Since my childhood I have noticed a gradual trend away from formal dress. Less and less people dress up for anything, even weddings or funerals. Blue jeans and a bar jacket are as acceptable attire as a suit and tie. When the banks when to "casual Fridays" I knew that a cultural trend had turned the corner. Banks, it seemed, were the last bastion of crisp formality - that is, after the military - or the church.
In an editorial entitled "What We Wear Says A lot About Our Churches, " Douglas Mendenhall leans toward the opinion that a mixture of casual and formal in the worship place shows more openness to others different than ourselves. We need both the formal and the casual to show that the church is a welcoming place. That's not a bad thought, I suppose. We certainly don't want to turn any away simply because they own less or earn less. Yet I suspect that most people dress the way they do not because of a need to be "welcoming," but simply because of a desire to be comfortable. And more and more the idea of being comfortable is of the highest priority in any public setting. It drives architecture and business and most certainly the service industry. And, of course, it is driving the church. Making people comfortable is a prime concern.
So, if that is true, using Mendenhall's question, what does this say about our churches? I fear that it says we have been losing a sense of being in the presence of our holy God. Unlike Moses there is no need to alter our dress or approach, for there is no 'burning bush' to face. Altars have disappeared in favor of stages, theater seats have replaced pews, and even clergy dress down in polo shirts, shunning robes and suits. Sermons become talks about 'felt needs,' and carefully avoid any mention of sin and judgment and repentance.
Have you ever noticed that in big trials the accused is carefully dressed in a nice suit, as is his lawyer? He needs to appear as if he is respectful of the setting and the judge. They even rise when the judge enters. Why is it that we dress our criminals up in suits for court, but dress down our children for church, where we stand before the most holy judge of the universe, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords? One wonders.
In my first parish I remember a man by the name of Marty, who made an impression on my regarding church and dress. He was in his 20's or 30's and had a real need for serious dental work. When he came to church he went straight for the coffee urn and took his Styrofoam cup into the sanctuary and waited for the service. Obviously he was not accustomed to being in a church. Yet one thing strikes me. After a I while he came dressed in a suit. It didn't fit well, and was probably purchased at a second-hand shop. But he dressed up! Instinctively this unchurched man must have know he was something special. Why do our churched people feel so different?
What do our clothes say about our churches? I think they say more than we'd like to admit. Admittedly it's a cultural matter. The Bible does not specify exactly what we ought to wear. However, the Bible does describe what we encounter in the worshiping assembly, and that alone should affect how we approach God and the holy gifts he offers. I am not calling for everyone to dress up in fine suits and expensive dresses. Not everyone has a budget for this. But everyone has clothing they would wear to a nicer occasion than the local ball game. Would it not be nice for at least this level of attire to be used in the presence of God?