Casual VS Dignified
A recent study by Barna Group collectively asked the question "What is your ideal church?" to a group of millennials. Here are the results:
In the last post in this series I explored the concept of a Classic church vs a trendy one. In today's post I wold like to explore the next concept to emerge in the Barna group survey: the dress code.
Before I begin take a moment to notice how the ideal church for millennials is not necessarily a modern church. For example - as explored in the last post - millennials prefer a classic church to a trendy one. Notice also that they prefer a sanctuary to an auditorium and quiet to loud. Nevertheless, when it comes to interior design they prefer modern to traditional and when it comes to dress they prefer casual to dignified.
Some may write this entire survey off as nothing more than appeasing the desires of men rather than seeking to please God. But we must remember that the only one of these topics addressed in the Bible is the first one (community vs privacy) in which the clear picture of church to emerge from the NT is that of a community, not a building. All of the other aspects in this survey (style, dress, architecture, ambiance, and interior design) are not addressed in scripture. As a result each of these elements are always influenced by the surrounding culture and should reflect the positive expressions that that culture values.
So now, what about dress? The issue of dress has been controversial in church culture for quite some time now. In the book Pagan Christianity? authors George Barna and Frank Viola trace the origins and development of this debate. First of all, the book states that “[t]he practice of dressing up for church is a relatively recent phenomenon”. The authors argue that the early Christians did not dress up for Church because they didn’t have clothes to dress up with. Most people in the early days of Christianity only had work clothes and decent clothes. They would wear their decent clothes for their assemblies. However, the idea of dressing up for anything was a privilege that only the wealthy had. When “fine clothes became more affordable to the common people” they began to dress up as the rich to “demonstrate their newly improved status”. Church became a place where the common people now dressed up in imitation of the rich who would dress up for their special occasions (cocktail parties etc.). Not surprisingly, the idea of dressing up for church was controversial when it first began. The book states that “[s]ome Christian groups in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries resisted this cultural trend”. However, it soon became the norm to the point that today not dressing up for church is considered irreverent even though it has no biblical precedent. The authors argue: “[T]o say that the Lord expects His people to dress in fine clothing when the church gathers is to add to the scriptures and speak where God has not spoken. Such a practice is human tradition at its best”.
Whether we agree with Viola and Barna or not is not really important. What is important is that we recognize that "dressing up for church" was just as much a cultural development as "dressing down for church" is today. Neither move really comes from the Bible. They simply reflect the culture. Some would argue and say, "we should always wear our best for God." To that I would say, Yes, we should always dress well when going to a church gathering. But we should dress well when going anywhere really. Its the respectful and responsible thing to do. But the idea that we must "dress up" (not to be confused with "dress well") to go to church is not mandated in scripture because in scripture church is not a building that you go to meet with God but a community of people who meet collectively to share their faith-journey and worship God. In the NT this was done at believers homes and not once do we get any instruction regarding the dress code. There was no dress code.
Others may argue, "It is not right to wear what we do all week to come to church." But such an argument would - once again - only reflect culture not scripture. For example, notice the picture below. It is a photograph of a bar in the 1950's. Notice that the people there are dressed exactly as people dressed to go to church in the 1950's. The men are wearing dress shirts, suits, ties, and the ladies are wearing their dresses. They could have easily left the bar and walked into a church and no one would have said anything. So why was it OK to dress this way in everyday life and also for church but today people complain that you should dress differently for church? Again, it has to do with culture. There is absolutely nothing wrong with dressing up for church if you want to. But to say it is necessary is not a position that can be maintained from scripture.
But historical, cultural, and theological reasons aside, why do millennials prefer a casual dress code to a dignified one? The reasons can be many and I don't pretend to explore them all here but from my personal experience dressing up for church just comes across as fake. I am not a fan of showing up to church looking like I could care less if I was there or not (I totally believe in dressing well) but at the same time dressing up just comes across as really phony to me. That doesn't mean I judge others who dress up. It just means that for me, I feel really phony - like I'm trying to be someone that I am not - when I adopt a dress code as a standard of worship that I do not adopt in any other regular setting. In her article, "On Dressing Up at Church" Amy Bennett shares another relevant perspective when she writes,
...I was SO CONCERNED with what I was wearing. Clothes were almost 90% of what I was thinking of on Sunday mornings, more than any other day of the week. I had to have the just right outfit, the just-right shoes. I had to make sure my makeup and hair were just right. And then I’d spend all morning pulling at my skirt, tugging at my pantyhose, comparing myself to everyone else dressed up. Church was like the Super Bowl for fashion every week.... The concern was all inward and how I looked and stacked up.This post is not about arguing for or against dress codes at church. Although I have shared reasons why I disagree with this trend it honestly doesnt bother me if someone wants to dress up or not. I think this is a personal choice between a person and God and am not fussed by someone in a suit and tie or in casual clothes. My intention in this post is to share some basic reasons why millennials by and large reject this trend. For many of us, church is not an event that we dress up for but a community of real people doing real life and asking real questions as they deal with real faith, real doubt, real joy and real pain. Thus, if there was any position I would advocate it would be this one: Let our churches develop cultures where people feel safe to connect with the family of God without having to meet a certain mold, be it a traditional mold or a contemporary one. If we do this we can put this silly debate behind us.
The Origin of Dressing Up for Church
On Dressing Up at Church
 Torres, Marcos D. Adapted from its original article "Pagan Christianity? A Book Review". [http://www.pomopastor.com/2012/12/pagan-christianity-book-review.html]
 Bennett, Amy. "One Dressing up for Church". [http://www.amyjbennett.com/2012/03/16/on-dressing-up-at-church/]