Casual churches believe God is not a fashion critic

Attire: Sunday best is still the rule for some congregations, but informality is in style at many others.

April 01, 2001|By Kim Grizzard

GREENVILLE, N.C. - For Doris Ballengee, "Just As I Am" is more than a hymn. It's a fashion statement.

The words describe the dress code of sorts at the Salvation Army, where worshippers come wearing everything from suits and dresses to jeans and T-shirts.

"We allow them to wear anything," said Ballengee, who attended Presbyterian churches for 60 of her 79 years before joining the Salvation Army. "They're there because they want to honor God. God isn't interested in what they're wearing."

Increasingly, neither are churches. In many cases, Sunday best has given way to Sunday casual.

But not everyone is comfortable with churches going casual. For some, dressing up for church is not just standard, it's scriptural.

"We are taught through the Bible that we should give our best to the Lord," said Howard Parker, 49, pastor of Sycamore Hill Baptist Church. "Whatever it is, it should be our best."

That, Parker said, includes reserving the best clothes for Sunday. It's a tradition that's been kept alive for more than 100 years at Sycamore Hill.

Men still wear coats and ties, and women still wear dresses and sometimes hats to Sunday worship services. While there is no written dress code, it is understood by most worshippers.

"I believe more African-American churches are formal than not," Parker said. "That's something that's been instilled in us."

But even at traditional churches, some casual wear is showing up in the pews. More women are putting on pants, and more men are taking off ties.

It's a trend that reflects casual dress in society. A few decades ago, men wore suits and women wore dresses for shopping or eating out. In recent years, many people have stopped dressing up even for work, as many businesses have adopted "dress-down" Fridays.

Annie McDuffie's church has "dress-down" Sundays. Once a month at Mount Calvary, worshippers come casual.

"We wear anything you want to wear," McDuffie said, "pants, your work clothes."

It's quite a departure for McDuffie, 78, who has always dressed formally for church, to see men worshiping in overalls. But she has come to accept casual church.

"I don't kick against it," she said. "As I told the sister that Sunday, I said she couldn't find it in the Bible nowhere where God asked her about her clothes."

When clothing is mentioned in the Bible, it is often used as a metaphor, such as "be clothed with righteousness" (Psalm 132:9) or "put on the full armor of God" (Ephesians 6:11).

In terms of literal references to clothing, Scripture, at times, seems to give it little importance. The Gospel of Matthew challenges believers not to worry about what they will wear. James cautions churchgoers not to discriminate against those who are poorly dressed, and Genesis records that clothes were unnecessary until the fall of man.

Still other biblical references seem to specify God's instruction for clothing, including a warning in Deuteronomy against transgender dressing and references in Exodus to the garments the priest should wear "to give him dignity and honor."

Rondy Fleming, minister of music for Soul Saving Station, believes formal dress in church honors God.

"He deserves some kind of reverence and some kind of honor," said Fleming, 40. "It shouldn't be downgraded to casual wear, [the clothes] you can go to a ball game or go out to McDonald's."

Fleming said believers should take as much care in dressing for church as they would in dressing for a job interview. And for the same reason: to make a good impression.

"You feel that [the interviewer] is important enough to go beyond your everyday dress," he said. "We feel the same way about [God]."

Cris Noble said reverence for God is the reason he stopped wearing a tie to church.

"Reverence, in its most basic understanding, is pleasing God," said Noble, 39, pastor of Restoration Church.

"Our first and foremost goal is to reach people for Jesus. I believe that pleases God more than anything - and that includes dress."

The church adopted a more casual style of dress in the 1980s, in part to attract people who might not otherwise attend services. Today, members of the congregation sometimes wear shorts and flip-flops to worship.

Some visitors, Noble admits, are put off by the casual wear, but others welcome it because they would feel intimidated by a more formal setting.

"I have known of some instances where clothing became a sort of competition of sorts. Some folks wouldn't attend a particular church because they couldn't match up to expectations."

Agatha Moore used to feel that way. She remembers a time in her life when she wouldn't attend church if she didn't have something new to wear.

Now a member of Hosanna Interdenominational Church of Worship and Praise, Moore, 39, has changed her mind about the importance of clothing in worship. It has taken her time to appreciate casual church, but she now believes it is better to invite all kinds of dress than to exclude anyone.

"I think we got so caught up in what we think is important we forgot what was really important," Moore said. "Is it really worth us having on a dress if we're not having love and caring and unity with one another?

"It's not about clothing. We have to look beyond that. The Lord looks at your heart. God says come as you are."

This article was distributed by Cox News Service.

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