
For my generation and younger, respect is no longer the primary value. Reacting to the more outward expressions of holiness—which often looked to us like pretending things were hunky dory—we have embraced a new church value: authenticity. God is holy, true, but he doesn’t want me pretending to be someone I’m not. And he certainly doesn’t want me dressing to impress anyone—even him. He’s more interested in the meditation of my heart than the crispness of my shirt and tie.
Personally, I wear suits… to marry and bury people. That’s it. When I wear a suit and tie, the older ladies in church beam with joy. True enough. I, on the other hand, feel like I’m wearing a halloween costume. Not kidding.
Am I saying that authenticity is more important than respect? Or vice versa? Not at all. What I’m saying is, instead of looking at the older folks wearing suits and ties and thinking, “they just don’t get it. That’s so fake,” let’s appreciate the respect they’re meaning to show God by the way they dress. And instead of watching the younger folks strutting around church in jeans and casual shirts and thinking, “They don’t know the meaning of worship,” let’s remember they’re trying to be real with God about who they are and how they’re actually doing.
Both sets, I believe, ascribe God value through their choice of clothing—even if they can’t clearly articulate it. And maybe we can learn from each other. Because our true Sunday best has nothing to do with clothes, either formal or casual. It’s about where our heart is.