If you want an interesting cultural study, look at what “going to church” looked like throughout the decades. When our grandparents went to church, it was usually a very somber occasion filled with hats, dresses, and suits and ties. Our parents’ Sunday mornings might not have looked as formal, but church still definitely required your finest attire and not a hair out of place.
Today’s church goers are an eclectic mix. We have the new generation, who has embraced the “come as you are” idea, while older generations still arrive at church every morning in what they were brought up to view as Sunday clothes. This often results in downward looks and murmurings from both ends of the spectrum. So who has the image of “church couture” correct?
Honestly? No one.
This is one area of religious debate that I’ve personally dealt with my entire life. I grew up going to very conservative churches. (Tights and pantyhose were staple items in my closet.) When I started college, my family switched churches AND denominations, and our “church clothes world” was turned on its head as we entered into the more relaxed and accepting Southern Baptist denomination. (Pants, everywhere!)
When I was younger, I didn’t understand the thinly veiled constant judgment taking place in my church body. Everyone I knew was woken up bright and early Sunday morning and put through the extensive assembly line of ironing, combing, and primping into the visage of a perfect Christian churchgoer. This dress code was described to anyone who dared question it as an act of reverence and making sure we stood apart from the unsaved of the world.
When we became Southern Baptist, it took quite a while for my parents to not stare wide-eyed at the groups of church members ushered to their seats in skinny jeans, t-shirts, and skirts above the knee. The Southern Baptist explanation for the more relaxed dress code? Unsaved visitors to church felt more comfortable in the unfamiliar church environment, and Christians were no longer dressing up for church for the wrong reasons.
Again, who is right in this situation? Should we dress to impress and honor God, or should we be more focused on making church an environment emoting comfort and acceptance?
When I found the following verse, everything started to become clearer for me:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.” Matthew 23:25-27
Beautiful on the outside, full of dead bones on the inside. There really isn’t much to interpret there. To me, this verse tells me that outward appearance for Christians is something that, like many other areas in life, is more balancing act than one-size-fits-all. Our outward appearance should take a backseat to what our inward appearance looks like. When that goes the other way, we have a problem.
Now, I’m not saying that we should be so focused on worshipping God and being as in tune with His will for us as possible that we show up to church in our pajamas. But I’m also not saying we should be so concerned with how we look and how our fellow church goers perceive our Sunday attire that we completely overlook why we are at church in the first place.
At my uber conservative church, we rarely ever had unsaved visitors show up on Sundays, and when we did, they very rarely continued showing up. The scrutinizing stares and not-so-hushed commentary on their “casual” outfits and non-church behavior probably didn’t help. Rather than growing the kingdom, my old church grew its “members-only” club of like-minded Christians, set apart from the world to the point that the world wanted no part of being a Christian.
My Southern Baptist church, though, could sometimes be mistaken for the world. As Christians, we are told to be in the world but not of it. When an unsaved person is unable to distinguish the Christian from the crowd, we’ve wandered away from the path. We should make church one of the most welcoming and comforting places on earth for those who need love and guidance. We should still retain the teachings and beliefs foundational to Christianity, though, and show the world that while Christians should be set apart from the world, it doesn’t mean we are shut off from it.
Image in the church is not everything. Someone could be immaculately dressed in the crispest of suits, yet be absolutely decaying on the inside. Someone could look like they wandered in from the nearest bar, yet have a burning passion and devotion to God and His calling. Do not play God and judge those around you in church based on how they’ve outwardly presented themselves. Focus instead on learning who the people around you are and how your combined inward beauty can create a truly enticing vision of the body of Christ.