Saturday, April 23, 2005

Dress Code

When I was in college, a friend of mine had a theory which he lived out. It was a sort of mental preparation deal. Any day that Dean had a big test in a class, he dressed up. Often I'd see him on the south end of campus in a button-down shirt, tie and occasionally a jacket either walking to or coming back from an exam. Dean's theory was simple: dressing up put him in a focused frame of mind. When he had a tie around his neck, he knew that something more was expected. And it worked. He was a great student, whether clad in shirt and tie or not. But for Dean, dressing up was more than just physical, it was mental as well.

Then there was me. Usually I was on the other side of the coin. Baggy sweatpants, ragged t-shirt and the occasional pair of socks was standard attire -- especially for those early morning classes (which I defined as anything before 2pm). I tried Dean's approach a couple of times, but it didn't seem to affect either my grades or my confidence. Maybe I'm just weird. Well, OK, I am weird, but my outside appearance likely didn't make a bit of difference in my grades. My social life, yes; my academic life, no.

I was thinking about this difference between the two of us the other day. A friend was telling me about a church in our area which used to be very strict about the way one dressed on Sunday morning. You wore your Sunday best -- nothing less. That was the code. It didn't take a genius to break the code. Just look around at the rest of the church members and you could see how you were expected to dress. Then one Sunday a new family came to the service. They had just moved into a house half a mile from the church and were invited by one of the ladies in the congregation. But this family's Sunday best didn't exactly measure up to the church's standards. Dad didn't have a jacket and tie. Mom didn't have a beautiful dress. And the three kids, well, just wore what they could find. The new family felt very awkward, as did the whole congregation. These days, that church isn't so judgmental about clothing.

My church has been pretty "come as you are" for the eight years I've been their pastor. On my first Sunday here, I called the ushers forward to collect the offering and they were both wearing shorts! Even my eyebrows were raised -- more out of surprise than anything. I found that nobody was too concerned with the clothing (providing it was modest), but were instead just happy to have people worshipping. Of course we're in a rural setting, so seeing someone in a pair of Wranglers doesn't set off alarm bells. But is it proper in Sunday worship? Why would we "dress up" in the first place? Doesn't Scripture say that man looks on the outside, but God looks on the heart?

Today I went to a funeral home to visit with a family. I had never met the lady, but I knew some of her relatives. Earlier in the day I was wearing some jeans and a sweatshirt, but to go to the funeral home I put on a suit and tie. Why? I did it to show respect. Respect for the deceased and for her family. And I believe that was the point behind putting on your Sunday-Go-To-Meetin' clothes for church. We would dress up to show respect for God. But somewhere along the way, wearing our Sunday best became a subtle way of showing just how (cough, cough) blessed (cough, cough) we were. We tried to look good to impress our fellow worshippers instead of impressing the Object of our worship. We may have claimed to dress up for God, but in our hearts we dressed up so that others would be impressed or at least not look down on us.

For me, I also put on a suit today because, frankly, people expect a pastor to be wearing a suit and tie -- at least when he's "on duty". I was instructed by a well-meaning older pastor that I should "always look like a pastor". The major portion of that directive seemed to be the instruction to wear the "uniform" -- the dark suit, white shirt and conservative tie. But honestly, I'm not a suit and tie kind of guy. Not for everyday wear anyway. Yet I feel strangely uncomfortable if I'm dressed too casually on Sunday morning. For board meetings and other functions, I'm liable to be in a t-shirt and jeans, but on Sunday I enjoy dressing up to show my respect for God. My congregation wouldn't care if I preached in a Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops, but somewhere inside I drift back to my friend Dean's theory about dressing up: what you wear can affect your attitude. For me, it is often an expression of my attitude. I am more comfortable dressed up on Sunday morning, but if someone is more comfortable worshipping in sweats and sneakers, that's fine with me. I'm not the one who should be the focus of worship.

I've attended churches where Sunday morning looked like a fashion show, and I've worshipped in churches where guys where work shirts and ladies wear t-shirts and jeans. And from what I can gather from Scripture, it doesn't seem to matter much to God. At least the outside doesn't matter, but the condition of the heart is paramount. We shouldn't be spending our time deciphering the dress code or trying to adorn the outside without checking the inside -- the attitude of worship which should be our life focus and especially so on Sunday. So the clothes you put on for the worship service this weekend should help you to focus upon God. If you dress to impress man or woman, God is not impressed.

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