I am probably one of the most informal persons I know. Growing up in a religious home, it was always the norm to dress up in my Sunday best for church. While most days I highly dreaded looking all dapper, I realized the importance of looking presentable in public – whether it may be at church, at school, at special events or even on a date with a significant other. I was raised with the mindset that I do not necessarily dress up for my own vanity, but out of respect for the people I come into contact with in public – to show them they are valuable enough for me to make an effort to clean myself up for. But this does not mean I should assume other people view dressing up in the same way.
During my year as a part-time Bible school student, I attended a small street-evangelizing church where their theme was ‘Come to the Table’. They usually started off as an open-door potluck supper for the homeless to come in and fellowship. Usually our dinner groups were fairly small, and every person who came off the streets to dine with us had to work up the courage to walk into the doors of the church. Nobody who attended had a particularly churchy wardrobe on and we all usually came in having either a casual or a rough appearance. But as people off the streets visited more regularly, they realized that nobody was there to be condescending or make them feel out of place. Our potluck dinners were usually followed by an informal communion service and some praise and worship music afterwards. To me, this was a perfect example of how church should feel like walking in – welcoming, inclusive and allowing people to come as they are without fearing other people’s judgement.
Over the years I had developed a personal philosophy that I wanted to be the same person in the pews as I was Monday through Saturday. I would often show up at church wearing the same type of casual clothes I wore during the week. Although I always took pride in going against the grain of societal expectations and not caring what other people thought of my appearance, my biggest reason for my Sunday wardrobe choices was I did not want to put on a mask for people. The thought of showing off pretentious piety was something I’ve always dreaded. If I was having a rough week or if I wasn’t in a good mental space, I wasn’t going to slap on some holy makeup while feeling like a dead corpse inside – and I felt as though showing up at a weekly church service with a suit and tie was a means of acquiring false respect or making other people feel inferior.
As an avid fan of rock and heavy metal music, my wardrobe consists of mostly several black band t-shirts accommodated with blue jeans. When my firstborn son was almost 3 years old, he began to question me about what kind of images were on my shirts. It would always catch me off guard, and more so with each different band t-shirt I wore. For example, when he first noticed my Motorhead shirt I explained to him that the logo was a picture of a crazy wild boar wearing a biker’s helmet. But when it came to my death metal shirts with a celestial grim reaper on it, I found it very difficult to explain to him what it really was. Because I didn’t want to scare him, I dismissed it as just a pretend image of a crazy cartoon character and he surprisingly took it in good humour. It was only after those intellectual conversations with my son that I began to realize that what I wear can either draw people towards me or intimidate them and turn them away.
As my kids are getting older, I am realizing more and more the value in dressing up in a presentable fashion as a means of respecting others. I might not have a nice and expensive suit to wear, but I will usually show up at Mass with a button-up dress shirt and jeans. But in my current state as a new parent, sometimes I will accidentally sleep through my alarm and wake up in a panic ten minutes before I have to head out the door. When that happens, I usually slap on whatever clean clothes I have available and quickly brush my teeth before leaving. In those cases, I care more about my ability to attend church than my physical appearance upon arrival. As long as I’m not showing up naked, what harm am I doing to those around me?
At the parish I currently attend, there are about four rows of pews in the back and the rest up to the altar is sitting floorspace. It was interesting to notice how the elimination of pews actually created a much more welcoming environment, especially in a Catholic church. Most people who sit on the floor at Mass there are college students and families with children. While there are still some members of the congregation who dress up (including the priest in his traditional robes), nobody would raise an eyebrow towards someone who shows up in less than casual clothing. This is the attitude I think needs to be made commonplace in every church – come as you are and look past the outer shell.
When attending a loved one’s funeral, everybody usually dresses up – not to impress everyone who attends but in honour of the person who passed away. With that in mind, it makes sense to come to church with a wardrobe that is a little more than casual. If I want to give honour to a God who died for my sins, the least I could do is put a little more effort into my appearance before accepting communion.
But when all is said and done, what clothing people choose to decorate their bodies with is between them and their relationship with God. How people choose to appear at church is not a reflection of what lives within their hearts. If I start questioning a person’s salvation because of a piece of clothing that’s less than orthodox, then I become one of those same judgemental stereotypes I swore to myself I would never become.