If you peer into area churches this Sunday morning, you would likely see a wide variety of clothing styles, both among congregants as well as church leaders. Sixty years ago, this would not have been the case. In the 1950s congregants would have strolled up to the church doors in their Sunday best, and those delivering messages from the pulpit would have been in either traditional vestments or a suit and tie.
So, does it matter what one wears to church – whether he or she is leading the service or sitting in a pew?
“It depends on the generation,” said Rev. Steve Kistler of the New Life Church in Bellvile. “The older generation makes a connection between respect for church and wearing their Sunday best, while with the younger generation that tie is not as strong.”
Kistler rotates what he wears, one week sporting a suit and tie and the next jeans and a golf shirt, in an effort to visually build rapport with both age demographics.
Less than a mile away from New Life is the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, pastored by Will Humphrey. “I dress currently in relation to the local tradition at our parish,” explained Humphrey. “There are other UU congregations where the pastor dresses in full vestments and cleric’s collar. Our parish has traditionally been more casual,” he said. “As for our parishioners, they dress in all levels of formality: people in T-shirts and jeans to people in traditional suits or dresses. This is a long-standing tradition of acceptance of all.”
Down State Route 97, not far from All Souls, is Three Crosses United Methodist Church in Butler, led by Rev. Brandon Keck. Three Crosses offers two services each Sunday morning to accommodate differing worship styles: a traditional at 9:15 and a contemporary at 11:30.
“Society in general has changed on attire,” commented Keck. “As culture changes, attire has changed. Younger people just don’t think about it. Some don’t have dress pants and a tie.”
“I always wear a tie,” explained Keck. “I have to be seen as a pastor. It’s kind of sad. I have two beautiful robes I received as presents.” However, the churches he has lead have not wanted him to wear traditional vestments.
Keck believes how he dresses does affect the way in which he relates to his congregation. “There are times to dress down when it is appropriate to the message. If we are having a summer picnic at Hitchman Park, I would probably wear sandals and shorts. If my message was about the homeless, I may dress in my worst clothes possible.”
Keck views his clothing as a visual symbol of leadership. “When visitors walk in, I have to be dressed up. It’s the one thing that distinguishes me from the others. It’s not that I am better than everyone else,” he said. Keck just wants to make sure he can be picked out of the crowd as the pastor by his clothing.
Like Three Crosses, Saint Paul Lutheran Church in Bellville also offers two services on Sunday mornings. “We have two worship services,” commented Rev. Doug Pretorius. “The first is contemporary and the second is more traditional.” Pretorius said that he briefly experimented with his attire on Sunday mornings. “For a short time — decades ago — I chose just to wear a clerical collar shirt and dress pants for the Contemporary worship service, but quickly returned to wearing the alb that is typical for Lutheran Churches and many liturgical churches.”
Pretorius has several reasons he wears the long-sleeved, white linen vestment. “Worship is not about me but about God and what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Clothes are about our own identity and own self. The alb covers that up …. All of us have been washed by Jesus, and all sin — dirt, impurity, spot, and blemish, have been removed. There my alb is a symbol of the true identity that we all have in Jesus Christ.”
Pretorius also notes the historical context of worship. “(It) is a formal event that comes out a history. Specific clothes are clues that specific events are about to take place and signify specific roles…. Robes and albs and all other religious garments come out of a history in which the activity of worship is connected back some 4,000 plus years, and the clothing we wear today has those influences still a part of it,” he explained. “We are not the first to worship, and our clothing, our rituals, and our language help to convey that.”
“I would argue that the clothing worn by many clergy today is still symbolic,” said Pretorius, “even if it is jeans and a tee shirt. The preacher dresses to make a religious and personal statement, and there is a ‘dress code’ for each church, even if, or maybe especially when, it is not overtly stated.”
Pastor Doug summed up the entire topic of church attire very well: “It is a fascinating subject around which many people have deeply intellectual reasons, theological understandings, and passionate feelings.”