A first-time church visitor turned to his wife and whispered, “They must have a rule here against ironing your shirt.” His wife, having also scanned the congregation, replied, “Or combing your hair.”

The way people dress at church is noticed, and according to 85 percent of the respondents to a recent byFaithonline.com survey, it matters. And it is, respondents overwhelmingly believed, a subject that needs to be discussed in our churches.

According to the survey, there is nearly universal agreement that church dress has become more casual, but that’s where the agreement ends. When asked if “becoming more casual is a healthy trend,” respondents were split: 47 percent believing casual is better, 53 percent thinking it is not.

When responses were analyzed by age, we found a few of the expected differences, but they were not as dramatic as one might think. Among those in their 20s and 30s, 58 percent believe casual is better, while 42 percent see “more casual” as negative. “I’m mixed on this,” one younger respondent told us. “There are good reasons to be more casual and there are good reasons not to be. There are contexts where this is a healthy trend and other contexts where it is not.”

While this kind of ambivalence was widespread, there were plenty of other respondents who saw things more clearly. A common sentiment from those who appreciate the casual trend is reflected in the statement: “It allows for a more realistic visual—that you don’t have to clean up before approaching God. Churches that ‘dress to the nines’ are intimidating and make me … not want anything to do with a clean and squeaky God [who] doesn’t have patience for messiness or messy people.”

At the same time, several younger respondents agreed that “there’s a place for flip-flops and shorts, but not at most worship services. … Dressing up a bit for worship encourages people to take worship seriously, and therefore to take God more seriously and reverently.”

It’s the Attitude that Matters

Among those in their 50s and 60s, nearly 57 percent believe “more casual” is negative. It is, for many of them, not a matter of clothes per se, but of the heart behind the wardrobe. As one respondent told us, “The whole Western world seems to be going more casual in dress and attitude towards others. … Christians need to understand that our highest calling is to honor God. I believe our dress communicates a lot about our attitude.” Another typical reply from the “casual is negative” camp was, “I am not concerned about the casual dress as much as the attitude behind it. Dress seems to be an example of greater concern for personal comfort than the attention and focus that worship requires. So [casual] dress can be a symptom of growing self-absorption in worship.”

Many respondents—young and old—see a connection between informal dress and a hospitable environment. Casualness is appropriate, they believe, if it makes visitors feel welcome. But several added a caution, pointing out that “more casual” had a tendency to drift toward “careless.” As one respondent explained, “The positive point is that visitors of all kinds would feel welcome, no matter how they’re dressed. [But] there is a difference between casual—which is fine—and messy, which seems disrespectful.”

There Should Always Be Intention

Nearly all respondents, regardless of where they fall on the casual-formal spectrum, believe that dress should be a conscious decision. As one respondent declared, “We should be thoughtful about all of the ways we approach God, and the message we send to our fellow believers when we choose what to wear.” Another added, “Everything we do in preparation for worship, and in worship itself, should have one motive—the glory of God.”

But there is a division in opinion as to what honors God. There are, among those who took the survey, differences as to who the immediate audience is (nearly everyone agrees that God is the ultimate audience). And there are different perspectives as to what constitutes reverence—and even worship.

One twenty-something observed, “The most important preparation should be [of] our hearts.” A forty-something believed that there should be intention and appropriateness in all that Christians do. “There is appropriateness in attire for work, for weddings, for funerals,” he said. “There should be some sense of appropriateness to enter God’s presence with His people on this special occasion.”

A number of survey-takers expressed thoughts on appropriateness. One said, “When we come before the living God, it should not be with our everyday attitude….” Another replied, “As Christians, the way we dress for anything is important. We are ambassadors for Christ and therefore our appearance is part of how we represent our Lord.” A third participant returned to the importance of preparing our hearts, saying, “God cares far more about how we prepare our hearts for worship than He cares about how we prepare our clothes.”

One surprise finding concerned the lack of biblical modesty in church attire. “Modesty is a forgotten virtue in many churches,” one said, “especially in the warmer months.” Another comment that was typical of many was this one: “Girls should not intentionally dress provocatively; we should not dress in a way that is distracting or immodest.”

For Further Conversation

One respondent suggested that we dress in order to set ourselves apart from the culture. According to this participant, “Today’s church is trying to be relevant to the culture. In the process, [it] grows more like the culture.” Rather than the church transforming the world, this respondent sees the culture transforming the church. “When people step into the sanctuary of the assembled people of God,” he said, “they should sense a marked difference from the world.”

Survey Results:

Is the way we dress important?

Yes – 85%
No – 15%

Is more casual dress a healthy trend?

Yes – 46.6%
No – 53.4%

Is more casual dress a healthy trend? (20-39 year-old respondents)

Yes – 58.4%
No – 41.6%

Is more casual dress a healthy trend? (40-49 year-old respondents)

Yes – 52.2%
No – 47.8%

Is more casual dress a healthy trend? (50-59 year-old respondents)

Yes – 43.5%
No – 56.6%

Is more casual dress a healthy trend? (60+ year-old respondents)

Yes – 32.4%
No – 67.6%

About the author, Richard Doster

Richard Doster is the editor of byFaith. He is also the author of two novels, Safe at Home (March 2008) and Crossing the Lines (June 2009), both published by David C. Cook Publishers.

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