Worship Wars14: The Naked Truth About Clothes in Worship
“Brother Bryan, what a person wears to church on Sunday morning is more important to God than anything you can do at work during the week.” This is an actual quote from the matriarch of the church, pronounced with a Very Smug Smile on her face, deep, trembling conviction in her voice, and with the approval of her disciples in the Adult III (65+ crowd) ladies on a Sunday morning in Feb. of 2006.
What brought on this big discussion in the Adult III Sunday School was that we had just lost an older couple from the church, and the issue was over one of the younger (middle aged) families whose style of dress had been a constant item of unwarranted distraction to these older ladies. There were other issues the older couple had with this younger family that I think were bogus. I really think the issue that caused them to leave was the fact that I had a black friend preach the previous Sunday morning and lead us in our annual January Bible Study. The couple left the church that day. But because style of dress had been a long standing issue between the older ladies and the younger folk, that was the area they chose to focus on during that discussion.
Years earlier, in my first year as pastor in 1992, I would wear blue jeans and a nice shirt on Wednesday nights, but suits or slacks, tie and coat for Sunday morning church always. I based my style of dress on what the previous interim minister wore and what the deacons had told me was acceptable. But there was one older lady, Irma, who was the most impossible to please woman I had ever encountered in the church, who, in one of the many chewing outs I received from her, mentioned that she was disappointed in how I and my family dressed on Sunday and Wednesday nights. Of course Irma never came to church on Sunday or Wednesday nights. And that means that others would tell her how we dressed, so the preacher and his family’s style of dress was apparently a hot topic of conversation. Irma’s exact words about my family’s style of dress was, “They don’t dress in a Christian manner.”
Now my wife dresses VERY Conservatively. She owns no short skirts, will not wear tight tops nor low cut tops. But she would occasionally wear pants, slacks or pant suits, as did most of the other women. I also dressed very conservatively. My kids I let wear jeans and T-shirts a lot. My mother always dressed very conservatively and nicely, she had great taste. But we were labeled as dressing “un-Christian”. So for the next several weeks we all decided to wear Sunday Morning clothes to church on Sunday nights and Wed. nights. My wife and mom wore dresses, I wore suits or coat and tie. After a few weeks the ladies of the church actually complained that we were over dressed! (We heard this through the deacons of course- who were all mutually were quite tired of Irma’s complaining).
In a conversation that I and the chairman of the deacons had with Irma, she actually admitted that she thought the only Christian way to dress was in the 1950’s styles, which is what she wore. She also let me know that she absolutely did not like the fact that I had been seen jogging in the neighborhood wearing shorts. That was conduct unbecoming a preacher!
In a separate incident that happened in about 1995, which I did not hear about until Feb. of 2006 after the big stink that I began with, my associate pastor, Andrew, showed up at the matriarch’s house for some reason, wearing shorts and a tank top. At the time he had been doing some work with the Youth and needed a key or something or other from the Lois and Louis’ house. Their son, who came to confront me after the big stink in Feb. of 2006, and with whom I actually had a very good long talk, mentioned that incident with Andrew and how disturbed he was that a minister would actually show up at his mom’s house dressed that way. He stated, “Bryan I have to question your judgment about who you bring on as associates when you have one who would dress like that and dare go to my mom’s house.” That minister, whom the young man was questioning, happens to be one of the godliest men I have ever known. He has a Ph.D. in New Testament from SWBTS and has pastored a thriving, growing church in Tulsa since 1996. To dare question Andrew’s faith over his style of dress was ridiculous. I will never be as godly, smart or cool as Andrew. Like his mother the church matriarch, this young man valued people by how they dressed overmuch.
Another incident involving Andrew and style of dress occurred in about 1995. I had invited him to preach about every 6 weeks or so, as his school schedule allowed. He had invited some lost (I mean really lost) friends from work to come hear him preach. He had been sharing the gospel with them for some time and they kept putting him off, but finally they agreed to come hear him preach. That Sunday morning they actually showed up despite partying most of the night. They looked a little rough and one of them had on a hat because his hair was a mess, he said.
During the beginning of the worship service, announcements, scripture reading and about the first hymn, I saw the matriarch’s dutiful husband, Louis, get up from one side of the church and walk all the way around to where Andrew’s 2 visitors were sitting and talk to the young man with the hat. Then I saw the young lost man get up and walk out, never to return. Later that week Andrew told me what had transpired.
Louis, probably at the urging of his wife Lois, had asked the young man to take off his cap out of respect for God’s house. The young man explained that he would rather not take it off as his hair was a mess. Louis insisted, and stated that he should leave if he wouldn’t remove his cap. So the young man left and never got to hear Andrew’s gospel sermon. Louis and Lois had successfully defended the honor of God at the expense of the gospel.
That defines this church. Outward appearances are more important than the gospel. Form over function.
Back in 1992-93 one of the deacons described to me a previous youth minister from about 4-5 years before I arrived who had a growing youth ministry at the church. He was spending a lot of time with the kids and there was an abundance of fruit. The problem, said the deacon, was that the young man did not know how to dress. The church thought that he did not have the money to buy nice clothes so the deacons got together and collected an offering and this deacon took the youth minister to a men’s shop and bought him a very nice suit. The young man did not wear it to church however and this brought the ire of the deacons and older ladies upon him. The deacon told me that they then basically ran him off because of his failure to dress up. I asked him what happened to the youth program after that and he said the youth all went away and they hadn’t really been able to get a youth program going since. He said that like it was incidental to the whole suit story, like there was no relationship between the church attempting to force the youth minister to dress up and the consequences of losing him and the youth to whom he was ministering. He absolutely did not get it. Dressing properly was quite simply more of a priority than reaching lost kids.
In my last 2 years at the church I spent a couple of thousand dollars to update my wardrobe and bought some nice new suits, slacks and sport coats, shirts and ties. I made a deliberate effort to please the older ladies of the church with how I dressed. Though I do not believe like they do, I thought I could do this out of respect for them, it would not compromise any of my own convictions, and hey, I like new clothes too. It made no difference in the end, however.
In the church where my family now worships, I always wear a coat and tie, and am one of the few who does so. Style of dress is quite simply not that important at our church. The pastor has asked the ladies to dress modestly and has given some good common sense guidelines that are godly. We believe that worship is much more a matter of the heart, not a matter of clothing.
Which is not to say that clothing is insignificant. As Christians we do need a theology of clothing; we do need to dress for the glory of God. There are lots of clothing styles that we should not partake of and children definitely need the firm guidance of parents in clothing. But this is an area where much freedom should be granted and it should not be The Ultimate Test of godliness that it appeared to b e in my former church.
When what we wear is more important than the gospel, we do sin.
Tuesday, March 25, 2008- It has been a while since I last posted a blog in the Worship Wars column; my work has been extremely busy. These are the stories of my years as a bi-vocational pastor (1992-2007) in a small, elderly, traditional, neighborhood Southern Baptist Church, in Fort Worth, TX. These stories are an effort to figure out what happened, why it happened, and what I could have done better. There is a warning here for those young ministers who would serve in churches like this- it will not be easy, it will challenge you, it will break your heart. I do not believe that my little church was exceptional; sadly, I think it is typical of most of these churches.
One of the top 3 issues I dealt with (the other two being music and the authority of the Word of God) was the issue of clothing. The fight over clothing was the most vicious I encountered. It defined this church. In a way, the clothing issue was what ultimately forced me to leave the church. How sad a commentary it is on the church in the 21st century, that the issue of what we wear to church can lead to division, and the death of a church.
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