The Raw Church Movement: Casual VS Dignified

Casual VS Dignified
A recent study by Barna Group collectively asked the question "What is your ideal church?" to a group of millennials. Here are the results:

In the last post in this series I explored the concept of a Classic church vs a trendy one. In today's post I wold like to explore the next concept to emerge in the Barna group survey: the dress code.

Before I begin take a moment to notice how the ideal church for millennials is not necessarily a modern church. For example - as explored in the last post - millennials prefer a classic church to a trendy one. Notice also that they prefer a sanctuary to an auditorium and quiet to loud. Nevertheless, when it comes to interior design they prefer modern to traditional and when it comes to dress they prefer casual to dignified.

Some may write this entire survey off as nothing more than appeasing the desires of men rather than seeking to please God. But we must remember that the only one of these topics addressed in the Bible is the first one (community vs privacy) in which the clear picture of church to emerge from the NT is that of a community, not a building. All of the other aspects in this survey (style, dress, architecture, ambiance, and interior design) are not addressed in scripture. As a result each of these elements are always influenced by the surrounding culture and should reflect the positive expressions that that culture values.

So now, what about dress? The issue of dress has been controversial in church culture for quite some time now. In the book Pagan Christianity? authors George Barna and Frank Viola trace the origins and development of this debate. First of all, the book states that “[t]he practice of dressing up for church is a relatively recent phenomenon”. The authors argue that the early Christians did not dress up for Church because they didn’t have clothes to dress up with. Most people in the early days of Christianity only had work clothes and decent clothes. They would wear their decent clothes for their assemblies. However, the idea of dressing up for anything was a privilege that only the wealthy had. When “fine clothes became more affordable to the common people” they began to dress up as the rich to “demonstrate their newly improved status”. Church became a place where the common people now dressed up in imitation of the rich who would dress up for their special occasions (cocktail parties etc.). Not surprisingly, the idea of dressing up for church was controversial when it first began. The book states that “[s]ome Christian groups in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries resisted this cultural trend”. However, it soon became the norm to the point that today not dressing up for church is considered irreverent even though it has no biblical precedent. The authors argue: “[T]o say that the Lord expects His people to dress in fine clothing when the church gathers is to add to the scriptures and speak where God has not spoken. Such a practice is human tradition at its best”.[1]

Whether we agree with Viola and Barna or not is not really important. What is important is that we recognize that "dressing up for church" was just as much a cultural development as "dressing down for church" is today. Neither move really comes from the Bible. They simply reflect the culture. Some would argue and say, "we should always wear our best for God." To that I would say, Yes, we should always dress well when going to a church gathering. But we should dress well when going anywhere really. Its the respectful and responsible thing to do. But the idea that we must "dress up" (not to be confused with "dress well") to go to church is not mandated in scripture because in scripture church is not a building that you go to meet with God but a community of people who meet collectively to share their faith-journey and worship God. In the NT this was done at believers homes and not once do we get any instruction regarding the dress code. There was no dress code.

Others may argue, "It is not right to wear what we do all week to come to church." But such an argument would - once again - only reflect culture not scripture. For example, notice the picture below. It is a photograph of a bar in the 1950's. Notice that the people there are dressed exactly as people dressed to go to church in the 1950's. The men are wearing dress shirts, suits, ties, and the ladies are wearing their dresses. They could have easily left the bar and walked into a church and no one would have said anything. So why was it OK to dress this way in everyday life and also for church but today people complain that you should dress differently for church? Again, it has to do with culture. There is absolutely nothing wrong with dressing up for church if you want to. But to say it is necessary is not a position that can be maintained from scripture.

But historical, cultural, and theological reasons aside, why do millennials prefer a casual dress code to a dignified one? The reasons can be many and I don't pretend to explore them all here but from my personal experience dressing up for church just comes across as fake. I am not a fan of showing up to church looking like I could care less if I was there or not (I totally believe in dressing well) but at the same time dressing up just comes across as really phony to me. That doesn't mean I judge others who dress up. It just means that for me, I feel really phony - like I'm trying to be someone that I am not - when I adopt a dress code as a standard of worship that I do not adopt in any other regular setting. In her article, "On Dressing Up at Church" Amy Bennett shares another relevant perspective when she writes,
...I was SO CONCERNED with what I was wearing.  Clothes were almost 90% of what I was thinking of on Sunday mornings, more than any other day of the week.  I had to have the just right outfit, the just-right shoes. I had to make sure my makeup and hair were just right.  And then I’d spend all morning pulling at my skirt, tugging at my pantyhose, comparing myself to everyone else dressed up. Church was like the Super Bowl for fashion every week.... The concern was all inward and how I looked and stacked up.[2]
This post is not about arguing for or against dress codes at church. Although I have shared reasons why I disagree with this trend it honestly doesnt bother me if someone wants to dress up or not. I think this is a personal choice between a person and God and am not fussed by someone in a suit and tie or in casual clothes. My intention in this post is to share some basic reasons why millennials by and large reject this trend. For many of us, church is not an event that we dress up for but a community of real people doing real life and asking real questions as they deal with real faith, real doubt, real joy and real pain. Thus, if there was any position I would advocate it would be this one: Let our churches develop cultures where people feel safe to connect with the family of God without having to meet a certain mold, be it a traditional mold or a contemporary one. If we do this we can put this silly debate behind us.

Further reading:

The Origin of Dressing Up for Church

On Dressing Up at Church

[1] Torres, Marcos D. Adapted from its original article "Pagan Christianity? A Book Review". []
[2] Bennett, Amy. "One Dressing up for Church". []


  1. I am in my sixties. I well remember (like that photo above) my parents of the 50s and 60s had only two forms of dress. Work and formal. If working, a pair of overalls often covered. If going out, whether to the races, a wedding, a funeral, to church, or visiting relatives, or to the local tavern or restaurant, ties and jackets were standard.
    Today, there are three forms of dress. Work, formal, and casual. The casual fits into that medium sector which would include visiting relatives, going to the beach, attending sporting events etc. ( I have photos from the 1960s of a 20,000 crowd of spectators at a rugby match, mostly men, and everyone, without exception, wore jackets, ties, and many a hat). I have attended churches where there were some dressed as if they were at the beach while others were more formal, but it seemed that was only the elders. And on TV recently the pastors now dress in denims and T shirts. Call me old fashioned, I guess a product of my generation, but it seems to me that if we are going to worship in a community we ought to do so in a manner which reflects the importance of the occasion. Should we dress less or even similar to how we would to a footy match?

    1. Great thoughts brakelite! I would begin by saying that the Bible should always be our standard of faith and practice. Because the Bible says nothing about dress code for a church gathering I think we should be careful to make too much of it. The argument you presented is certainly a logical one, but it isnt necessarily a scriptural one. While it makes sense to our logic the fact remains that scripture nowhere enjoins us to dress a certain way when we gather for worship. I think we can all agree that dressing decently is a requirement (that would be common sense of course) but dresses, ties, etc. are all cultural developments. I remember living in Hawaii for four years. Most of the people from California would go to church in a suit and tie while the local Hawaiians would go in flower shirts and flip flops. And Im not talking about young people, but old saints who were very reverent and took their worship of God with just as much seriousness as anyone else I know. The difference wasnt respect for God. The difference was simply culture. Local Hawaiians did not see any sense or value in wearing a suit and tie. And while they did not frown upon it many of them did not embrace the trend either. I do agree with you that we should not gather for worship as though the gathering had no meaning at all but at the same time I stop short of saying we should wear a certain type of outfit. Where scripture is silent, I prefer to be silent. That doesn't mean I wont discuss the issue (as I have done in this post). What it means is I wont make a standard of worship out of something the Bible doesn't specifically address. I am not a fan of the "anything goes" culture nor the "you must dress this way" culture. I think the best way to approach the issue is to allow freedom where scripture is silent. if someone wants to dress up let them. If someone doesnt let them. Its between them and God.

  2. You are quite correct of course, and certainly on all issues we must use scripture as our guide. But I disagree that culture take the default position in the absence of scripture. Do we not have a relationship with our Lord? Do we not have the spirit of Christ, the mind of Christ, dwelling in us? Are we to allow ourselves to be influenced by culture, or do we allow the Spirit of God influence culture through us? I think conscience should be our default position in the absence of scripture. My own testimony is replete with examples where conscience brought balance, even purging, of cultural traditions; generational, tribal, and national.

    1. Brakelite, thank you for pointing this out. It gives me the opportunity to clarify what I meant. I think we are both in agreement here. I did not mean to say that culture is our default where scripture is silent in an absolute sense. Any cultural tradition that contradicts a scriptural principle should be rejected. There are times where the Bible does not specifically address and issue but it does give principles that can always be applied. At times those principles are counter-cultural meaning they go contrary to what a culture may believe or embrace. I believe in each and every case the principles of the Bible should guide us, not cultural norms. However, not all cultural norms are anti-scripture. Some cultural norms fit perfectly well into scriptures principles. In these cases, if the Bible is silent and the cultural norm is in harmony with a scriptural principle, then there is no tension. I believe the issue of dressing up for church can be seen this way. The Bible is silent regarding any sort of dress code for a church gathering. However, different cultures demonstrate respect in different ways. One culture may demonstrate respect by wearing a head covering. In these cultures a person will worship God with their head covered. Other cultures may show respect by removing a head covering. In these cultures a person will worship God by first removing their head covering. In the same way, some cultures consider wearing a suit, tie, or full dress as respectful so they dress this way for corporate worship as a sign of respect. However, my culture shows respect with simpler dress. In fact, the only time my culture wears a suit is when we need to impress someone. So for us, wearing a suit to a worship gathering is anti-gospel because we interpret it as an attempt to impress God. While we still dress modestly, clean, and elegantly we demonstrate respect in a different way than older generations did. There are other cultures who demonstrate respect in ways that I am not used to (such as the Hawaiians and their flower shirts, shorts, and flip flops at church) but this is their way of showing respect. To demand that they wear what I wear is not an issue of being biblical anymore. Now we have entered the realm of colonialism where one culture assumes forces another culture to adopt its customs thus erasing the other cultures uniqueness. So once again, I maintain as you said, that we allow each person to be guided by their conscience and avoid making a standard of worship out of something the Bible is silent on.

  3. As long as it is neat and decent, God will have no problem. Bible says God looks at our hearts. It was the well dressed Pharisees who crucified their Savior. Church is not a place for fashion parade. Sister White warned against following the fashions of the world.


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