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What Do We Wear To Church? Hawaiian Shirts?

Category Articles
Date March 4, 2004

The recent post on the Presbyterian Church of America regarding a preacher who got into trouble for the length of his hair and the Hawaiian shirts he wore in the pulpit, brought to mind a story that has been circulating on the Internet for awhile.

I think I have a little credibility to speak on these matters. As a seminary student I was not allowed to take a final exam because I showed up in Bermuda shorts. I remember the clucking of some of the older students who did not like the fact that some of us wore our Weejuns without socks. I still get irritated when I think about those things. What follows is the story and some comments.

One Sunday morning an old cowboy entered a church just before services were to begin. Although the old man and his clothes were spotlessly clean, he wore jeans, a denim shirt and boots that were very worn and ragged. In his hand he carried a worn out old hat and an equally worn out Bible.

The church he entered was in a very upscale and exclusive part of the city. It was the largest and most beautiful church the old cowboy had ever seen. The people of the congregation were all dressed with expensive clothes and accessories. As the cowboy took a seat, the others moved away from him. No one greeted, spoke to, or welcomed him. They were all appalled at his appearance and did not attempt to hide it.

The preacher gave a long sermon about Hellfire and brimstone and a stern lecture on how much money the church needed to do God’s work. As the old cowboy was leaving the church, the preacher approached him and asked the cowboy to do him a favor.

“Before you come back in here again, have a talk with God and ask him what He thinks would be appropriate attire for worship.”The old cowboy assured the preacher he would.

The next Sunday, he showed back up for the services wearing the same ragged jeans, shirt, boots, and hat. Once again he was completely shunned and ignored. The preacher approached the man and said, “I thought I asked you to speak to God before you came back to our church.”

“I did,” replied the old cowboy. “If you spoke to God what did he tell you the proper attire should be for worshiping in here?” asked the preacher. “Well, sir, God told me that He didn’t have a clue what I should wear. He says He’s never been in this church before.”

I have read that cowboy story a number of times from various sources. Of course, the story sets the preacher up as the stiff, self-righteous, unloving fellow who hasn’t got a clue, the cowboy as the honest seeker who is too poor to have any better clothes, and God, of course, on the side of the cowboy.

It raises the issue of dress in church. We have experienced in our culture a marked decline in formality, and some think this an entirely good thing. I do not. According to one of my favorite commentators on such things, Tom Wolfe, it began with the young brilliant engineers in the Silicon Valley, who saw no reason to continue the stiff formality of the East Coast business establishment. So out with ties and suits and in with the jeans and Hawaiian shirts.

I wonder if anyone has noticed that with this change in the ways of dress we have experienced a decline of manners, of civility, of respect, of a sense of propriety. Do you remember that such was Ronald Reagan’s respect for the office he held that he never went into the oval office except in tie and jacket. Bill Clinton, the quintessential boomer, went in there in his running gear and ended up doing other things in that office.

It seems to me a number of ministers now show a certain disregard for their calling. When they play golf they wear the best-coordinated golf wear from the best makers of golf wear. They do the same when they play tennis. But they seem to think that when they go to church or Presbytery the appropriate dress is the same as at the golf or tennis club. All of this seems to be their statement that they are anything but stuffy and that they thoroughly understand the post-everything world and its expectations of ministers. The minister goes to great lengths (and even expense) to show that he does not take himself or his calling too seriously, that he is just one of the “guys” who really “really gets it” when it comes to understanding his culture.

Now when it comes to church, I wonder why people don’t think this way: ”I am going to meet with God and to worship Him. I wonder how I should dress for such an occasion?” I expect if a member or minister were invited to meet with the President, he would want to know if there were any protocol that is expected to be observed, how one should dress, how one should address the President, etc. But somehow we get the idea that God does not give a rip about such things. Somehow I don’t think so

My just turned 21 year old son, told us he wanted for his birthday some wool dress slacks and some dress shoes. As it turned out he meant he wanted some wool slacks and traditional captoe shoes with leather souls. Why? He wanted these because he said he did not feel comfortable wearing his khakis and clunky shoes to church anymore. Now did my poor son somehow cave to the establishment? I think not. I think he grew up and I rejoice to see the maturity.

The concept of propriety is still relevant for our culture and for all. There is a place for all sorts of clothes – old worn clothes, for cowboy clothes, for gold clothes, and yes even for no clothes. But I submit that not all forms of dress and undress are appropriate for church. Do we really think that a Hawaiian church in the pulpit says nothing? It says much about the minister’s view of God and his worship, of the minister and his calling, of the people of God and what they are gathered to do.

Do I think anyone should ever be turned away because he might come dressed like the cowboy? No, absolutely not. I think we should go back to an earlier standard. Wear your best. A farmer might wear his newest, freshly washed overalls. A businessman would wear his suit. A woman would wear her nicest dress. The cowboy would come and our deacons would get him some clothes. The minister would dress as one who knows himself to have a special calling to lead people into the presence of the majestic and holy God whom we must worship, as the writer of Hebrews tells us, “with reverence and awe” and to be the mouthpiece of God. This seems obvious to me, though I know it never occurs to some.

So I say: Welcome the cowboy with warm hospitality and open arms. Get him some new or nice used cowboy clothes. Give him the gospel. Get him saved – then discipled. Help him find a job that will let him make a living so he won’t have to wear torn clothes. Disciple him. Teach him about the glory of God and the privilege of worship. I’ll bet he’ll wear the nicest things he has before long when he comes to church, so long as his minister is mature enough to know that clothes do make a difference. Yep, I think God will be in that church a lot.


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