If Jesus came to your church next Sunday, what would He wear? What would He wear if He was your pastor? (Take a minute and answer this question before reading on.) Recently the English Ministry core leaders at my church have been discussing possible changes to our Sunday service in order to make our outreach more effective. One of the topics discussed was the “dress code” for the pastors and worship team. I want to share some of my thoughts on this question and get your feedback.
If you think that the answer to these questions is obvious then perhaps you need to think more deeply. Either that, or perhaps you live in a very homogeneous community. It seems that the reasoning runs in two main directions:
We should wear our best in order to honor God
While I was in seminary I attended a weekend OMF missions conference. I wore my usual retreat attire: jeans and a tee shirt, with a sweatshirt for cool weather. The other attendees were also casually dressed. But when we went to breakfast on Sunday morning, I was stunned to see the retired missionary men decked out in three piece suits and the women in nice dresses! I suddenly felt very under dressed. They wanted to honor God by wearing their best on the Lord’s Day, even at a retreat. That experience had a big impact on me. For years afterward I would often bring a dress shirt and tie (but not a suit) to retreats to wear on the Lord’s Day. We should honor God by giving Him our best. What does it say about our view of God if we get dressed up for weddings but not for Sunday worship?
We should dress in a casual, up to date style in order to attract more people
Most people today prefer a casual style of dress. Even in some large companies managers are no longer expected to wear suits (or equivalent formal attire for women), at least here in California. The only time that many men wear a suit is to attend weddings or funerals, or perhaps for a job interview or a date at a fancy restaurant. For them, seeing people in suits marks the event as a formal occasion. If only the pastor or leaders are wearing suits, it can create a sense of distance between them and the rest of the people. If our churches desire to be friendly, loving communities then our dress should reflect that.
The two positions above are in tension with each other. How can we resolve this issue? Here are some observations:
In the past it was normal for people to get dressed up to go to social events. For rural families, even going into town to do the weekly shopping was an occasion that required them to wear something nice. Look at a picture of college students pre-1900 and you will find them wearing suits. I think that it was the norm for them to wear suits to class. In this context, it was normal for all the men to wear a suit to church as well. But now all that has changed. People dress very casually most of the time. Most men now wear suits only for a few very special occasions.
Pastors are not priests
If most men no longer wear suits to church, what about the pastor? Should the pastor wear a suit because of his role as a “man of God”? In the OT the priests had special clothing to wear that marked them as priests. But in the NT we have the priesthood of all believers, so I’m not sure that the pastor should wear special “holy” clothing. Jesus and Paul probably dressed pretty much like other men of their time. The missionary principle (1 Cor. 9:19-23) requires that we adapt our outward customs to become more like those we are trying to reach. I think that this should influence our clothing choices (within limits).
We still need to honor God
We honor God by applying the missionary principle and adapting our behavior to those we are trying to reach. But we also honor God by demonstrating our respect for Him. For our clothing, I think that this means that whatever we wear should be clean, in good repair and modest. Sloppiness is not next to godliness. But we have to be careful about what we mean by “sloppy.” Some hair styles that appear sloppy to the older generation are carefully and deliberately crafted using lots of hair gel. They are not the result of carelessness, although some may not like the style.
We should seek to honor God in all that we do. What does it say about our view of God if we are more careful about our appearance the rest of the week, but decide that any old thing is good enough for church? That could indicate that we really do not attach much importance to church. Or it could indicate that the church is like our family, where we can let down our guard and be ourselves. It’s not easy to know where to draw the line.
It depends on your context
I don’t think that there are any hard and fast rules in this area. It would be ridiculous for a missionary to insist that the men in a jungle tribe wear suits to come to church. But in a community in which formal dress is the norm for social occasions wearing jeans to church might not be appropriate. They key is to apply the missionary principle in a spirit of humility and ask what sort of dress code will help further the Gospel in your particular setting. Are you willing to wear a suit if that will open doors for the Gospel? Are you willing to lose the suit if that will reach more people for Christ?
What do you think about this issue? What would Jesus wear if He came to your church?