If the Rev. John DeBonville could preach a sermon to lift the souls of churchgoers across America, his message would be simple:
Stop dressnig so tacky for church.
DeBonville has heard about the “come as you are” approach to dressing down for Sunday service, but he says the Sabbath is getting too sloppy.
When he scans the pews of churches, DeBonville sees rows of people dressed in their Sunday worst. They saunter into church in baggy shorts, flip-flop sandals, tennis shoes and grubby T-shirts. Some even slide into the pews carrying coffee in plastic foam containers as if they’re going to Starbucks.
“It’s like some people decided to stop mowing the lawn and then decided to come to church,” says DeBonville, rector at the Church of the Good Shepard in Massachusetts. “No one dresses up for church anymore.”
Church leaders like DeBonville have harrumphed about declining dress standards for Sunday service for years, while others say God only cares what’s in someone’s heart.
But which side is right? What does the Bible actually say about dressing properly for church? And does Jesus provide fashion advice anywhere? Wasn’t he a homeless, Galilean peasant who wore flip-flops?
The answers to these questions are not as easy as they may seem. The Bible sends mixed messages about the concept of wearing your Sunday best. And when pastors, parishioners and religious scholars were asked the same questions, they couldn’t agree, either.
Wearing ties on first dates
There was one point on which both sides did agree: People are dressing sloppier everywhere, not just church.
Take a trek to the supermarket on Saturday morning and you’re bound to run into a sleepy-eyed woman in slippers and rollers at the checkout counter.
Pajamas in public: The battle of 'appropriate' vs. 'comfy'
Or take a walk outside and you’ll be greeted by teenagers slouching around with their jeans sagging over the butt-cheeks.
Even corporate America isn’t immune. Casual Fridays has morphed into casual every day and even tech tycoons like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wear bland T-shirts during public presentations.
It’s a sharp departure from another era in America before the 1960s, when people wore suits, dresses and white gloves in public.
The Rev. Gerald Durley, a sharp-dressed civil rights activist in Atlanta, recalls taking his future wife, Muriel, on their first date. When he showed up at her house, her father opened the door, looked at him, and took him aside gravely, “Young man can I talk to you for a minute.”
“He told me, 'If you’re going to take my daughter out, you can wear one of my ties,'” says Durley, a retired Baptist pastor.
Jennifer Fulwiler, who wrote an article for the National Catholic Register titled, “Why Don’t We Dress up Anymore,” says her great-grandfather would put on a coat and tie just to go grocery shopping.
The reasons why people stopped dressing up could fill a book. Yet Fulwiler offers one explanation that’s seldom mentioned – lack of gratitude.
Fulwiler’s revelation came one day as she watched scruffily dressed people board a plane. She flashed back to a black-and-white photo she had seen of her grandparents boarding a plane in the 1940s. Most of the passengers were dressed in suits and ties and dresses because air travel was such a privilege at the time.
“We dress up for what we’re grateful for,” she says. “We’re such a wealthy, spoiled culture that we feel like we have a right to fly on airplanes,” says Fulwiler, author of “Something Other than God,” which details her journey from atheism to Christianity.
Church is like air travel now – it’s no longer a big deal because people have lost their sense of awe before God, Fulwiler says.
Yet some of these same people who say it doesn’t matter how you dress for church would change their tune if they were invited to another event, Fulwiler says.
“If you had the opportunity to meet the Queen of England, you wouldn’t show up in at Windsor Castle wearing jeans and a T-shirt,” she says.
The church customer is always king
Shouldn’t people have that same reverential attitude when they show up at church to meet God, some ask? After all, doesn’t your dress reveal the importance you attach to an occasion? Just what do you mean, 'dress festively'?
That sentiment, however, is seen as hopelessly old school in many popular megachurches across America. Casual Fridays has morphed into casual Sundays.
And many of the popular megachurch pastors are middle-aged men who bound onto the stage each Sunday dressed in skinny jeans, untucked Banana Republic shirts, and backed by in-house Christian rock bands. They’ve perfected a “seeker-friendly” approach to church that gets rid of the old formal worship style with its stuffy dress codes.
But there’s a danger in making people too comfortable in their clothes on Sunday morning, says Constance M. Cherry, an international lecturer on worship and a hymn writer.