For some time now I've been meditating on my quirk of wearing business-casual dress when preaching on Sunday mornings. Why do I do this? Where does this habit come from? What am I trying to say by dressing more formally than almost all of those attending my church Sunday morning?
What am I teaching my people about church, worship, ministry and about Christ by what I wear Sunday morning?
Although I may have grown up in a church where preachers wore suits (suits being the only accepted ministerial attire - both clergy collars and jeans were considered equally indicative of liberalism), I've long sense grown willing to evaluate the practices I grew up with. I've examined the doctrine of my youth and found it to be faithful to orthodox Christianity. On the other hand, I've examined many practices of my youth and found them needing development.
Among the practices needing evaluation and contemporary development are how formally ministry is approached. Some practices deserve formal reverence: preaching and worship demand good theological reflection, architecture and maintenance deserves excellence, etc. On the other hand, some practices need to lighten up so as to be more accessible to people. Consider how we've gotten away from the large battleship style pulpits, stained glass and ornate furnishings. Practicality and comfort are finding an appropriate place in missional churches seeking to remove unwarranted barriers to people's experience of the Church.
We come now to how the preacher dresses...
The philosophy behind the suits was one of reverence for the function and solemn duty of preaching, but also extended to the other duties of the pastor as well. "If the president was coming over to your house," went the argument, "wouldn't you dress your best." No baptist pastor of my church growing up would have ever dared to admit that this argument is inherited from the medieval Roman Catholic assumption that Jesus Christ is indeed showing up in your church this morning, in bodily form, as the elements of the Eucharist are sanctified through the prayer of consecration. If you though that Jesus was coming to your church each Sunday, you would design cathedrals to house such an encounter and don robes to consecrate yourself. The baptist pastor who uses such an argument would do well to remember where that reasoning took the medieval Church.
Nevertheless, that is my heritage: the fundamentalist mindset that thinks reverence needs to be expressed in dressing up for Sunday morning; at least dressing up more than I usually do. From the very beginning of coming to Woodcreek Bible Church, I was encouraged to relax and "let my hair down" (clearly a metaphor since my hair is always too short to let down). The entire congregation dresses very comfortably, choosing to prioritize regular attire over artificial formality. What's been my problem?
Part of it is perpetuated at my school (Dallas Theological Seminary). It maintains a dress code for students that (though I still honor it) represents somewhat of a disconnect with church trends calling for less formality. DTS requires business-casual attire when on campus attending classes. Therefore, I've continued that conditioning into my church, wearing slacks and colored shirts on Sunday mornings.
This is a sort of hypocrisy. I'm really saying with this practice that I'm one way on Sunday morning, but another the rest of the time. Should my respect for the solemn church service really be taken that far? Would it really kill me to dress on Sunday morning how I do the rest of the week? When does respect veer into duplicity? Instead of slacks, could I still achieve the desired reverence if my jeans simply had no holes?
Far from being a concession to culture, what if my wearing of jeans and non-offensive t-shirts actually taught my people more about the incarnational nature of ministry than I teach them right now? Could dressing down instead of "dressing up" actually help my church more firmly grasp the missio Dei and become the missional church we should be? Could dressing down accomplish more of what I want to model for people in my congregation that I have to this point? Could dressing down teach my church more about the mission of the Church than dressing up has done?
Oh my word! I find this very scary, and challenging to some of my long held comfort zones.