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Rev. James Ellis, III Headshot

Church Clothes

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Church can be awfully intimidating and frustrating, easily more insane asylum than peaceful, grace-filled space of redemptive conversion. For all of the good that it represents -- and to be clear, there is a lot -- church is not devoid of scandal, evil and hurt. Far too often it embodies homogenous conformity to cheap sociological divisions. Much like any institutionalized gathering of people, there are the cultural elite and common folk, the in-crowd and the lepers. I say that with regret because it should not be so. If you are not careful (and prayerful, biblically informed and a bit courageous) these unfortunate realities can run you away from church and lead to feelings of disdain towards Jesus, not to mention those whom follow him. Thus, we can't become merely a cynical version of that which we stand in opposition to.

Try as we may, clothing is an aspect of church that is difficult to navigate. It has perplexed many a churchgoer. Arguably, the most influential Christian rapper to date, Lecrae, addresses this sticky matter head on in his new mixtape, Church Clothes. This musical gem, in its entirety or individual tracks, can be downloaded for free. XXL, a leading hip-hop magazine, gave Church Clothes an "XL" rating in their review (or 4 out of 5), which is nothing to sneeze at. While many other relevant issues are weaved into the mixtape as a whole, in the title track Lecrae rightfully criticizes sacrilegious "actors called pastors" who propagate hypocritical manipulation in the name of God.

A native of Houston, Texas, he calls attention to the notion that one's clothing (yes, even the kind representative reflecting hip-hop culture) should not be the criterion for one's acceptance in church. After suggesting that despite its issues, church can be, and indeed still is a community of healing, Lecrae rhymes:

Nah, we don't want to see that
'cause that might mean a life change.
That might mean I'm worth more
than money, cars, sex, and pipe dreams.

Better not be no real Jesus,
real forgiveness for hurt folks.
If God gon take me as I am,
I guess I already got on my church clothes.

Of course clothes are incapable of fully testifying about our character, yet we all make reasonable (and unseasonable) initial evaluations of others based, at least partly, on what they choose to wear. Nevertheless, in our clothes some of our core values about life are revealed. With traditional versus contemporary debates still raging, everyone has an opinion about what types of clothes are most appropriate to wear in church. Unfortunately, poor theology by way of biblical extremism, to the left or the right, has led to these huge conflicts amongst seekers, and rookie and veteran Christians.

Some passionately believe that God demands the very best of those in their worship, which means anything less than fashion's seemingly conservative best (think business or business casual) is irreverent, representing an unacceptable blasé attitude toward God. To them, if you can get "dressed to the nines" for work or leisure activities (think the club or a night on the town), then doing at least the same for church is a no-brainer. On the other side of the riff are those convinced that God looks exclusively at your heart, so what you wear to church matters not. If you sashay in wearing something that puts all of your "business" in the street, so what? God is cool with it, they say, and so the church needs to simply get with the program.

I am convinced that we need to reach a higher spiritual altitude on the matter. Is our communal worship experience supposed to be nothing more than a fashion show with religious music playing, as we two-step down the sanctuary? Or is God's desire that in church in particular we discover something deeper and more transformative that exists in stark contradiction to the vain, materialistic ways of this world? Richard C. Lambert offers insight in his poem "Church Clothes," which appeared in the June-July 2003 issue of First Things First:

The chameleon charms with wizardry
to escape his humble lizardry,
blending in with vain show blizzardry,
Chameleon is confused.

The peacock moves with pageantry,
unfolding feathered tapestry,
to hide would be disaster,
Peacock is convinced.

And which will dress our history,
bold plumes or image-shiftery?
Word, sacrament, and mystery,
or blending in, confused?

Being unconcerned with one's attire to worship the God of their creation represents self-centeredness, but not any more than a rigid, "holier than thou" interpretation of what should or shouldn't be worn.

Every church has its own ethos or unique internal culture. There is no avoiding that. But so long as the church is committed to the principles, presence and power of Jesus, as revealed in the Bible, you have found a wonderful family with which to worship God. I wholeheartedly believe that God desires our best, but not quite in the ways that we think. Casual worship of God, in terms of one's attire, isn't the problem so much a casual relationship is. That is to say, when we treat Christianity as a nonchalant spiritual fad wherein God is just a cuddly genie who requires nothing of us to be heaven bound.

Moreover, God desires those who follow Jesus to be profoundly committed to modesty, not only in their dress inside but outside of church. Regarding church clothes, we ought to feel free to wear what represents our personal style best, I think, but never at the expense of modesty, which means bringing inappropriate or excessive attention to ourselves. No matter what kind of church setting we find ourselves in, this distracts from people keeping their eyes and hearts fixed on Jesus. And in the end, isn't that what church is supposed to be about, us worshipping God and studying together to "grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus" (2 Peter 3:18)?

Plunging necklines, brightly colored suits with matching gators, absurdly high or effervescent heels, those huge hats (the kind that block the person's view behind you), sagging jeans -- for various reasons none of these kinds of things are best to wear to church, again with modesty in mind. Even so, everyone should be welcome in church attire aside. The homeless woman with tattered rags, corporate executive in khakis and a blazer, elderly couple sporting orthopedic shoes, middle school student in True Religion, and the man smelling of liquor still hung-over from a night at the strip club, in church they all are in the right place at the right time regardless of what they are wearing.

Modesty is a concept that over time upon encountering Christ people can be taught about and discipled toward. But that isn't something that ought to be addressed at any church's front door, at least not if it is actually concerned with being "a house of prayer for all nations" (Isaiah 56:7). And to be blunt, not all churches are.

Without biblical centeredness and flexibility on this issue of church clothes we are left to major in the minors, which exposes those desiring to truly encounter and worship God in community to endure legalism's bitter notes. They don't deserve it and neither does God, which is who worship is to be about in the first place. God does care what you wear to church, just not more than God cares about you being in church.