Last weekend I was sitting in my Sunday School class with 8 married couples in their 20s and 30s, and I was wearing jeans, an athletic polo shirt and casual Puma sneakers. It was not difficult to notice that I was the odd-man out, as all the other men in the room were wearing khaki pants, dress shirts (some with ties) and brown shoes. After church I asked my wife Jennifer, “Do you suppose people at church think I am dirt-poor or a heathen because I am the only one wearing jeans?” I was half-joking.
It does have me pondering the question: How Should Men Dress For Church?
To be fair, there are other men in worship service wearing jeans, but I am typically dressed more casually than everyone in my Sunday School class. I have khaki pants. I have dress shirts. I have some brown shoes, although they are old. I could dress like everyone else, but for various reasons I am content dressing as I do. Maybe it is a bit of rebellion against the pressure for men to dress-up so much for church, and another part of it is because I feel like if a homeless man, or someone too poor to buy nice clothes, walked into church, I would want them to know that not everyone in the room is going to judge them for what they are wearing. I do not say that to imply that anyone at our church would judge such a person, or myself, for how we are dressed, and I can say that in the 7 months we have spent at our new church, I have never gotten the impression that anyone really cared or disapproved of my casual appearance. Really though, it goes back to the way I have dressed for church the last few years.
MY CHURCH-CLOTHES BACKGROUND
Until this past June I spent the majority of my adult life working on church staffs, with my primary roles being youth minister and most recently children’s minister. This means that while other men my age were working to develop their business careers, my attention was on bringing the Gospel to young people and their families. My high school and college peers were building nice, business-appropriate wardrobes, and while they dressed nice for their business jobs each day, I went to work at church in jeans or khaki shorts everyday. Then on Sundays, these same men would basically wear their same business-appropriate clothes to church, partially because they were used to these nicer clothes from work and partially because they probably felt it appropriate to dress at least as nice for church as they do for work. They would go to Sunday school classes full of other nicely-dressed men while I spent my Sundays hanging out with kids and teens. My students could not care less if I was wearing a dress shirt or khaki pants, and in fact, it probably would have made it more difficult to relate to some of them if I overdressed. My last church in Indiana was pretty casual, and most of the ministers, including the senior minister, wore jeans on Sundays. For the last few years I mostly only wore anything nicer than jeans for weddings and funerals.
BACK IN THE SOUTH
When we moved back to the South to raise our kids near family, I was quick to remember that the small-town churches here are a little different than what we were used to in Indiana. People dress nicer. Churches still have adult Sunday school and Wednesday night programs, and in general churches still do things the same way they have for the last 50 years, opposed to the rest of the country where churches have struggled to maintain these “traditional” programs.
Another difference for us here is that the last 2 churches where I served on ministry staffs were both more blue-collar crowds than what we have in our new town. In Kokomo, Indiana there were not many doctors and lawyers at our church of 300+ people, but a large percentage of church members worked at Chrysler or GMC plants. By comparison, of the 16 people in my Sunday school class last week, there were at least 2 doctors in the room, and I know of numerous other doctors at our church here, which is a similar size to our previous church in Indiana. Our new church also has lots of business owners and others in careers that require, at a minimum, business casual dress. I compare these situations not to say that either doctors or factory workers are better or worse than each other in any way, as I have friends in both of these professions. I only make this comparison to say that our new church home, while having a membership that spans all social and working classes, has more people who typically dress nice for work during the week when compared to my previous church homes. I believe this carries over to the way they dress for church. Even at our more casual church in Indiana, businessmen often wore more business-like attire to church, while car factory workers usually wore jeans. In conclusion, it appears there is often a direct correlation between how men dress for work and how they dress for church.
While the young and middle-aged men here can often be found in business-casual attire at church, many of the older men in the audience still mostly wear suits every week. My family attends the contemporary service at 8:15 a.m., while most of these suited fellows attend the traditional service at 10:30 a.m. The environmental differences between these 2 services is clear both because of the way people dress and because of the difference in worship styles. The traditional service uses an organ and a full adult choir with robes, while the contemporary service uses a band and praise team. The senior pastor and minister of music go so far as to dress differently for different services, as they will be seen without suits at the early service, followed by full suits and ties at the late service. Perhaps this is exactly the same thing I did as a youth minister. I would dress more like the audience to fit in better with my students, just as these pastors dress different ways depending on the audience. Part of me says it is ridiculous that these men feel that they must dress 2 different ways on Sundays to reach 2 different crowds, but another part of me says, “Why should they allow their clothes to be a hindrance to their ministry?” In other words, pick your battles. Is it worth a senior pastor creating controversy and division within a church just so he does not have to wear a suit when he preaches at the traditional service? From my church-leadership experience, there are times where you must stand your ground and be willing to go to battle over an issue because it is THAT Biblical and THAT important. I do not believe this is one of those issues.
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
-1 Corinthians 9:19-23 (NIV)
I think Paul could relate to the situation I just described where pastors must dress a certain way for one audience and a different way for another audience. Paul was no stranger to going to battle over certain issues. He was not afraid to challenge others, make people mad or even call out other Christian leaders in public. (See his tense interaction with Peter/Cephas in Galatians 2.) On the other hand, Paul would willingly submit himself to customs and laws that did not apply to him just so he would give himself a chance to reach a new audience with the Gospel. Sometimes things that seem stupid or unnecessary on the surface can have a great impact on your ability to minister to others, and as long as these compromises do not cause you to sin, what is the harm?
While I understand why the pastors dress differently for different services, I must admit that at the moment I am enjoying being free of those kinds of pressures that are put on ministers. I can dress however I want at church, and no elders, deacons, senior pastors or church boards care. By comparison, I was once told by an elder (one of my bosses when I was the youth minister at that church) that I had gone too far with my casual dress. I had been wearing flip flops to church on Sundays, and he thought I should at least be wearing shoes. I started wearing shoes and did not argue with him that Jesus and His disciples wore sandals during their ministries.
ARE JEANS ALWAYS CASUAL?
I rarely spend more than $20 on any individual piece of clothing except for shoes and jackets. This includes my jeans, which I usually buy at Old Navy or Target, and even at these stores I still only buy them on sale. I do not use jeans to just appear casual. However, I have been to enough community churches and mega-churches where the preacher or worship leader wore jeans to set a casual tone for the church, but in reality they were wearing $100-$200 designer jeans and expensive “casual” shirts. If I wore my $20 Old Navy khakis, my pants would in fact be much less nice than their expensive jeans, despite the fact that khakis are more commonly considered dressier pants than jeans. Heck, I own suits that cost less than a pair of designer jeans. I have even heard of strict dress codes for some worship teams at mega-churches. These rumored dress codes do not say men have to wear suits; rather they are required to wear expensive designer jeans. Old Navy jeans would not cut it. While these churches want to give off the impression that they are casual, such requirements for the worship band actually say the opposite, at least when it comes to unnecessary pressure and expectations put on leaders.
DOES IT REALLY MATTER HOW WE DRESS FOR CHURCH?
Ultimately, I do not think it really matters what men wear to church, but I think most men either dress about how they dress at work or how they have always dressed for church. Some men still put on their Sunday best, which might mean wearing suits for church even though they are farmers or mechanics during the week. That is fine, and there is nothing wrong with dressing up like that for church. On the other hand, does it somehow offend God if a man shows up for church barefoot wearing dirty, ragged clothes?
WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY?
Concerning the young shepherd boy David being anointed as the future king of Israel…
But the Lord said to Samuel,
“Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
-1 Samuel 16:7 (NIV)
While not talking about worship services, but rather about life in general, it is clear that God does not put much value in man’s physical appearance the way people do. These words from James apply more specifically to church…
My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?
If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,”you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.
-James 2:1-9 (NIV)
I do not think it could be any more clear that the way men are dressed when they come to worship God with other believers should have no impact on the way they are treated in the church.
ONE LAST THING
Just for some khaki pants fun, enjoy this really old, really cheesy unofficial (made by random high school students for a class project) music video for the song “Sadie Hawkins Dance” by the Christian punk rock band Relient K.