For a long time the hardest decision I had to make on Sunday morning was choosing what to wear. In seminary, as a student pastor, my choice of wear was easily solved with an alb. With my robe on I didn’t have to worry about what was underneath for four years. I liked that, but as I look back, my decision to wear a clerical robe had everything to do with connecting with people already saved, whether they be parishioners in my church or colleagues in my classroom. The robe was professional attire which helped to solidify my role as pastor. Not necessarily a bad thing, but today I have a hard time reconciling the mission Jesus gave us as Christians with the wearing of professional attire. Lisa proved that.
Lisa (not her real name) is a young woman who got out of jail last week and attended our recovery ministry at our church last night. She has been through a lot and desires nothing more than to find freedom from the things that have kept her in bondage for too many years. While talking with Lisa she expressed an interest in attending church but didn’t know where she might be welcome. A friend piped up and said she thought she should come here, meaning the church I pastor. Lisa’s first question to me was, “I don’t have anything nice to wear. These jeans are about the best I got.” Just then, a member of my church jumped in, “That’s OK, our pastor preaches in jeans.”
The relief on Lisa’s face was obvious. My resolve to dress so that I can connect with people who need Jesus was strengthened.
Lisa is one of many people who have wandered into our church because they heard the pastor doesn’t dress up. As much as I don’t want to make clothing a thing it obviously is a thing for many, and I’m happy to meet them where they are.
Paul said that he was willing to become all things to all people in order that he might save some (1 Cor. 9:22). In light of Paul’s words and Lisa’s relief, I think it’s important to ask ourselves certain questions about our dress code.
1. Who am I trying to reach? This question changed everything for me. Jesus tells me that I am to go into the world and make disciples, teaching them to obey him. Jesus sought out the least of these around him, connecting with those who were left out of religious circles. He didn’t invest much time with those who dressed to the nines and liked everyone to know their professional status. It’s hard for me to imagine Jesus in an academic gown, plush with religious regalia. If I’m going to be like Jesus, I need to reach the people Jesus tried to reach, which may require I dress differently in order to connect with the Lisa’s out there.
2. Who am I trying to please? The unsaved in our communities care nothing about our professional clothing. But the saved seem to. The folks already in our pews like to have a pastor who looks respectable, or at least many of them do. For a long time I thought my job was to please them. Freedom for me came when I realized it was my job to please God. I think I please God more when I dress in order to connect with the lost whom Jesus is trying to connect with rather than dress to please the people already connected. Some of our people will have a difficult time getting used to not seeing their pastor in a suit and tie or in a robe, but the more stories you can tell like Lisa’s the more they will come along. And if they don’t, that’s OK. One Lisa is worth 99 who are already saved.
3. What does the harvest around me wear? If I live on Wall Street I might not wear jeans because the majority of the harvest around me is in suits. But if I live in Dayton, TN, where the majority of people are working class, jeans work. Ask yourself whether or not the people who most need to hear the gospel in your community are going to connect to your message or be intimidated or confused by your wardrobe.
If you are a layperson reading this, you can be a great help by telling your pastor you don’t care what he or she wears so long as it’s clothes and so long as the gospel is being proclaimed. You could release your pastor from much anxiety about what to wear by telling him or her that you care more about seeing the lost saved than seeing your pastor dressed “properly.” And besides, shouldn’t that be our primary concern anyway?