There’s a prominent current within Christianity that, maybe 20 or 30 years ago would have been seen as innovative, but today is about as common as the Church signs that it’s messaging appears on.
It’s what I would call “come as you are” church culture. It’s the idea that you don’t need to make extra effort to dress or act a certain way when you come to church. Just be yourself like this is any other day. And this was the context in which I was introduced to church life as a young adult exploring different denominations.
And, in a way, I’m grateful for it because it broke down barriers of intimidation for me. It made me feel comfortable enough to just show up without worrying about what other people would think of me and not because I wasn’t willing to adjust my behaviour, but because I didn’t know what to adjust it to and I was worried that whatever I did would be wrong.
The point, for me, of going to Church was to learn how to be a Christian and while I appreciated being told that I didn’t have to worry about the way I dressed, this emphasis also taught me something – which is that it doesn’t matter how I dress for Church.
And now that I’ve been a Christian for a while, my understanding of that has shifted quite a bit and if you’ll bear with me, I want to explain why.
I said earlier that this whole come as you are emphasis was an innovative concept at a certain point and that’s true. Prior to the 20th century, nobody down through the centuries would have agreed with this sentiment… and that should tell us something.
In this case, the argument seems to follow from the claim that God doesn’t care what you look like. He doesn’t judge a book by it’s cover and he’s not impressed with your suit and tie or polished shoes. God isn’t so trivial that he needs us to dress a certain way before he’ll accept our worship.
And there’s some truth to that. God doesn’t have any need from us. Just like with worship, we don’t worship him because he needs us to worship him. We do so because WE need to worship him. So if there is any merit to dressing a certain way, it isn’t for God’s benefit, but for ours.
So the question becomes, does how we dress affect us in any critical way? And the answer to that for anyone who is willing to be honest about it has to be yes.
There’s a reason why we dress a certain way for a job interview, or for a wedding, or for a funeral or any other number of special occasions.
The way we dress produces an attitude in us and in those we interact with. If you showed up to a job interview wearing a dirty track suite, it would communicate an attitude of indifference and that indifference would be communicated to those you met with.
As another example, think about the way you dress for a funeral. However you dress, it should be in such a way that marks the exceptional nature of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. It’s not every day that a life passes and it gives us an opportunity to reflect and to grieve in ways that are distinct from every day life.
The way we dress on such occasions creates an atmosphere and an attitude that reflects the nature of what it is and what we’re doing. It creates a visual incarnation of our feelings and our solidarity with one another as we support each other and express our mutual feelings about the events and the occasion.
How we dress affects our affects our psychology, it affects our emotions, it affects our social interactions, and I would argue, it affects our spiritual disposition. It can produce feelings and attitudes associated with leisure, pleasure, formality, seriousness, luxury, and poverty.
So if we can admit that, then we should be able to admit that how we dress for Church will, similarly, affect our attitude and those around us as we approach that time of prayer. So the question should now become, how is it that we should dress for that occasion?
And I think that we need to remind ourselves what it is that we are doing when we gather as a faith community in order to meaningfully answer that question.
While not an exhaustive list, I’d say we’re there to repent, to worship and adore the living God, and to receive his blessing and grace so that we can continue to live and grow in discipleship.
So what best reflects and encourages those activities and dispositions?
That’s where it gets tricky and we can’t dictate a one size fits all uniform for reasons that should be abundantly obvious. What works in Canada, where I live, in the dead of Winter, does not work in Arizona. What works in Sub-Saharan Africa, does not work in Scotland.
So instead of describing what a church uniform looks like, I’d rather recommend a couple principles.
Firstly, recognize that what we’re doing on Sunday is different from what we do on other days. It’s a day that is set aside for a specific and distinct purpose. The 3rd commandment tells us to keep this day holy and the word holy means “set apart”.
If this day is to be set apart, then that means that our behaviour should reflect the uniqueness of this day. So the way we dress should be different from how we dress from Monday to Saturday. This will help us appreciate the distinct nature of that day and especially what we do when we gather in worship.
The second thing I’d recommend is to dress modestly. This isn’t a banquet or a red carpet gala. We are beggars before God, not peacocks. We’re not there to impress him or others. We’re there to repent. The less attention we can bring to ourselves, the better.
And again, don’t mistake this for meaning you should dress casually. That’s what you would do if I was encouraging indifference or laziness which are not the same as modesty or humility. If you’re wearing a tshirt and jeans when everyone else is wearing something formal, you’ll be drawing attention to yourself. That’s not modesty. It’s the opposite.
In closing, can I just say one more thing which is that even if you agree with me on these principles, none of us should every use this as a permission to give other people a hard time about the way they’re dressed.
If you want to encourage others to embrace these ideas, lead by your example, not by condemnation. Nobody responds favorably to being glared at or to remarks about the way they are dressed that doesn’t meet with your approval.
God will accept people in any way they come to him and that’s something that we should rejoice in. If they are coming, give thanks. If they encounter God and his grace in the process, he will help them to grow in awareness and humility.
And if they start to learn to take their faith seriously, they will be drawn to learn about personal virtue, incarnational theology, and from the example of those they gather with.
That’s what happened in my case and by the grace of God, will continue to happen as I learn to let go of my pride.