By John Blake
If the Rev. John DeBonville could preach a sermon to lift the souls of churchgoers across America, his message would be simple:
Stop dressing so tacky for church.
DeBonville has heard about the “come as you are” approach to dressing down for Sunday service, but he says the Sabbath is getting too sloppy.
When he scans the pews of churches, DeBonville sees rows of people dressed in their Sunday worst. They saunter into church in baggy shorts, flip-flop sandals, tennis shoes and grubby T-shirts. Some even slide into the pews carrying coffee in plastic foam containers as if they’re going to Starbucks.
“It’s like some people decided to stop mowing the lawn and then decided to come to church,” says DeBonville, rector at the Church of the Good Shepard in Massachusetts. “No one dresses up for church anymore.”
Church leaders like DeBonville have harrumphed about declining dress standards for Sunday service for years, while others say God only cares what’s in someone’s heart.
But which side is right? What does the Bible actually say about dressing properly for church? And does Jesus provide fashion advice anywhere? Wasn’t he a homeless, Galilean peasant who wore flip-flops?
The answers to these questions are not as easy as they may seem. The Bible sends mixed messages about the concept of wearing your Sunday best. And when pastors, parishioners and religious scholars were asked the same questions, they couldn’t agree, either.
Wearing ties on first dates
There was one point on which both sides did agree: People are dressing sloppier everywhere, not just church.
Take a trek to the supermarket on Saturday morning and you’re bound to run into a sleepy-eyed woman in slippers and rollers at the checkout counter.
Or take a walk outside and you’ll be greeted by teenagers slouching around with their jeans sagging over the butt-cheeks.
Even corporate America isn’t immune. Casual Fridays has morphed into casual every day and even tech tycoons like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wear bland T-shirts during public presentations.
It’s a sharp departure from another era in America before the 1960s, when people wore suits, dresses and white gloves in public.
The Rev. Gerald Durley, a sharp-dressed civil rights activist in Atlanta, recalls taking his future wife, Muriel, on their first date. When he showed up at her house, her father opened the door, looked at him, and took him aside gravely, “Young man can I talk to you for a minute.”
“He told me, ‘If you’re going to take my daughter out, you can wear one of my ties,’” says Durley, a retired Baptist pastor.
Jennifer Fulwiler, who wrote an article for the National Catholic Register titled, “Why Don’t We Dress up Anymore,” says her great-grandfather would put on a coat and tie just to go grocery shopping.
The reasons why people stopped dressing up could fill a book. Yet Fulwiler offers one explanation that’s seldom mentioned – lack of gratitude.
Fulwiler’s revelation came one day as she watched scruffily dressed people board a plane. She flashed back to a black-and-white photo she had seen of her grandparents boarding a plane in the 1940s. Most of the passengers were dressed in suits and ties and dresses because air travel was such a privilege at the time.
“We dress up for what we’re grateful for,” she says. “We’re such a wealthy, spoiled culture that we feel like we have a right to fly on airplanes,” says Fulwiler, author of “Something Other than God,” which details her journey from atheism to Christianity.
Church is like air travel now – it’s no longer a big deal because people have lost their sense of awe before God, Fulwiler says.
Yet some of these same people who say it doesn’t matter how you dress for church would change their tune if they were invited to another event, Fulwiler says.
“If you had the opportunity to meet the Queen of England, you wouldn’t show up in at Windsor Castle wearing jeans and a T-shirt,” she says.
The church customer is always king
Shouldn’t people have that same reverential attitude when they show up at church to meet God, some ask? After all, doesn’t your dress reveal the importance you attach to an occasion?
That sentiment, however, is seen as hopelessly old school in many popular megachurches across America. Casual Fridays has morphed into casual Sundays.
And many of the popular megachurch pastors are middle-aged men who bound onto the stage each Sunday dressed in skinny jeans, untucked Banana Republic shirts, and backed by in-house Christian rock bands. They’ve perfected a “seeker-friendly” approach to church that gets rid of the old formal worship style with its stuffy dress codes.
But there’s a danger in making people too comfortable in their clothes on Sunday morning, says Constance M. Cherry, an international lecturer on worship and a hymn writer.
Some churches have embraced a business-oriented “the customer is always right” approach to worship that places individual comfort at the center of Sunday service, says Cherry, author of“Worship Architect: A Blueprint for Designing Culturally Relevant and Biblically Faithful Services.”
“Many young people and boomers judge the value of worship service based on personal satisfaction,” Cherry says. “If I get to wear flip-flops to Wal-Mart, then I get to wear flip-flops to church. If I get to carry coffee to work, I get to carry coffee to church. They’re being told that come as you are means that God wants you to be comfortable.”
What the Bible says
The Bible says that’s not true – people had to prepare themselves internally and externally for worship.
In the Old Testament, Jewish people didn’t just “come as they are” to the temple in Jerusalem. They had to undergo purification rituals and bathe in pools before they could enter the temple, says Cherry, who is also a professor of worship at Indiana Wesleyan University.
Both Old and New Testaments suggest that people should not approach God in a casual manner, Cherry says. Psalms 24 urges the faithful to “ascend the hill of the Lord …with clean hands and pure hearts.”
When Jesus taught in the synagogues, he also observed the rules and decorum of being in God’s house, Cherry says.
Cherry isn’t calling for a restoration of first-century cultural norms, such as women covering their hair in worship, or a rigid dress code. She says churches should meet people where they are, and make even the poorest person feel welcome.
She just says that preparation for worship should give less thought to people and more thought to the divine.
“There should be some sort of approach to God that will include certain steps to honor the God that is not our buddy but fully The Other,” she says.
Others back up Cherry’s call to keep the Sabbath special. Dressing up really makes a difference on Sunday, they say.
“It puts you in a different mindset,” says Tiffany Adams, a convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who grew up wearing jeans in church. “It actually sets the Sabbath apart from every other day.”
And there are still pockets of church culture where no one has to persuade people to look sharp on Sunday.
The African-American church is one such place. Many of its members still insist on dressing up on Sunday because of the historical struggles of blacks. Sunday morning was often the only time in the week that a black person could assert their dignity, says Durley, the Atlanta civil rights activist who also is a retired Baptist pastor.
“On Sunday morning, when you put on your tie, your shirt and put your palms together and slicked down your hair, you were no longer the hired help, you were a trustee, a deacon or you chaired this board and you dressed accordingly,” Durley says.
What would Jesus wear?
There are others, though, who say God cares more about the person’s soul than their style. No one wears a bracelet today asking, “What would Jesus wear.” Clothes just weren’t important to Jesus or the early church, they claim.
The early church was anti-hierarchical and adopted a “come as you are” approach to worship, welcoming outcasts and the disenfranchised who often couldn’t dress in fine clothes, says Carl Raschke, a religious studies professor at the University of Denver.
Raschke cites Mark 12:38, where Jesus mocks the fine clothes worn by the Pharisees, a group of elite Jewish religious leaders of his day.
Others cite James 2:2-4, where the writer of the New Testament book criticizes early Christians for discriminating against poor people visiting the church in dirty clothes and favoring the man “wearing a gold ring and fine clothes.”
“Adopting a dress code would not only be suicidal for American Christians who are swimming against the stream of casual secularism, it would be antithetical to what Christianity sees increasingly as its abiding mission – to reach those who are marginalized and ‘don’t fit in,’ ‘’ Raschke says.
Some people, though, remain convinced that casual Sundays are getting too sloppy.
“The casualness of Sunday church attire has gone too far,” says DeBonville, the pastor of the Massachusetts church. “It’s about respect and honoring God.”
When DeBonville looks across the scruffy fashion landscape of America, he sees only one profession that’s holding the line against tacky dress.
It’s not the preachers or priests, though. These people belong to another profession whose members aren’t exactly known for respect and honoring God.
“The last ones wearing shirt and ties are the politicians,” DeBonville says.
Easter is supposed to be about the renewal of hope, but when asked if the spread of sloppy Sabbath can get any worse, DeBonville sounds gloomy. Yoga pants in the pews, pajamas near the altar – will everyone soon start showing up at church dressed like “the Dude” in the film, “The Big Lebowski.”
Nothing would surprise DeBonville anymore.
“There’s growing casualness everywhere,” he says. “I don’t know if it can get much worse.”