Dressing Down for Church

By Graham Glover

It’s been just over three weeks since my family and I arrived to our new duty station in Hawaii. We’re settling in nicely to our new house and are thrilled with our children’s new school. I’m getting to know the Soldiers of my new Unit and look forward to heading to the field with them in the very near future. Although we’re far from home, life in Hawaii is great. (No matter how tough your day might be, it’s hard to complain when you live on an island!)

However, things are a little different in Oahu, to include a casual way of living that is something I’m not yet ready to embrace. Among other things, this includes how EVERYONE dresses for church. The first Sunday we went to our new parish, I showed up in slacks, a clerical, and a blazer. To say I was over-dressed would be an understatement. Most of the men in the congregation wear nice shorts, a short-sleeved collared/Hawaiian shirt, and flip-flops (or as they call them here, slippers). I’ve quickly learned that this casual style is not unique to our parish or to Hawaiian Lutherans. This is how everyone dresses on the island. I doubt I’ll ever show up to church in shorts and struggled mightily the past two weeks not wearing a blazer. The first time I preside at the Divine Service ought to be interesting, as I almost always wear an alb, stole, and chasuble.

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That being said, these past few weeks have reminded me of a very important reality that is often lost on those like me who put a premium on how one dresses, especially at church. It’s a lesson people like me who are all about the smells and bells – we high church purists – need to hear more often than we like. That is, what we wear, from the parishioner to the pastor – means very little. Whether or not there are the appointed and customary accoutrements in the sanctuary, to include the style and amount of vestments the celebrant, preacher, acolyte, assisting deacon, etc. wear, ultimately means nothing. Don’t get me wrong, vestments are important. Dressing modestly, even if casually, is the appropriate attire when we are in the presence of the Almighty. But at the end of the day, clothes and liturgical vessels do not make the gifts of God. Style always loses to substance. Christ’s Word is holy entirely on its own. His Sacraments are efficacious because He instituted them. Period.

For those who love the Liturgy (and there is every good reason to fall in love with this precious gift of the Church), comments like these are often not very well received. This is especially true among Lutherans who continue to fight the influx of “contemporary” and “non-liturgical” styles of worship into our congregations. For reasons that I’ll never understand or accept, some Lutherans think that they have the right to change the Liturgy – to add, delete, or modify the ordo that has been part of the church catholic for almost two millennia into something they characterize as “relevant”. Why the Church’s Divine Liturgy is no longer relevant is beyond me. And as we know too well, those who are quick to change our worship are equally quick to change how we dress in church. Vestments, clerical collars, etc. are viewed as suspect. Casual dress is the thing to do, because, well, it’s “relevant”.

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But even those who love the Liturgy, recognizing all of the goodness it has and continues to offer the people of God, are wise to remember that it is not the Liturgy itself or the vestments/clothes one wears at the Divine Service that makes it efficacious. It is the Word of God. Alone. It is Christ’s promise of forgiveness, given to us in Holy Absolution – His comforting words of grace and love, given to us in His Holy Word – and the most perfect gift we will receive this side of eternity, given to us in His Holy Supper, alone that we need. How they look, how the celebrant is dressed, etc. do not make these gifts what they are for us. A lesson I have been reminded of the past few weeks and one we are all wise to recall as we find comfort in Christ’s gifts, no matter how one looks when giving or receiving them.

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13 thoughts on “Dressing Down for Church

  1. I don’t care what anyone else says…..I don’t think one should go to church dressed like you’re going to the beach. Sandals, shorts, unkempt and lounge attire show, little respect for the worship service. Some people dress better for a dinner party or a night on the town. But Sunday morning? Just come the way you feel, old worn jeans, sloppy shirt, T-shirt with a beer logo….well who cares? After all, it is my right, one might say, to dress as I worship comfortably. Nothing special about looking decent, dressed in pressed trousers, or God forbid that some of our super casual women folk should put on a…..dress? I see very few dresses this day. Women have largely abandoned them. One could dress neatly for church and in good taste instead of like we see today….but might as well talk to the wind. We live in a different time.

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  2. Whatever you are doing there, Graham, do it well, as always. The other side of the thing is that if it is a small matter to them, you can dress how you wish to honor God in worship. Maybe those symbols will matter to them some day, for what they teach. And teaching always matters. Let the content of your faith guide you more than local custom, but perhaps not without considering the wisdom of the difference, and in all else roll with the flow as the Gospel allows.

    Incidentally, I’m always happy if they wear clothes.

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    1. “Local custom” is not an excuse to dress like a slob for church, while reserving your best attire for a night on the town.

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      1. John seriously ease back there. Love your neighbor. Would you truly be so angered by someone so much because of their attire? And we wonder why churches are becoming irrelevant. It’s arbitrary things like this as to why we are seen by the lost as irrelevant. They will not set foot in the place where they will hear God’s saving word because they don’t know what they don’t know and they do know that they are already judged for whatever; clothes, hair, etiquette that is arbitrarily put in to play by people just like you. You point your finger, but you get to attend church and have your own sin forgiven. You have the gift of eternal life. They will not hear the words of that forgiveness because they know they are not welcome for stupid things just like this. Maybe we should start a clothing fund at our churches. We should pass an extra plate around so that we can make sure people have money to buy clothes that are “appropriate” to be able to come to church. John in the name of Jesus you are forgiven today. Now go and baptize all nations. Oh wait! You can’t come or be welcomed because you’re in a Hawaiian shirt today. When your SERVE the least of these you serve me -Jesus

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      2. I don’t think anyone said it’s OK to dress like a slob for church, and doing better going out. I’ve known a few hookers to come into church wearing what they thought was their best, and of course it horrified some folks. Their inexperience required some indulgence for awhile, until they could see the difference. Life-changing moments do that. I’ve also known a few people to run for it when they find out someone was offended. All I’m saying is that there is a gap sometimes between what is traditional, even godly, and was is happening culturally or because of need. Patience and teaching need to be part of the program, and a discerning eye for what might reasonably be changed in oneself. And, we who know something should not get all puffed up about our knowing. Check out 1 Corinthians 8:1-3 on that. Likewise, we shouldn’t go native and take up every nuance of the culture – God’s people are usually counter-cultural in many ways over the long haul.

        I’ll bet I’m not saying anything you didn’t already know, John.

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  3. It seems like people who insist that we all wear a suit to church are the same people who insist that we only use a piano or an organ for the worship service. What I find somewhat ironic is that neither suits nor dresses, organs nor pianos, existed when the church was established.

    We don’t use ancient chants today, and we don’t wear togas to church, so why would we insist upon organs and suits?

    If the church has always adapted its style of dress and choice of musical accompaniment to match the culture in which the congregation lives, why do we suddenly feel the need to freeze frame on 1950s America (or 16th Century Germany) and proudly proclaim that is God’s style of worship?

    Some things, such as the historic creeds of the Christian faith, the use of the sacraments, liturgies, are either commanded in scripture, or are driven by a desire to remain faithful to the ministry of the church, entrusted to the clergy by God. Other things are just a matter of culture. It seems unnecessary to elevate cultural issues to the level of biblical faithfulness.

    If a missionary started a church among the indigenous tribes of Guatemala (like the village where my father-in-law is from), wearing a suit and playing an organ wouldn’t make any sense. The people still live in mud huts and hunt in the jungle for their food. Why is it any different in Hawaii where the people wear Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops? Why is it any different in 21st Century America where even the President has appeared tie-less to address the press and take care of official state business?

    I think it’s good to dress in a manner that shows we respect what is taking place in church on Sunday morning, but that looks differently in different cultures.

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  4. Graham,

    It took me a long time to get it through my thick skull that my wearing a jacket and tie to church served no purpose. I grew up owning “Sunday” clothes that only and always came out for church, weddings, and funerals. Where I have been attending for the last 20 years, though, puts me alongside people who don’t own these things either because they never did, culturally, or don’t have the money and, as a consequence, have a limited wardrobe. Other than setting me apart, a jacket and tie, serves no end.

    Doesn’t mean I’m sloppy, “business casual” is what is comes down to.

    However, the vestments of office, seasonal colors, and liturgy are important. While the congregation may dress down, there are no clothes of office among parishioners, clergy should not.

    BTW – while I did have my Sunday clothes, most of the LCMS pastors I grew up with would never use a chasuble or rope around the waist – zu katholisch! White over black with a stole on Sundays, black with collar for weekday prayer. I actually wish pastors would go back to black with Roman collar as their everyday uniform. As I’ve grown, I’ve come to see too much personalizing and pastel shirts as to much un-catholic.

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  5. Joy, I never said casually dressed people are unwelcome in church or judged as sinners of the worst kind, nor do I think women need to wear dressing gowns nor do men need to wear tuxedo suits. For crying out loud, we are just talking about simple manners and nothing else. If a person is poor and hasn’t any good clothes, that is another story….but for the most part, you and some of the other responders here are just giving excuses for people too lazy to put on a pair of decent slacks for church, and leave the beach sandals at home.

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    1. I know neither my wife nor my adult daughter or the wives of my two sons would not wear shorts to church…not ever. Even when we lived in Arizona. The church is air conditioned. I know I can’t win this argument, but I believe it is disrespectful to dress in shorts and sandals in church. Perhaps it is because I am 71 and of an older generation which was generally more courteous and considerate of standards. Today, anything goes, and there is simply no respect for the prior social norms of choosing to be well groomed and on your best behavior at worship.

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  6. I’ll play devil’s advocate for a second. I think Graham should buy some surf trunks and a dozen white hibiscus Hawaiian shirts. Leather flip-flops take a year or so to form to your foot, and then your set for the next decade or three.
    I strongly believe that they ethic regarding dress at church should be ‘come as you are.’ The flock needs the means of grace and the sheep will often be disheveled. After all, they’re sheep.

    Graham, glad to read that you are moved. Blessings to you in your new assignment.

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    1. Jim, already purchased the trunks and several leather flip-flops. Might take me a while to buy the Hawaiian shirts, but I like it!

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