Some churches have embraced a business-oriented “the customer is always right” approach to worship that places individual comfort at the center of Sunday service, says Cherry, author of“Worship Architect: A Blueprint for Designing Culturally Relevant and Biblically Faithful Services.”
“Many young people and boomers judge the value of worship service based on personal satisfaction,” Cherry says. “If I get to wear flip-flops to Wal-Mart, then I get to wear flip-flops to church. If I get to carry coffee to work, I get to carry coffee to church. They’re being told that come as you are means that God wants you to be comfortable.”
What the Bible says
The Bible says that’s not true – people had to prepare themselves internally and externally for worship.
In the Old Testament, Jewish people didn’t just “come as they are” to the temple in Jerusalem. They had to undergo purification rituals and bathe in pools before they could enter the temple, says Cherry, who is also a professor of worship at Indiana Wesleyan University.
Both Old and New Testaments suggest that people should not approach God in a casual manner, Cherry says. Psalms 24 urges the faithful to “ascend the hill of the Lord …with clean hands and pure hearts.”
When Jesus taught in the synagogues, he also observed the rules and decorum of being in God’s house, Cherry says.
Cherry isn’t calling for a restoration of first-century cultural norms, such as women covering their hair in worship, or a rigid dress code. She says churches should meet people where they are, and make even the poorest person feel welcome.
She just says that preparation for worship should give less thought to people and more thought to the divine.
“There should be some sort of approach to God that will include certain steps to honor the God that is not our buddy but fully The Other,” she says.
Others back up Cherry’s call to keep the Sabbath special. Dressing up really makes a difference on Sunday, they say.
“It puts you in a different mindset,” says Tiffany Adams, a convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who grew up wearing jeans in church. “It actually sets the Sabbath apart from every other day.”
And there are still pockets of church culture where no one has to persuade people to look sharp on Sunday.
The African-American church is one such place. Many of its members still insist on dressing up on Sunday because of the historical struggles of blacks. Sunday morning was often the only time in the week that a black person could assert their dignity, says Durley, the Atlanta civil rights activist who also is a retired Baptist pastor.
“On Sunday morning, when you put on your tie, your shirt and put your palms together and slicked down your hair, you were no longer the hired help, you were a trustee, a deacon or you chaired this board and you dressed accordingly,” Durley says.
What would Jesus wear?
There are others, though, who say God cares more about the person’s soul than their style. No one wears a bracelet today asking, “What would Jesus wear.” Clothes just weren’t important to Jesus or the early church, they claim.
The early church was anti-hierarchical and adopted a “come as you are” approach to worship, welcoming outcasts and the disenfranchised who often couldn’t dress in fine clothes, says Carl Raschke, a religious studies professor at the University of Denver.
Raschke cites Mark 12:38, where Jesus mocks the fine clothes worn by the Pharisees, a group of elite Jewish religious leaders of his day.
Others cite James 2:2-4, where the writer of the New Testament book criticizes early Christians for discriminating against poor people visiting the church in dirty clothes and favoring the man “wearing a gold ring and fine clothes.”
“Adopting a dress code would not only be suicidal for American Christians who are swimming against the stream of casual secularism, it would be antithetical to what Christianity sees increasingly as its abiding mission – to reach those who are marginalized and ‘don’t fit in,’” Raschke says.
Some people, though, remain convinced that casual Sundays are getting too sloppy.
“The casualness of Sunday church attire has gone too far,” says DeBonville, the pastor of the Massachusetts church. “It’s about respect and honoring God.”
When DeBonville looks across the scruffy fashion landscape of America, he sees only one profession that’s holding the line against tacky dress.
It’s not the preachers or priests, though. These people belong to another profession whose members aren’t exactly known for respect and honoring God.
“The last ones wearing shirt and ties are the politicians,” DeBonville says.
Easter is supposed to be about the renewal of hope, but when asked if the spread of sloppy Sabbath can get any worse, DeBonville sounds gloomy. Yoga pants in the pews, pajamas near the altar – will everyone soon start showing up at church dressed like “the Dude” in the film, “The Big Lebowski.”
Nothing would surprise DeBonville anymore.
“There’s growing casualness everywhere,” he says. “I don’t know if it can get much worse.”
By John Blake, originally appearing on CNN’s Belief Blog.