Thursday, March 24, 2005

The Preacher’s Corner
By Rev. Dr. Milton Winter

All dressed up for the “uptown” church

Word has reached me of a church in Middle Tennessee that is mounting an all-out campaign to attract new worshipers for Easter Sunday. Taking a variation on the old door prize scheme, they are offering two complete “makeovers” to lucky winners who register as first-time attendees at the Easter Day service of worship.

What an amazing idea! Of course, it begs the question of why anybody would want to go to a church that decides right off the bat you need a “makeover” if you are going to worship with them.

It reminds me of the old joke about the minister of a humble, working-class church who kept inviting a poor family to join them for worship. The poor family always demurred on the ground that they did not have proper clothing for church attendance.

Finally the old preacher went out and raised enough money from his members to buy nice clothes for all the family, and his little congregation looked forward with great anticipation to their presence in church on the following Sunday.

But Sunday came and the family did not appear. Disappointed, the preacher stopped by their house after the service, finding them all sitting on the front porch dressed in their fancy new clothes. “Why didn’t you come to our church?” he wanted to know. “Well,” said the man on the porch, “since we were dressed this nice, we decided we’d go to the high-society church uptown!”

This points out that “Come as you are” is a very problematic concept in religion. We sing, “Just as I am, without one plea,” but people find it very hard to really mean it. And the saddest thing is that religion and “putting on airs” seem too often to go hand in hand.

And I am not just talking about “upper crust” types who wear top hats and drive Rolls-Royces to church. For now that the fashions have changed, it could be possible that our so-called “casual churches” could be creating a similar type of snobbery-in-reverse. I am not saying that they do, but it is something to think about.

As long as people notice what others wear, or draw judgments based on physical appearance, this is an idolatry that will vie for people’s allegiance instead of God.

Indeed, based on the price lists in those beautiful, preppy clothing catalogs that the postman insists on delivering to my door, I judge that one could easily spend more — quite a lot more — on fancy, “casual” church clothes than on a plain, navy blue suit like our granddaddies used to wear.

My friends who used to pastor a church in rural Tippah County tell of a gentleman they buried whose unvarying daily attire consisted of his denim overalls and a white shirt.

When he died, the grandchildren wondered if Pops ought to be laid out in a nice suit and tie. They went to the store to consider the purchase.

Finally, they decided that no one would recognize the old man thus-attired, and so a compromise was reached in that they simply purchased a fresh pair of overalls and a new, nicely starched white shirt.

For my part, all I ask of people who come to church is that they be clean and modest in their attire. I like the principle expressed in the old hymn, “Give of your best to the Master.” Balance this with the longstanding Christian opposition to all that is “artificial, ostentatious, pretentious, or contrived,” and you have a pretty good guide for the conduct of your material life.

Yes, I am pretty laid back about the clothes people wear to church, preferring to save my wrath for such things as, say, those flash-bulb popping photographers who take over at weddings!

Though I don’t doubt that some of us could use a “makeover.” Come to think of it, I may take Easter off and go to that church in Tennessee. They just might take pity and give me a makeover!

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