Some of you have heard about mega-church pastor Ed Young’s latest initiative to coach the church on what to wear and what not to wear. I was made aware of it through a post by saint and sinner Lance Ford, and admit to being quick to write off Young and his efforts as yet another example of celebrity pastordom gone awry. (And, they may still be this!)
Young, who pastors Fellowship Church in Dallas, Texas and Miami, Florida also blogs regularly. His website, “Pastor Fashion,” is actually a well of resources for fashion-sensitive men and women striving to be hip in a relaxed, trying-to-look-like-they’re-not-trying sort of way. From what I gather, the site is very popular- and I must confess to having scanned the articles for some help on my own dilemma of the sexy, black dress, which to this day I have yet to find an excuse to wear: http://blog.beliefnet.com/fellowshipofsaintsandsinners/2011/12/the-minister-and-the-skimpy-dress.html. (Stay tuned: I may write Ed an open letter to solicit his advice.)
Then the other day friend and fellow saint and sinner Jake Dell sent on another helpful fashion resource- this time in the form of a female Episcopal priest-blogger who has turned the presentation of women’s clerical collars into more appealing, fashion accents than your average dunce cap. (And I would argue that it really is about as fashionable to wear a dog collar these days as it once was to march through the streets with a dunce cap on one’s head. Just think, for example, of the latest intrigue and controversy swirling around the Catholic church regarding a butler-turned-spy and the Pope’s missing papers. The guilt by association can be unavoidable here for all you dog-collar wearers, and I extend my sympathies.) You can read Erin Jean Ward on clerical fashion and how to redeem the dog collar look in her own words here: http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/?s=erin+jean+ward.
So, where does all of this fashion talk leave us? Is it all just silly, frivolous chatter? Or, is there something potentially life-giving here for the church and, more importantly, the world? I would answer, “yes” to the first query, and “maybe” to the second.
To be sure, the question of whether to wear a bolo tie or a Hawaiian shirt to the party is a quintessentially first-world dilemma. Maybe only in America do we have conversations about whether skinny jeans, testosterone and faith go together. Elsewhere in the Majority world, where people are fortunate to have two or three outfits that they regularly recycle, and maybe one pair of shoes tops, such “hot-button” subjects on the radio and talk show circuits seem superficial at best. They are usually a function of a church whose concerns are so totally removed from those of the rest of the world. At worst, then, these conversations can become an almost diabolical distraction from the things that break God’s heart and should break ours, too.
Still, I would like to believe that God can use even something as frivolous as fashion to further God’s mission, insofar as God’s mission is as contextual as it is universal. Because let’s face it: fashion is an issue of concern to much of our wider, Western culture, even if it can also be frivolous. If we’re not obsessing about how groovy we are, most of us would at least like to think that what we’re wearing matches, or isn’t a throwback to the Middle Ages, not to mention the seventies (although am I right in hearing that the seventies look is coming back?).
I’m still not sure to what extent Ed Young intends for us to take his fashion focus as more than merely tongue-and-cheek engagement with our culture. (The below video that appeared yesterday on Young’s blog is absolutely hilarious, and I would submit, is a light-hearted way to engage the issue.) Young seems to be saying, though, that if we Christians don’t look hip or cool, then God won’t, either, which begs the question: do we really want to promote a God who relies on the name brands we wear in order to be more attractive or enticing to people? Is evangelism just about self-beautification, in the same way that we doll up our church services so that more people will come on Sunday mornings? I would hope not. Still, if the question of what to wear was relevant to the apostle Paul in his own time (take, for example, Paul’s admonitions to the Corinthians) should it not be relevant for us, too, and if so, how?
Where I would leave us, though, is with the question of how much this quintessentially first-world dilemma is ultimately, like the barrage of so many other things flung at us in our media-saturated, consumerist culture, just another distraction from God’s mission in Jesus. The mission that Jesus inaugurates is one of preaching good news to the poor, proclaiming freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind and release to the oppressed (Luke 4:18). And this message is not just for us as first-world Americans but for the whole world.
If the scope and content of this message remain unchanged, how we present it, in our various contexts, will look different. Our task as the church, then, seems to be one of discernment. We need to be constantly asking ourselves if how we’re presenting the message is actually furthering or obstructing the content of that message (namely, God’s mission of freeing us and our world from all the powers and principalities that would enslave us).
Not long ago I was standing in a receiving line after serving as the morning’s guest preacher. When I preach I am often asked to wear my clerical gown, which these days consists of a man’s hand-me-down robe with shoulder pads that make me feel like I’m playing linebacker for the Saints. (I guess I’ll have to consult with Erin real soon.) So, on this particular day, in addition to donning the garb of the latest draft pick in football, I had also chosen to wear a pair of stylish, red flats.
An attractive, fashionably dressed older woman came up to shake my hand: “I liked your sermon,” she said, “and I love your shoes! Where did you get them?”
If truth be told, I appreciated the compliment- although I can’t help but wonder if she spent more time that day thinking about my red shoes (yet another proud yard sale find) than about the sermon. I seriously hope not, but then again, they were some pretty hip shoes.
The apostle Paul in his first letter to the church in Thessalonica commends the Thessalonians for letting the real stuff of their lives be the living message of the Gospel (1 Thessalonians 1). Fashion is fun. It can even be a way to engage our first-world context with the aesthetics of a God who loves the world He made and paints it in many different forms and colors. But if fashion as the how of our message becomes mistaken for the content of our message- if it replaces the actual stuff of God’s mission- then we will ultimately be trading in Christ’s convicting message of grace and truth and a whole world restored for little more than a cheap pair of shoes.
So, what do you think? Is all this talk about fashion just a cheap distraction from God’s mission? Are there ways it, too, might be conscripted for God’s mission? If so, how? Leave your thoughts here. I’ll compile them and send them along to pastor turned fashion guru Ed.