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Clothing Matters: What We Wear to Church
Clothing Matters: What We Wear to Church

The so-called "worship wars" of recent years may have produced a winner. Many congregations remain divided between traditional and contemporary styles, but in most places the contemporary appears to have gained the upper hand.

What's more, our worship services have become increasingly relaxed and informal affairs. You can see it in what we wear. Church for today's worshipers is not a dress-up event. Whatever is clean and comfortable seems sufficient. Christian students in particular have been taught by their seniors — or has it been the reverse?— that when it comes to church, attire doesn't much matter. They understand there is nothing particularly spiritual about a dress or a coat and tie. God is scarcely impressed by such things. "People look at the outward appearance," we are reminded, "but the LORD looks at the heart" (1 Sam. 16:7).

I do not intend to wade into the broader debate over worship styles; that's a different discussion. In any case, I'm content with either traditional or contemporary if they're done well. But I do wish to raise a question about this last notion: namely, that when it comes to public worship, our clothing doesn't matter. This common assumption, it seems to me, deserves more scrutiny than it typically receives.

Over the last several generations, American attire in general has lurched dramatically toward the informal. A feature that quickly dates an old photograph, for instance, is the men wearing fedoras; most today wouldn't know where to find one. Those who are old enough can remember when travelers got spiffed up to board an airplane. Today's travelers think nothing of flying in duds they might wear to the gym. Or consider the rise of the term "business casual." In most parts of the country, though not all, even the corporate setting has grown less formal.

These changes are part of a broad shift toward the convenient and comfortable. It's a shift we see on display every week in our worship services. In many churches casual wear is de rigueur. It's easy to imagine how one might look over-dressed there, but less easy, short of immodesty, to imagine being under-dressed. Jeans or shorts, tee shirts or tank tops, flip-flops or sandals: these draw scarcely any attention, while full dresses or a suit and tie appear strangely out of place. Relaxed, even rumpled informality is in; suiting up in our "Sunday best" is out. The question I want to raise here is, What should we make of this shift in worship attire?

Many seem convinced it's a good thing, because, again, it's the heart that counts. Yet precisely for this reason—because it's the heart that counts—I want to suggest that what we wear in our public worship may matter more than we think. To grasp this connection, let us draw on some helpful insights from the field of communication.

Verbal and Nonverbal

Verbal behavior refers to all those ways we use language to communicate: speaking, writing, sign language, etc. Nonverbal behavior focuses on all those ways we communicate without words: facial expression, gesture, posture, eye behavior, vocal inflection ("paralanguage"), our use of space ("proxemics"), or touch behavior. Some experts estimate that in our everyday relationships only a small percentage of what we communicate is conveyed via verbal channels. The rest is conveyed nonverbally.

Of special interest here is that avenue of nonverbal communication we will call physical appearance and dress. Here are seven observations drawn from the literature on this aspect of our human interaction:

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Clothing Matters: What We Wear to Church