Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Faith Works 2-19-05
By Jeff Gill

"What Not To Wear"

So, you’ve been inspired by Lent or frightened by a falling tree limb from the ice storm, and you’ve decided to go to a place of worship this weekend.
What do you wear?
Not so long ago, this was a fairly simple issue. "Sunday go to meeting" clothes were what you called your good suit or nicest dress through much of American history, from New England Puritans in the 1600’s to Californian Catholics in 1960’s, and most groups large and small in between.
Then John Kennedy didn’t wear a hat to his inauguration, and with a whoosh, standards for special occasions swirled within society. Jimmy Carter wore a sweater for a presidential address, pants suits became the norm, not an exception, for women in many situations, and people on planes went from ties and pearls to tie-dye Pearl Jam t-shirts with sandals.
So what do you wear to church?
The standard answer for and from many has been "wear your best for God." Complicating that stock response is that what hangs in many closets as "the best" ain’t what it used to be (like my grammar), and what looks like grunge to one may be the best for another. You can have in one pew a sharp suit, polished shoes, and a tie seated next to a clean white t-shirt under a worn mud streaked denim jacket, and both are wearing their best.
Most complicated is the new vocabulary of workplace dress that makes "casual Friday" strike fear into the hearts of many. Is this too grubby? Do I look so formal people think I’m making a point? There are many points on a continuum that for many used to be a two or three point line: good clothes, work clothes, leisure clothes.
Now we have business casual, leisure formal ("no short shorts or collarless shirts, please"), and more categories each day as we have more clothes to categorize.
But what to wear to church?
The simple answer is: it depends. Many congregations in Licking County have contemporary and traditional services (now there’s a column!), which tends to tell you that ties and dresses are the norm at traditional, but are likely to stand out in the contemporary format. Many pastors at evangelical churches wear a kind of tieless look under a jacket that says "we’re not business stuffy, but we honor God," while a more liturgical church with robes and stoles and vestments tend to support a more formal look among the worshipers.
Ideally, any place of worship will accept a newcomer however they’re dressed, and most do. Some talk about "people looked at me funny," but that can be as much an internal unease as something really being communicated – after all, some folks just look that way all the time.
Places where a higher truth and deeper reality is affirmed should be able to look past the outer appearance, and building community can start with welcoming openly and honestly those who, well, choose to wear a dress to the contemporary service, as well as the sweat suit wearing person sitting next to them.
But every faith community has it’s own internal norm of dress, which may vary a little for those active in the service, but is fairly standard across the congregation.
Which is another reason why first time visitors tend to arrive late and leave early. They’re checking out what to wear if they want to come back.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio. His tie rack gets less of a workout than it once did; if you have a story of "what not to wear" in worship, e-mail

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