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Stop dressing so tacky for church
Remember when people used to dress up for church? Casual Friday has now morphed into Sloppy Sabbath.
April 19th, 2014
08:00 PM ET

Stop dressing so tacky for church

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) - If the Rev. John DeBonville could preach a sermon to lift the souls of churchgoers across America, his message would be simple:

Stop dressing 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.

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.”

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Bible • Christianity • Church • Easter

soundoff (1,006 Responses)
  1. htenhoope

    God is not interested in your outward appearance. Weren't Adam and Eve initially naked? It's the sin that made Adam and Eve themselves ashamed of themselves naked.
    God only looks at your inside. It's us people that put rules and regulations down on each other.
    How can a church survive nowadays if they would still require dress-up.
    As a kid my parents made me do the dress-up for church thing and I hated it with a passion.
    I have abandoned church a long time ago due to their little rules and regulations. I have my own church in my heart where God is my buddy, and I see him that way, not high up on a pedestal where it puts a huge distance between us.
    I'm sure that will not fit in a church.

    April 20, 2014 at 10:04 am |
  2. lean6

    The Rev. John DeBonville wants the poor people in his congregation to stop looking poor, because when he drives up in his new luxury car, wearing tailored suits and the finest jewelry, it makes him look bad. Plus, people who just show up to church wearing whatever tend to forget to bring cash for the offering plate too.

    April 20, 2014 at 9:57 am |
  3. chiniquy

    If there is no Judgment in the HereAfter for doing wickedness on this Earth, then everyone can just do anything they feel like doing. Like lying, raping, pedophilia, stealing, killing, etc and then died and go to a wonderful afterlife or to nothing at all. No, there will be a Final Day of judgment before the Lord-Creator and those whose bad deeds are more than their good deeds will be cast into the Hellfire (not a literal fire, because we will not have physical bodies).

    April 20, 2014 at 9:53 am |
    • ssq41

      "Like lying, raping, pedophilia, stealing, killing, etc "

      Hmmmmm...church headlines.

      April 20, 2014 at 9:58 am |
    • nycmcmike

      Why is it you guys always sound like you have a tone of glee coming from your voice when you're telling others how they're going to Hell while you'll be sitting in Heaven?

      April 20, 2014 at 9:59 am |
    • lean6

      When you put it that way, you make "free will" sound like a terroristic ultimatum with eternal consequences.

      April 20, 2014 at 10:00 am |
    • TruthPrevails1

      HereAfter? Judgement Day?

      Now if you could only provide verifiable evidence without the use of your holy book for living in fear of this crap, you might have a point. While you live in fear of your imaginary friend the rest of us will enjoy living life for what it is.

      April 20, 2014 at 10:13 am |
    • James XCIX

      "... then everyone can just do anything they feel like doing. Like lying, raping, pedophilia, stealing, killing, etc "

      Well, there are those pesky laws and those who enforce them to contend with, too.

      April 20, 2014 at 10:33 am |
      • lean6

        Yeah...and by "everyone," he must be referring to all the people in prison and on the news for doing all of that stuff. Too bad for many of the victims though...hopefully they got a chance to repent for saying the dog ate their homework, because I would hate to think they could be in Hell for it.

        April 20, 2014 at 10:37 am |
  4. professoreugene

    For services where ladies dresss like ladies, gentlemen dress like gentlemen, no collections, go to your local Kingdom Hall. You'll never regret it.

    April 20, 2014 at 9:53 am |
    • igaftr

      "services where ladies dresss like ladies, gentlemen dress like gentlemen"

      Sounds like you are more concerned with the costumes people are wearing than the people themselves.

      April 20, 2014 at 10:08 am |
      • professoreugene

        You obviously have never been inside a K.Hall. There's still time today, but do put on a suit and tie. You can leave your money at home. They're not interested in that. [Our service starts at 1p.m.EDT] You just gotta meet the folks there.

        April 20, 2014 at 11:19 am |
  5. janetmermaid

    Stop dressing so tacky, period. Whatever happened to pride in how one looks? I hear all these people whine "but I have to be COMFORTABLE!" Guess what - nice, well-fit clothes ARE comfortable. One stupid woman even told me she wouldn't wear dresses because when she was a kid all her taffeta dresses were scratchy? Seriously!?!?! Who still makes taffeta dresses. What a lame excuse for looking like a slob.

    April 20, 2014 at 9:47 am |
    • G to the T

      I've never worn a tie that didn't feel like a noose. "Well-fitted" or not, some people just aren't comfortable in some kinds of clothes. If my job required me to wear a tie would I? Yes, but it would be a clip-on and I'd be looking for another job in the meantime. My job doesn't require interaction with the public or our customers. What sense would it make for me to have to own 2 separate wardrobes for the sake of someone else's personal tastes (as that's what it amounts too)?

      April 20, 2014 at 9:56 am |
  6. skfreem

    I'm not sure that anything CNN writes about Christianity is worth reading unless you're looking for fuel to a pre-existing bias.

    April 20, 2014 at 9:45 am |
    • Reality

      A summary and update on the religion called Christianity:

      (for the new members of this blog)

      The Apostles' Creed 2014 (updated by yours truly based on the studies of NT historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

      Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
      and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
      human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven?????

      I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
      preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
      named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
      girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

      Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
      the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

      He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
      a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
      Jerusalem.

      Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
      many semi-fiction writers. A bodily resurrection and
      ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
      Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
      grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
      and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
      called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

      Amen
      (References used are available upon request.)

      April 20, 2014 at 9:52 am |
      • ssq41

        Mornin', reality!

        April 20, 2014 at 9:54 am |
  7. songbookz

    Guess I won't be going to church...I don't own a suit and have no plans to buy one.

    April 20, 2014 at 9:45 am |
    • skfreem

      You can come to the church of which I'm a part, Songbookz. I came just as I was and they accepted me.

      April 20, 2014 at 9:47 am |
      • ssq41

        That's a nice offer, skfreem. Thanks.

        April 20, 2014 at 10:05 am |
      • songbookz

        Thanks

        April 20, 2014 at 11:00 am |
  8. adrieltavel

    Well, let me ask this question first in response to this article: do you think that God cares about whether or not people attend church more or less than God cares about what the attendees wear? I would be willing to be that God would happily have as many open search as

    While I understand the arguments for a return to a more formal style of dress for certain activities like attending a church service (especially on holy days like Easter), going out to dinner anywhere that's nicer than McDonald's–you can be a little bit of a slob in McDonald's. But the college student "I just got out of the pool, dried off and threw my shirt and sandals on" look is as casual as one should ever really be. Even when it's only McDonald's. or even, God forbid, to a job interview, people dressing more sharply could take away from the important aspects of attending church in more ways than one: first, if everyone is dressing up, then church will turn into a fashion show. Many of those people who dress up for church do so in order to outdo someone else. To show them up. Woman moreso than men. And, that's only one example of how a return to the old ways may not make a congregation more cohesive, but rather more divided. Church and other religious functions should not be a fashion show or contest.

    Other people argues in the article that dressing up is a sign off respect towards God since churchgoers are entering His or Her House. But, remember back to the beginning of Genesis when Adam and Eve were in the garden of Eden nude and only covered themselves after eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. When God saw them covering themselves, He asked them what they were doing. God wasnt terribly pleased to learn the answer. And, God never just shrugged his shoulders and said, "Oh well. They aren't the creatures i originally made but they are what they are now and I'm going to leave them be." There was no commentary in the bible suggesting that God wanted history to unfold as it did and for things to be as they are now. So, with that in mind, it only sounds logical based on the information that we (humanity) have about Jesus, God and what God wants man to do to assume that, if God doesn't in fact care what we wear to church, the peach-colored, one-piece birthday suit may even elicit a laugh. That was mankind's original outfit, day in and day out, and, considering the desires that God expressed in a few situation

    April 20, 2014 at 9:39 am |
    • Reality

      Hmm, lot of conjecture since there is no god and there was no biblical Adam and Eve. And is not clothing part of human evolution? e.g. fabrics developed to absorb the drippy, odoriferous parts as in Under Armour, Pampers or Depends?

      April 20, 2014 at 9:47 am |
  9. sandyb57

    The #1 reason I stay out of church: hypocrites who go to church to judge how others are dressed. Did they not read that part about "judge not, lest ye be judged?"

    April 20, 2014 at 9:38 am |
  10. mjeep2001

    It's a shame that a church congregation
    " judges " how you are dressed. I enjoyed going to church comfortably in jeans and a nice shirt. As I walked into sit down heads were turning, I finally just stopped going. I drive past that church often and wonder is it the same still ?

    John 7:24 – Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.

    April 20, 2014 at 9:27 am |
  11. fdtower1fdtower1

    Wow, so how is it that ME who is someone who hasn't really been to church in years needs to remind these preachers that if they probably should go back and re-read their bibles. If I recall correctly, Jesus didn't minister to people dressed in fancy outfits and such, they were the poor, the weak, and the ordinary. Yeah, I'd even say if you think that people SHOULD dress up, then you've missed his message entirely.

    It's along the same lines of that $18 MILLION DOLLAR (@1980) Crystal Cathedral out in California (I think they were looking for another $50 million for renovations recently). I always thought building something like that was the OPPOSITE of what Jesus wanted...Should have built a nice church for less than half that and used the rest of that money to feed the poor or shelter the homeless...Then again, what do I know?

    April 20, 2014 at 9:27 am |
    • nycmcmike

      You hit it spot on.

      Christ would say, "Sale that fancy building, sale your BMW, sale your fancy clothes and give all the money to the poor."

      Most of us have stopped going to Church because it is nothing more than a money machine.

      April 20, 2014 at 9:44 am |
  12. nycmcmike

    "Yes, make sure you dress better. And give more donations too. My BMW needs an upgrade."

    April 20, 2014 at 9:24 am |
    • b4maboy205

      Right.. i bet they dont care what you got on when that collection plate goes around

      April 20, 2014 at 9:32 am |
  13. chesedlove

    Now CNN is telling Christians what to wear in church?

    April 20, 2014 at 9:23 am |
    • midwest rail

      No.

      April 20, 2014 at 9:25 am |
  14. golfunder80

    I am sad for the Pastor worried about how people adorn their bodies, rather than just being happy they are at church. Christ was inclusive and would welcome anyone into his house. This article misses the point entirely. As a Christian, the last thing I am going to do question someone's clothes if they come to church. My job is to welcome them and make them feel comfortable, not exactly the opposite.

    April 20, 2014 at 9:22 am |
  15. chuckdubdubdub

    What a bunch of nonsense. With dwindling congregations and the larger cultural trend toward dressing down... hmmmm, doesn't quite seem like a forward-looking stance!

    April 20, 2014 at 9:22 am |
    • lean6

      If I had to guess, I would say that the shift to "come as you are" means that people are showing up without enough money to put in the offering pan. I'm 99.9999999999 percent certain that's what this article is about...in spirit. So, to offend people showing up in informal attire and empty pockets is of no consequence that this author cares about.

      April 20, 2014 at 9:27 am |
  16. mcquestion5000

    That's religion for you. Even when you show up to worship god they're still telling you that you're unworthy. If it's not the things you do or think (Thank you so much, thought police.), it's how you're dressed.

    Always and forever telling you how unworthy you are and no matter what effort is made, you're still not good enough.

    No wonder your pews are emptying. No one needs to hear this crap day in and day out.

    April 20, 2014 at 9:15 am |
  17. revcanhelpkey1977

    How did Jesus dress for church??? oh yeah, isn't this story a little judgmental?

    April 20, 2014 at 9:15 am |
  18. ericgoestoholland

    An example of the kind of short-sighted ignorance that often steered me away from the church. How about this:

    James 2:1-26 ESV
    "My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?"

    April 20, 2014 at 9:09 am |
  19. zoid666

    Yes, because the CREATOR OF THE UNIVERSE is so concerned about what you might be wearing. Forget about that little being born naked thingy.

    April 20, 2014 at 9:08 am |
  20. etiendelamothecassel

    I go in my birthday suit.

    April 20, 2014 at 9:05 am |
    • whippstippler7

      Ummmm, I think it needs ironing.

      April 20, 2014 at 9:08 am |
    • mcquestion5000

      Now that's a church congregation I can get behind. Let's get naked!

      April 20, 2014 at 9:17 am |
      • ausphor

        Might not be practical, it could be very obvious to everyone if some guy is lusting after.....

        April 20, 2014 at 10:56 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.