How about not dressing up for worship?

Sure, I’ll wear a suit. We’ll have the kids put on some decently nice outfits. My wife will look wonderful as always.

But maybe tomorrow, all of us could choose not to dress up. Maybe tomorrow, we could gather for worship without hiding who we really are. Instead of only smiling and keeping the kids in line, maybe we could let a little of the real us show. We don’t have to bear all our wounds at once, but letting the band-aids show won’t kill us.

You see, the people behind you in worship tomorrow might think you’re better than they are. Your well-behaved kids and beautiful singing intimidates others. Sometimes we’re so well put together that others feel out of place. How many times I’ve heard (and even said), “When I first came here, I thought everyone was so much better than I was.” Could there be a sadder story than that? How is that sinners gathered before their Savior could ever seem to be better than someone else?

We gather for worship because we are, each of us, poor. Not one of us will bring to worship tomorrow anything that can buy God’s love or earn His favor. No one is in less need of the atoning death of Christ than anyone else. We’ll be in worship because none of us (none!) have any hope in ourselves. We can try to shine it up, but we’re only fooling each other and hurting those who haven’t learned to play the game yet.

So if you don’t dress up tomorrow, we’ll be fine with that. If you need to come to worship and not smile, you won’t be the only one. If your kids are the loud ones tomorrow, not a single one of us will judge you. If you come to worship barely hanging on to God’s grace and promises, we’ll tighten our grip together. Worship is not the gathering of the haves and have-nots…it’s just the gathering of those who have given up every other hope than Jesus, including themselves. If we can’t be really imperfect and imperfectly real here, what’s the point?

Don’t be fooled by the suit. We’re all beggars coming for the feast.

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13 Comments

  1. Vernon February 16, 2014 at 2:16 am #

    This article left me somewhat perplexed. My motivation for “dressing up” is not to impress, intimidate, belittle, or comfort others. By extension, it seems to suggest that we should not prepare in anyway–just “roll out and roll with it”. In doing so, others will feel more comfortable. I don’t think that is the point of the article.

  2. George February 16, 2014 at 2:47 am #

    I see the point…the flip side is that this world is already so casual, so lacking respect for anything….its nice to put your best on and show respect for the King. It helps maintain the special nature of worshipping our Creator. We can always put our jeans on and drink our Starbucks…so why do it in worship?

  3. Adam Kuehner February 16, 2014 at 2:50 am #

    Dear Jared: Clearly you care deeply about this issue and your concern is gospel-motivated. On those grounds alone, let me offer up a hearty Presbyterian “Amen!” [that's "Ah-men"] to your post! At the same time, allow me to play devil’s advocate by responding in this fashion: “When you have the guts to wear jeans and a t-shirt to a loved one’s funeral (or to officially counsel others to do the same), let’s talk.” Now, I’m not saying that this is my response to your article. After all, I’m not all that dogmatic when it comes to church clothes. But I do know some folks who would take issue with your perspective on such grounds and I’m curious to know how you would respond.

    Their contention is, of course, that when funerals or weddings or job interviews or Opera performances, or “first dates occur” (despite our being self-consciously humble soteriological beggars), we all show our respect for the occasion by, relatively speaking, wearing our best threads (whatever that might be). But when it comes to public worship, we often… don’t. [At least not in suburban white middle class America. More on that below.] In other words, those who hold this view are not questioning the legitimacy of actual beggars dressing like actual beggars and so “being themselves”. Rather, they’re questioning the legitimacy of middle class white Americans with nice cars, large homes, and nice clothes “dressing down” for church — descending far below their ordinary tendency for other public occasions (or even for the workplace). They would say that, far from “being yourself,” this is actually taking a step away from how you would normally approach an important public event (that is, unless public worship — our personal encounter with a thrice-holy Sovereign God — no longer qualifies as important… or is no longer viewed as a vertical encounter at all).

    For the record, in my home congregation, less than 10% of the folks wear a tie to public worship and that’s never bothered me one bit. I will say, however, that in interacting with visitors from the over-40 urban African American community, I’ve found that my general tendency to dress up (as the pastor) has tended to make them feel more comfortable, given their cultural background. This causes me to wonder if this issue isn’t actually more complex (culturally and geographically) than it is often made out to be at first glance (?). In any event, if you’re going to go on record (which you have), it would be good to respond to some of these observations. Any thoughts?

    • Jared February 16, 2014 at 10:29 am #

      Hi Adam,

      Thanks for the reply. Here are a few thoughts that come to mind.

      First, the article was intended to be more about being dressed-down, spiritually speaking. An encouragement to let the “real me” show up when we come to worship. What people actually wear could, conceivably, either hinder or hurt that goal. Part of the motivation for the article is how many times I’ve heard new members say, “When I first came here, it was hard because I knew I wasn’t as good as everyone else.” That statement makes me think something is often wrong in our churches…

      Second, about clothing in worship: I wear a suit for the simple reason that it’s the one thing I can wear that causes no stumbling blocks to anyone. The more casual folks don’t mind if I wear a suit and several (like you noted) would be disappointed or distracted if I didn’t.

      Third, the more I think about it, the more the idea of “dressing our best for the most important occasion” doesn’t sit well with me. I do think the clothes we wear can impact the attitude of our heart and therefore it’s probably worth not being sloppy. But while I can find appropriate clothing to wear to a funeral or to meet the president, the idea that I *could* ever find appropriate clothing in which to approach the living God seems almost offensive. Nowhere in Scripture do I see any requirements for our approach to God other than being clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Perhaps (for some) to stop dressing up might actually help them come to God in the best (onliest) way: through Jesus, not our suits or dresses. It might help some to come with the only true fear of the Lord: the one that begins with poverty of spirit.

      To be clear, I can’t (don’t want to) evaluate the hearts of people as they come to worship, especially based on what they’re wearing. It’s not my intention to make people who dress up feel bad or out of place. But let’s look inward and at least make sure that there’s no trace of Pharisaism in our suits or sandals.

  4. Jessica Jacobson February 16, 2014 at 3:10 am #

    I am fat more concerned that you are clothed in Christ’s Righteousness than I am that you are wearing a dress/suit. But, others care… A LOT! Some are highly offended by flip flops & converse shoes (I know because those are the only two kinds of shoes I prefer to wear – even to funerals & first dates). My question is how dressed up must one be? And, how “not dressed up” can one be before they become a distraction from “decency & order/reverence & awe?”

  5. Jared February 16, 2014 at 12:16 pm #

    All – perhaps the post or maybe the title wasn’t as clear as it should have been…in the end, it’s not really about what we wear to worship, but whether we’ll be “putting on airs” and pretending to be something other than a beggar before the king. My motivation is a desire to see worshipers be more “real” with each other.

    Clothing plays a part in all this, but it’s the heart that matters. (See my response to Adam above for more clarification.)

    One more random thought: if you are distracted from worship by someone else’s clothing, perhaps the problem isn’t all theirs.

  6. Jonathan February 16, 2014 at 5:57 pm #

    I think the real problem has nothing at all to do with what we wear, but our lack of a fear of God and sense of His presence in worship. Our clothing and our attitude about it is a symptom of this, whether we come subtly proud of our formal attire, or flippantly casual in our jeans. If we come to worship with our hearts prepared, and with a sense of the great God Whose throne we are coming to, it will be reflected in our dress and attitude. I think this will manifest itself in more dressing up as a sign of respect and reverence, but at the same time a humble and loving attitude that communicates to new comers that we come just as needy as they do, regardless of our dress. What can we do to cultivate this?

  7. Angela February 16, 2014 at 11:32 pm #

    I really appreciate this article, Pastor Olivetti. Two things came to mind when I read this. First of all, why is it that I spend more time in the morning preparing myself outwardly then I do to prepare myself inwardly for worship? And secondly, like you mentioned, what does it look like to visitors when I come in acting like I’m perfect with a big smile, all dressed up, when really inside I’m just as broken as everyone else? I don’t plan on showing up to worship in sweatpants… that would just distract people and it would also be disobedience to my parents. But I could definitely spend less time on my outward appearance and more time on my heart, more time reaching out to the other hurting people in my church and less time trying to cover up my own brokenness.

    That, at least, is how I take this article and how I hope to respond. Thank you again for the insight.

    • Jared February 18, 2014 at 3:01 am #

      Angela! You’ve made my day. You put it better than I ever could: “more time reaching out to the other hurting people in my church and less time trying to cover up my own brokenness.” Wonderful. Thank you.

  8. paul February 18, 2014 at 9:14 pm #

    I am at issue with this article. You know when people go to work, family gatherings, weddings, or any public event they go to extremes to look their best. Many who work in an office wear a suit or tie to work. However, when it comes to the most important part of the week the Sabbath you are saying to not look good, not wear good clothes because you will offend someone else. The argument does not make any sense. Many people are offended I read the Bible at work does that mean I am to not read the Bible. Many at work are uncomfortable with me taking issue with drinking alcohol which is sinful (Proverbs 31). Does this mean now we are to drink alcohol? No way. If people feel uncomfortable with people dressed up then maybe they should buy a nice sweater, oh no they can’t afford it they have to pay their $400 cell phone bill.

    • Mark February 19, 2014 at 6:46 pm #

      Are you saying Jesus was sinful?

      Luke 11:16-19 (NASB)
      “But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places, who call out to the other children, and say, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon!’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

      This kind of thinking is what makes me want to leave. I don’t walk into church on the Sabbath to be judged by my peers. I come to be encouraged and uplifted and strengthened for the week ahead. However, when my experience on Sabbath is walking into a gauntlet of judgmental Christians, looking to nitpick my every move, it becomes the worst day of my week. I’m trying to recover grace with my kids – I took my kids out multiple times a week during the service because they were too squirmy, or couldn’t play silently – because they might “offend” those around me. Guess what? They HATE worship. My legalistic, judgmental attitude towards them was ruining their image of a loving, gracious God! Now imagine the effect of 18 years of legalism, judging and nitpicking? Do they have joy or have I robbed them of it?

    • Jared February 21, 2014 at 9:16 pm #

      Paul, see my previous comments. I’m not (necessarily) encouraging you to not look good or wear good clothes. The figurative point was for us to realize and act in every way possible as the needy beggars that we are as we come to worship. This goes way beyond clothes and is really a matter of the heart.

  9. Mark February 19, 2014 at 4:37 pm #

    I think this article strikes a strong chord between grace and legalism. As a fellow RP, I see a lot of legalism and not so much grace infecting our churches, and I think the responses here bear that out. We’ve created a self-perpetuating cycle of falsehood. The ones we look up to are the ones who appear like they have it all together. They wear suits to church, they have the million-dollar prayers, they have a great job, a nice house and a nice car. They show up to every church event no matter how much they have to sacrifice to do it. Then we elect them to be elders and wonder why churches seem to be rotting from the core.

    That’s how I was raised. The most important thing was to *LOOK* like a Christian. If I didn’t feel like going to church on Sunday, I should worship anyway because I was told if I acted like a Christian, my heart would follow. I knew what questions it was okay for RPs to ask and what questions would raise the anger of the pastor or youth leaders. It tore me apart, because I could never be honest about where I was in the Christian walk. It was a game – look like a faithful RP and cover up what’s happening inside.

    I’ve almost walked out of the RP church three times now. I love the doctrine, but it should be freeing us to love one another without reservation, not making us men-pleasers in fear that others will think less if we reveal our brokenness in any way. In the matter of dress, it’s as simple as “man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart” (1 Sam 16:7). Who are we trying to impress by our dress? Is it God, or is it those we look down our noses at when they walk in wearing jeans and plaid? If we wear Armani, but our heart is far away from God, what profit is that? If we wear cargo pants, but have a heart devoted to God, how does that harm us?

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