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Why don’t people wear their Sunday Best for church any more?

A lot of older churchgoers (that is, my generation) seem to be worried about that lately.

I’d like to respond to that question with a couple of my own.

When did the members of my generation become such old fogeys? And why do they care so much about something that matters so little?

Yet that is part of a growing sentiment from my peers.

According to far too many older churchgoers and pastors, some of the biggest problems in the church today are

  • Skinny jeans
  • Flip-flops
  • Coffee cups
  • Wood pallets on stage
  • Stage lighting
  • Spikey or swooped-back hair
  • Scruffy beards
  • Smart phones
  • Short pants
  • and Untucked shirts

It’s hard to imagine anything that would concern Jesus less than how we dress for church. Or the technology and instruments we use while we’re there.

As a member of the age group that is making most of these complaints, here’s my take on it.

We can either whine about how the new generation chooses to worship, or we can worship and minister with them. But we can’t do both.

Don’t we remember when churchgoers in our parents’ generation complained about the length, color or poofiness of our hair? Or the rolled-up sleeves and lack of a tie on our pastel-colored Miami Vice suit? Not to mention that we replaced some of their beloved hymns with our new praise songs, sung with guitars, not organs?

Have we forgotten how devalued we felt when they told us our music was too loud, our clothing looked silly, our questions were inappropriate and our opinions were wrong? It didn’t make us want to worship their way. It made us want to leave the church. And many of us did – never to return.

What Is Proper Church Dress and Behavior?

What’s considered proper clothing and behavior in one culture isn’t the same in another culture. Or another era. Or in a different church down the street.

Respectful clothing will include

  • Aloha shirts in Hawaii
  • Cowboy boots in Montana
  • Removing your shoes in Japan
  • Kilts in Scotland
  • and maybe suits and dresses in your church

You know how people dress when they come to the church I pastor? They wear the same clothes they wear when they do other things they enjoy. Since we live in Southern California, that often means tennis shoes and T-shirts, skinny jeans and ball caps.

Teens and twenty-somethings regularly come to our church ready to go to the beach afterwards. They stroll in wearing shorts, grab a coffee in the church lobby, then bring it with them into the sanctuary. They chat and laugh as they head to their seat in the front two rows – yes the front rows. From the moment the band starts playing, they’re on their feet, entering into worship with all their heart and soul.

When I open the Bible to share God’s Word, they pull out their iPhones to read along using a Bible app, taking notes between sips of coffee or soda. When church is over, they stick around for conversations, sign up for community service projects and help tear down the furniture for the next event.

It’s not unusual for young people to seek me out with compelling questions about the message. And several of them simply will not leave church until they get their pastor-hug for the week.

By the time I get home, many of them have shared quotes from my message, lyrics from the songs we sang and other news about their church experience with their friends on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

And it’s not just the kids acting this way. The behavior I’ve described applies to a lot of the adults in my church, too. Including me.

People are offering their Sunday Best when they show up with enthusiasm, worship with gusto, give to the needy and share what they learned with their friends. As long as they’re doing that, I don’t care what they wear. (Unless it’s a Dallas Cowboys shirt – you gotta draw the line somewhere.)

Why Does This Matter?

If I’m sounding worked-up about this, here’s why.

Flip-flops in church isn’t a sociological phenomenon for me. As a small church pastor, I know the names of the people wearing them. I see their passion. I’ve cried with them through their sorrows. And I know that some of them are still working through resentment against churches that cared more about the flip-flops on their feet than the passion in their hearts.

This isn’t an issue of treating God, the church or the worship experience casually. It’s about paying attention to what matters and ignoring what doesn’t.

Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)

Aren’t There Any Standards?

Yes, there are standards for how people should dress and behave. Not just in church, but everywhere.

It’s important that our clothing is not

  • Immodest
  • Rebellious
  • or Prideful

Following those standards, the furs and pearls of yesteryear and the power suits of today may be more sinful than short pants and ball caps, depending on the attitude of the person wearing them.

Other than that, clothing is far more a matter of style and culture than of respect and holiness. So wear what fits your culture and context. And quit judging what others wear in their culture and context.

Like Jesus said, we need to “Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment.” (John 7:24)

 

Karl Vaters is the author of The Grasshopper Myth: Big Churches, Small Churches and the Small Thinking That Divides Us. He’s been in pastoral ministry for over 30 years and has been the lead pastor of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Fountain Valley, California for over 20 years. He’s also the founder of NewSmallChurch.com, a blog that encourages, connects and equips innovative Small Church pastors.

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Carol Rochnia

commented on Mar 17, 2017

Amen to that !!! Thank you for reminding us what it is all about. I particularly like your short list of what is not appropriate (Immodest, rebellious or prideful) I wonder how many of our well dressed in their Sunday best fall under the heading of prideful!

Dr. Shirley Lynn

commented on Mar 17, 2017

I disagree it is important to show God our respect. The problem is we are not teaching respect. It is not the clothes or what they wear but how they act and show respect to God's people and God's house. It is not our church it is God's Church and respect is due. They are not going to a party or a club they are going to worship. I think being a pastor has a responsibility to teach God word and not change it to fit the occasion. I am a pastors wife and I come in contact with all ages and I can tell right away the training they get and are having. I agree with the article "We need to stop doing everything to make our children happy." It is not fair to the young people to think the world revolves around them.

Olorunfemi Olojede

commented on Mar 17, 2017

I struggle a lot not to condemn people when it comes to what they wear to church. However, can we just take a look at the major factor that seems to influence what people, especially youngsters, put on when coming to church? You would most probably not be very impressed by their sense of value. More often than not they dress to be like the other 'nations' who in this sense are pop stars, punks, models, footballers, actors, etc., many of whom neither know nor serve our God. They are people you ordinarily would not want to receive as guests, to say the least. Granted, 'Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.'; but then it was not David's brothers' dressing that Samuel looked at, it was their frame/stature. This issue goes beyond 'judging by mere appearances'. We must be careful the quantum of latitude we give young people these days. You know what? Give them a millimetre, they take a kilometre! If the present trend in our disposition to dressing continues I wonder whether there will be a difference between the church and the club house by year 2042.

Art Braidic

commented on Mar 17, 2017

I enjoy your articles, but have to disagree with this one. Our younger generation is degenerating in terms of showing respect toward much of anything. On the other hand, God is the majestic king of the universe. He is glorious, magnificent, and Holy. When He appeared before ancient Israel to reveal His commandments, He required the people to wash their clothes and sanctify themselves before appearing before Him. Further, when Esther went to see the human king, she dressed the best she could. Christ's robe that He wore before His Father was so valuable, the Romans cast lots for it. The 24 elders that surround Christ's throne dress in white robes. Christ's bride will be dressed in fine linen--her outward clothing portraying her righteousness. Notice the parable of us being Christ's servant: Luk 17:8 and will not rather tell him, ‘Prepare my supper, clothe yourself properly, and serve me, while I eat and drink. Afterward you shall eat and drink’? Perhaps the most condemning is the following verse regarding the wedding supper: Mat 22:11-12 But when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man who didn’t have on wedding clothing, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here not wearing wedding clothing?’ He was speechless. Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, take him away, and throw him into the outer darkness. That is where the weeping and grinding of teeth will be. I suggest that those who do not wear their clothes or hair in what would be considered respectful no matter the race or culture, just don't understand His majesty--who and what Christ really is.

Charlie Roberts

commented on Mar 17, 2017

I agree, in the end the condition of the heart is what matters most. There have been times my Sunday's best attire, or all the best clothes from Nordstroms, could've overcame the bitterness and unforgiveness I had in my arsenal of baggage, I should've checked at the door. And in the end which was worse, the way my friends saw me, or the way God truly saw me? The so called undesirables, will never have the opportunity for the Holy Spirit to change the heart, if everyone (including finger pointers) is not allowed to come as the classic hymn states, Just as I am. We don't need to be referees, when we're all on the same team already! I will pray for you, as I hope you would do the same for me...

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