What to Wear to Church?

Duane Litfin weighs in on how what we wear to church reflects more than what we wear. I have lived through the days when we wore our Sunday best to now wearing blue jeans.

What do you think? Does what we wear say something more?

I want to suggest that church services have changed in emphasis — from a worship service more to instruction, education, fellowship, etc — and I wonder if this is as much the reason for the change in clothing. In other words, do we compare our attire at church to the priests in the temple? Is the NT gathering likened to a worship service or to the temple? How does the NT describe the weekly gathering, or any gathering? What was its primary function?

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)….

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….

Our internal and external states cannot be so easily disentangled. The fact is, when it comes to how we clothe ourselves, our external appearance is often an expression of our internal state. Thus our worship attire may matter more than we think….

And what of our worship attire? We deceive ourselves when we breezily claim that God does not care what we wear to church. God cares about our hearts, and what we wear is often an expression of our hearts. So what does our relaxed worship attire say about us?…

None of the above leaves us with a dress code for public worship. It certainly does not translate automatically into coats and ties for men and fancy dresses for women. Idealizing bygone eras won’t work here; the meaning of human clothing is too contextual for that. It varies too widely from place to place and time to time, and there are too many other variables to consider. We are left having to judge for ourselves what is appropriate for worship and what is not.

But all of the above should at least warn us away from the glib assumption that God does not care about what we wear to church; or that what I choose to wear for worship doesn’t matter; or that how I dress for church is a purely personal affair; or that my own convenience and comfort are all that need concern me. The truth is, one of the ways we express ourselves as human beings is by the way we dress. Wittingly or unwittingly, our clothing gives us away. God certainly does not need this expression to know our hearts. But as for the rest of us, we do indeed look on the outward appearance, even when peering into our own mirrors. In this way the clothes we choose for church may have things to tell us about our hearts that God already knows, but that we need to hear….

We express this embodied totality in corporate worship through our shared symbols, rites, and rituals; through our posture and gestures as we bow, kneel, or lift our hands; through our actions when we stand or sit in unison or pour out our hearts musically in congregational song. And our clothing belongs on this list. By it we express to God and those around us what this occasion means to us. This is why, when we come to church, our clothing matters.




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  • The biggest problem here is not the clothes themselves; it’s the mentality that we “go to church” to “worship.” We cannot “go to church;” we are the church. And when the church assembles together, we should not be “worshiping” at that point more than we are with the rest of our lives. We do not come into God’s presence at church; we are the temple of God where He resides at all times.

    Yes, we, as the church, should dress well all the time, according to what is appropriate for the context. There is nothing different or significant about what we wear on Sunday mornings specifically.

  • Amos Paul

    What people wear and what that means is hardly anything more than a cultural construct.

    For instance, just look at Apostolics/Oneness Pentecostals whose women don’t cut their hair, where only dresses/skirts, etc because of their insistence upon arbitrary ‘modesty’ values. When I was visiting different churches with a new Christian buddy of mine, he was all–“Why are all the women here dressed so attractively!”

    The church we attend has girls wearing jeans/hoddies more than anything else. By comparison, the ways that the apostolics dressed evoked provocative sexual emotions in my friend.

    And, of course God cares about what’s going on in your heart. That’s why *what we wear* to church might mean completely different things to completely different people who wear the same clothes.

  • I think, and have always thought, what I would wear in my normal life, in a situation that would convey respect and honor would be what I should wear to gather with the people of God to honor and worship him.

    In other words, even if I’m a housewife kicking around in sweats or a robe all day because I have toddlers and infants spewing projectile vomit and sticking legos in their siblings’ noses… I don’t wear sweats to my husbands office get-together. I dress-up out of respect for his company, and to honor my commitment to my spouse and to show his co-workers that I care.

    Then I cruse into church in a jump-suit and shoot dirty looks at someone who is wearing a suit? I don’t think so.

    Now, if you show honor and respect by wearing shorts and flip-flops, this is not so much a “worship problem” this is a social intelligence problem. It’s not because “those church people are hypocrites” go to the staff Christmas party in that same costume and see the looks you get.

    Most of the problem is that everyone thinks they are the most important person in the world and that everyone should cater to them. I can hear people saying now “well, I wear shorts to work…” Hey, we’re not talking about individuals here, we’re talking about a community.

    A good rule of thumb, I think, is to look at what professional sales people wear to a meeting with Executives to pitch them a business product (like a copier or some medical equipment). Sales people tend to have their finger on the pulse of what is respectful and honors most businesses.

    Some areas that’s a polo shirt and slacks, in most metropolitan areas it’s at minimum a coat and tie, more likely a suit.

    It’s not about what you wear, it’s about your heart. What you wear betrays your heart. When I see someone come to church in a wrinkled shirt and shorts I feel disrespected and I feel that he is not honoring either God or His people.

    Just my thoughts…

  • Brandon

    “The fact is, when it comes to how we clothe ourselves, our external appearance is often an expression of our internal state. Thus our worship attire may matter more than we think…”

    What about those instances where the external appearance is no reflection at all of what is going on inside? I can’t help but think of all the people in the South who wore their “Sunday best” every week to church while harboring blatantly racist attitudes toward those of color. Outward appearance is as likely to a facade as it is a reflection of what is truly going on in our hearts.

  • J Williams

    What I see in the way of clothing and the local church assembly in the NT is Paul emphasizing modesty and James warning not to treat anyone with partiality simply because they are people of greater wealth or influence as often indicated by clothing.

    As someone who converted late in life I recall my initial attempts at identifying with a body of Christ. At first it seemed the only churches I attended wore very formal wear. As a poor, recovering addict and subculture kid I immediately felt judged and ostracized in almost all of those churches. Whether it was my own insecurity or a legitimate cultural clash, I don’t know, but the 1st church I began frequenting was a church where that vast cultural divide didn’t exist.

    I would suggest that what we wear may matter and communicate the heart’s dispositiion, but if one’s own opinion about what that ‘what’ should be you begins to colonize the churches culture that seems ‘cultic’ to me. Maybe what’s reverent or irreverent is culturally qualified to some degree.

  • Alan R

    Clothes can become a problem if they call attention to the wearer. That’s the underlying concern in 1 Tim and 1 Peter. There are many ways to distract — and many ways to dress appropriately.

  • AHH

    SOME of this must simply be a reflection of trends in culture as a whole. 20 years ago, I wore a tie (no suit, but a tie) to work most days. Now I wear blue jeans most every day. I think lawyers and the financial industry are about the last bastion of formal dress in the workplace; certainly in the world of science where I am it has mostly disappeared.
    We “dress up” in a lot fewer circumstances than we used to, so it is natural that church services experience that trend to some extent.

    And I mostly think it is good that we can “come as we are” before God in worship. The only caveat in my mind would be that worship is a community thing, so our dress should not be something that in some way detracts from or distracts or demeans the worshipping community.

  • Pat Pope

    If you look at the larger society, you’ll see a change in dress in all situations. Workplaces are increasingly casual or business casual with a few exceptions. Going to the theatre, the decked out couple is less the norm than those in casual attire. Just on a run to the grocery store you can see everything from decent casual clothes to pajama pants. It’s as if dressing up in our culture has become too much of an effort. Although, I have to say that I do dress casual myself much of the time and like it.

    At the church I currently attend, the pastors wear robes but you’re completely comfortable either dressed up or casual. Having come out of an era in which some churches were known to turn people away for not being dressed up, I think the trend toward casual attire has been good in that people who desire to come to church don’t have the excuse of not having anything to wear nor do they need to feel like outcasts. However, I do wonder where common decency has gone when some people don’t appear to think anything of wearing things that expose discreet body parts or that are rumpled, etc. It’s as if there is no longer a filter about what is appropriate. The pants that I wear around the house with holes in them are reserved just for home. I wouldn’t dare wear them out. And I’m not talking here of the homeless or those who are down and out and have nothing else to wear. I’m talking about those of us who have better and have just become lazy it seems.

    The dressing up for church in the African-American community was traditionally seen as something you do as a way of putting on your best for God and I think there’s something to be said for that. Although, the flip side is, are we exalting the gathered church service over the rest of life when we look at that way? So, I can dress up for church but the rest of the week wear what I want because God’s not there? God is always present, thus, by that line of thinking we should always put our best foot forward whether at church, the store, the gym, etc. The best of course doesn’t have to be extravagant and I would suspect what’s best is in the eye of the beholder, but there does seem to be a loss of commonly held appropriateness. I think relativity has really effected almost every area of life in this modern age.

  • Phillip

    I respect the attitude of those who dress up for worship assembly that says “I want to give my best to God and show respect to him.” I do not, agree, however, that this personal piety should be an expectation for the rest of the church, as though one somehow thinks less of God by not dressing up. This was the impression I was given in the church and larger church I grew up in, though “best” meant a suit or dress, not a tuxedo or ball gown.

    Once in college and once in the last few years, I raised the question about causual dress and in both cases received what is apparently a fairly typical response among some segments of my fellowship: “Well, what would you wear to your mother’s funeral? Shouldn’t you show God the same respect?” Interesting that their minds went to funerals when addressing the question dress for the worship assembly.

    My real problem with the idea that we must/should dress up, however, is that it can create unhelpful socio-economic distinctions. On more than one occasion I have heard or heard of people saying, “I can’t go to your church because I do not have nice enough clothes.” This makes me shudder.

    I do wear a tie on the Sunday’s I preach because of the expectations of the congregation, but usually only then. It is something of a joke now at church: “Phillip must be preaching. He has on a tie.”

  • Krista Mournet

    I’ve long lived in the tension of this debate. I can see the validity of both perspectives. Since I regularly lead music at my church, the debate becomes a little more conspicuous. And being a woman adds yet another layer of complexity.

    To be honest, I don’t have a problem dressing casually in church; usually when I’m participating in the congregation I can be found in jeans (not ripped, mind you, but jeans). However, whenever I am facilitating some aspect of worship I make an intentional effort to dress in a way that is respectful of the office in which I serve, and of those in the congregation. I value them, and I am grateful to serve in leadership, and I try to let that reflect in my appearance. I don’t wear jeans, but I don’t dress to the nines either. I want my appearance to be unimpressive, but clean, modest and demonstrative of the respect I have for my church; both its leadership and its congregation. Apart from that, I don’t want my appearance to draw attention to me either in a positive or negative way.

    As a woman, that’s a bit more tricky, since there are so many options available. But I think most of the time I do okay.

    Clothing says a lot about a community’s values; should everybody look the same? Why or why not? Do the clergy wear robes? The choir? The readers? What happens when someone inadvertently breaks the unspoken attire rule? How does the community respond? In my humble opinion, no matter what a particular community’s views are on wardrobe, the more important questions may be; does our practice include or exclude? Do we love first or judge first? Whatever we do, how much does it really matter?

    I actually do think we should dress cleanly and respectably, AND I personally believe God doesn’t really care that much.

    Thanks for this thought-provoking post.


  • Dave Leigh

    This generation should be coming in sack cloth and ashes.

  • TJJ

    I think this is/was mostly a cultural thing. look at TV/Movies/Print ads from the 40s/50s/60s, people dressed up when they left the home for almost any formal public activity. It was the culture that got the whole “Sunday best” thing going in the first place.

    My parents have told me how peole got all dressed up when they flew on airplanes, and even to sporting events.

    The culture changed again to more more informal, more casual, more comfortable. Churches followed.

    I think to read any big theological significance into those changes is way over reading it. sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

  • James

    “This generation should be coming in sack cloth and ashes.”

    Along with every generation before it. Don’t forget who raised them…

  • TJJ

    I remember when I was a boy how my mother would spent a significant amount of time getting dressed/dolled up just to go to the “market” (now grocery store). Drove me and my impatient brothers crazy sometimes. Just look now at what people wear to say Walmart….seriously!

    Yeah, this is a “culture at large” change kind of thing.

  • I’m skeptical of the older trend to dress up, as I am of those who think they’re “more spiritual” for not dressing up. In the end, it’s all superficial, and smacks of white-washed tombery to me. Come as you are, stop trying to make an impression with appearances, and focus on real transformation.

    I’m also a stickler for pointing out that the scriptures speak far more about being modest and not showing off their wealth, status, or social position. There are no mentions in the NT, however, condemning anyone for showing up in a 5 year old tunic with a generic label. 😉

  • Kenny Johnson

    Jeans and T-shirts are what I wear just about anywhere. I feel uncomfortable in dressy clothes — both because I’m a big guy and a tucked in shirt is neither flattering or comfortable on me and because I don’t feel like myself. I would go as far as saying I hate dressing up in anything more than jeans and maybe a polo shirt.

    Jeans and t-shirts are what I wear to work. I’ve previously held jobs where I had to at least wear slacks and a collared shirt. I don’t know. And I love it. I honestly felt weird going to lunch or dropping by the grocery store wearing slacks and a collared shirt. I didn’t feel like myself.

    I grew up in a lower middle class blue collar home. We didn’t go to church growing up. I honestly had no dressy clothes growing up. Ever. I wore a tux to my sister’s wedding when I was 9. That’s about it. In my teens, I part of various music subcultures: rap when I was young, then metal, ska, a punk as I grew older. No one I knew dressed up.

    When I go to church… I want to feel like myself. Not like someone else. Wearing anything besides jeans and a t-shirt makes me feel less like myself.

  • Kenny Johnson

    @TJJ #12


  • Joe Canner

    Re Phillip #9: I’ve heard a slightly different variation of the answer to the question of why dress up for church: “What would you wear if you were meeting the President?” The problem with this analogy is that President can’t see into our hearts and a considerable portion of his impression of us is going to be based on what we wear and how well we’re groomed (and perhaps a few words if we’re lucky). As has been noted by others, God can see our hearts and is probably not particularly concerned with our appearance unless it is a distraction to others (which could involve being overdressed or under-dressed).

    TJJ #12: As recently as the late 70s my parents were insisting that I get dressed up for an airplane trip.

  • Chris

    The article assumes that the nature of jeans is informal. I disagree. Perhaps it one was, but that is no longer the case; culture evolves.

    I think that our culture has simply redefined what is “in” for church attire. People will still judge you for what you wear – is it trendy, is it carefully done, etc; just because they arent wearing a suit or large hat doesn’t mean they didn’t spend a lot of time preparing the way they look and doesnt mean there isn’t a lot of cultural baggage behind the way people dress … a suit is not a priestly garment either, from a 3rd century perspective, so by what standards are jeans and their wearers being judged here?

  • Robert A

    I disagree with the author of the post. Having been to worship gatherings on many continents and in many cultures, dress means nothing and is a remarkably arbitrary decision.

    As a personal rule I dress well anytime in public…but that doesn’t mean a suit and tie. There is something about someone who takes time on their appearance, I don’t know maybe it was how I was brought up. I don’t wear ties (except weddings or funerals) because I find them to be pointless pieces of fabric.

    As for church…I wear slacks and a pressed, button down shirt. In the winter (I live in the south) I’ll add a blazer from time to time. It isn’t a big deal for me. We have people wearing shorts, jeans, t-shirts, dresses, and all other forms of clothing. One thing that has been coming up is a discussion (we don’t know how to do this yet) about modesty in dress period…for men and women.

    Anyways, I’m a fan of dressing well and taking time in your appearance, grooming, and conduct being a good marker of one’s life in public. I’ve never felt the need to apologize for dressing well.

  • SuperStar

    I can’t believe that anyone has the time to write this length of an article on this subject. Nor can I believe there are people that take this seriously.

  • “These changes are part of a broad shift toward the convenient and comfortable.”

    Wow. That’s a big assumption to make with no evidence to back it up. Maybe it’s a shift towards honesty and authenticity rather than the hypocrisy of dressing up. Maybe.

    I agree with Chris (#19): Jeans does not equal informal. Now, culturally, I suppose shorts/t-shirt/sandals may still equal informal, but why is formal vs. informal the discussion here? Why are we asking people to look to the business professionals for instructions on how we should dress when we gather as the church?


  • Steve

    #18…what would I wear to meet the President if the President was my Dad?

  • Joe Canner

    Steve #23: Even better answer!

  • MatthewS

    Scott Hanselman, a techie conference speaker, recently advocated for presenters to outdress their audience a little bit in the interest of gaining a hearing.

    I believe there can be a lot of good to dressing up a notch above normal for church. It can also help build “we-ness” as a church community comes together for a common purpose.

    I grew up wearing a suit and tie to church “or else”. It was all about appearances and frankly, there was a more than a little spiritual pride. It would make me physically ill to have to wear the same clothes and sing out of the same book as I had to back then. In this vein, I like Tony Jone’s post about what does a heathen wear to church.

  • MatthewS

    #23, agreed. I dislike the “what would I wear if I were meeting the president” question because it presents exactly the wrong image to me. The president is an important person who would be giving you a few moments of his precious time. It would be formal and not at all about your deepest needs. It would be a rare occurence. Image and politeness would be the order of the day.

    Worship of God is such an interesting thing – we are approaching the King of kings on his throne even as we approach the one who knows and loves us at our deepest levels, both good and bad. Not that there shouldn’t be formality in our approach but the formality should not be that of unfamiliarity.

  • I can’t believe CT dedicated such a long article to this topic. Is this our concern today?

    I read part of that article on CT the other day. I found it odd and a little out of touch with the culture as a whole, so I stopped reading. Just in the area of women’s fashion, even at church, most is deliberate and takes time. Take the average teenager in sweats and Uggs and dressed down, looking sloppy… and then ask her how much time it took to loo like that. Probably as long as any other outfit.

    The tradition I grew up in says coats and ties are respectful to God and should be “church” attire. But they were unaware that those were quickly becoming the clothes of power-brokers: businessmen, car dealers, lawyers, etc. Suits designate power today, though I love to wear them with the occasion fits. When men get together as peers, they wear clothes better fitted for the sport they are playing, be it golf or in the stands at a football game.

    Dressing to impress was something Paul was concerned about.

    “Church” is a community activity, like going to any community center for any number of things. Wear what reflects your community. Our current community may involve ski attire at the church building. Because attendees may have just stepped off the mountain or returning to it…

  • @ #22

    “Why are we asking people to look to the business professionals for instructions on how we should dress when we gather as the church?”

    According to some historians, that’s how the dressing-up trend in American churches got its start to begin with. The middle-class wanting to look as respectable as the upper class.

  • Dana Ames

    I think in general there has been more cultural acceptance of dressing casually, increasing since the late ’60s.

    I do agree with Scot that the “worship service” of non-liturgical Christians is much more about instruction, education and fellowship, but even so, until lately and in most places, people were encouraged to “dress up” for Sunday Church attendance in those congregations too, for whatever reason. I think there is some measure of a democratic ideal at work, as well; when everyone in a group wears dressy clothing or everyone wears casual clothing, whatever class differences there are among people are erased on the surface.

    Because there is so little description in the NT wrt to the weekly gathering, I used to think that meant that whatever we did with a sincere heart was ok with God. To some extent, I still believe that, but my belief about that is not based on what’s described in the NT. For a variety of reasons, I came to believe that the worship form of the first Christians was not written down, but was handed down by word of mouth; scripture says that we are to keep and do those things that were handed down in both forms. The first Christians were Jews, and the worship of the Jews was liturgical; those elements were carried on and reworked in light of the meaning of Jesus fulfilling all of it.

    When people are gathered for Liturgy and other worship services in my church, men are asked to wear long pants, and shirts that are not t-shirts and do not have slogans. Women are asked to wear skirts and avoid tank tops. It’s not about “giving God one’s best”, or an attempt to out-dress others, or an expression of some sort of modesty brigade. It’s because everything in an Orthodox church building is a kind of icon of the Incarnation: the icons themselves and how they are placed, the very architecture and use of shape and space and direction – and gendered human beings as well. So people are encouraged to dress appropriately for their gender in their culture.

    There are very few men who wear even sport jackets, let alone suits – this is California, after all 🙂 Some of the young girls wear very short skirts with leggings, as is the fashion now. Sometimes during the evening services in Lent medical folks come straight from work, still wearing scrubs. We have quite a few Eritreans, and some of the mean wear the same big white cotton shawl over their clothing as the women do over theirs. Women who are visiting while traveling often wear pants. In the summertime, some of us wear our tank tops under a lightweight shawl or scarf. Not too many of either sex wear anything that could be described as fancy or “very dressy”. Better to come to worship not dressed “100% to code” than not come at all. At least in my parish, nobody gets looked at sideways because of dress.

    Outside of the worship context, like doing housecleaning in the building, or pressing the grapes from our vineyard for wine, or moving things into and out of storage, we all wear clothing appropriate for such work. There is nothing particularly prescribed for when we’re at home. The appropriateness for context is what is important.


  • Kristin

    Our church recently had a advertised ‘semi-formal’ event celebrating our 25th anniversary. We are multicultural with a range of economic classes, so it was interesting to see how everyone defined ‘semi-formal.’ On the women alone, I saw everything from jeans to floor length gowns (and everything in between)

    You really can’t judge people’s hearts by what they wear! I wear nice business casual clothes because that’s what I wear to work everyday and my closet is full of. Joe Schmoe who works in construction probably doesn’t keep his business causal attire up to date….so what if he wears jeans and t-shirt to church? Probably his nicest shirt in his closet!

  • JohnM

    For the most part I’m with the who-cares-about-clothes side. I admit some bias because I loathe wearing ties. I don’t care if that makes me a hillbilly, the fool things chaff, they choke, they’re pointless and annoying, and I resent the the social/cultural pressure that requires me to wear them on some occasions.

    I’m also inclined to agree with James #15 and #28. As for what one would wear to meet the President, or business executives, that has to do with the cultural pressure of man’s expectations, not God’s. It also has to to with what you want from people and are afraid you won’t get if you don’t present the right image. So I welcome the casual trend, generally.

    That said I have to admit to a bit of what might be called, depending on how easy or hard I want to be on myself, inconsistency, or hypocrisy. That is, there are certain ways I don’t like the pastor to dress on Sunday. I don’t like it when the pastor is the most casually attired person in the church on Sunday morning. I don’t like middle aged pastors dressing (or acting) like twenty-somethings. I like it when the pastor is a decade or so behind the current trend 🙂 Is it reasonable or not that my expectations of the pastor are different than my expectations of myself?

  • RobS

    Although our church celebrates a more traditional style of worship (piano, organ, choir, orchestra) and then follows by a style that’s more contemporary (praise band), and draws different ages and crowds to both… it was surprising to hear from the chairman of the deacons that he has been asked by some in the congregation that the “deacons should always be wearing suit and tie.”

    I’m not sure how much it matters. I’ve seen suit and tie wearers with their arms crossed not singing or looking at anything but their watch… and I’ve seen the young dude in his board shorts and t-shirts just laying it out with all sincerity.

    So, legalism runs, but pure worship does too.

  • Allen Browne

    “Why are you anxious about clothing?” (Mt 6:28) Would issues of kingdom and justice be more significant (Mt 6:33)?
    Church culture (young and old) is far too focused on who is wearing what labels as a mark of who’s “in” (social conformity).
    We have a guy who intentionally wears weird stuff to church to see what reaction he gets. Initially I judged him as socially incompetent, but his behaviour was far more intentional. He runs a half-way house, and he wants the guys he brings to be accepted. He’s actually a saint who won’t let us get away with the error of James 2:2.