Thursday, August 10, 2006
By Rev. Dr. Milton Winter
Are churches forgetting what schools know?
My heart sank recently when I saw a sign posted outside one of our tall steeple Presbyterian churches proclaiming Casual Worship at 10 a.m. I know that people will have different opinions, but I am going to tell you what I think.
I grew up with the teaching that you wore your nicest clothes to church as an act of dedication to God sort of the clothing equivalent of the old hymn Give of Your Best to the Master. It was a way of saying that Sunday was different from all other days and a visit to Gods house was different from all other visits.
This is not to say that people have to wear expensive, fancy clothes in order to worship God (although a quick look at the Lands End catalog will prove that it is easy to spend far more on casual clothes than the simple navy blue suit and white shirt and tie that my grandfather always wore on Sundays).
The story is told of a preacher from a humble church at the edge of town who visited a new family who did not have two dimes to rub together. They said they were not attending church yet as they did not have decent clothes for the services. The minister said he could help them with that and brought each family member nice outfits from the congregational clothes closet. The family was delighted. But the next Sunday the minister did not see them in the pews. Curious, he dropped by after the service to see the family all sitting out on the porch wearing their new outfits. He said, Why didnt you come on to church since I got you these nice clothes? The father laughed and said, We did go to church, but since we looked so good, we went right on down to that big swish church out by the country club.
It goes without saying that people should not feel obligated to wear fancy clothes indeed, ostentation ought to have no place in divine service. I have only praise for anyone who comes to church and who wears clothes that are clean, modest, and appropriate.
Let me hasten to add that I think that casual worship is different from a simple service (of which I heartily approve) and even from contemporary worship (about which I will write another day).
Studies with school children show that the more attention that is given to wearing modest, appropriate clothing, the better the grades and the less problems with discipline. This is the reason for the current emphasis on school uniforms. Athletic teams usually wear shirts and ties on the days of games to instill a sense of group identity and team pride.
Sometimes I feel our churches are forgetting what school principals know. I fear that casual worship will inevitably lead to casual attendance, casual giving, casual belief, and casual ethics. A school headmaster I respect very much makes a big deal about requiring the boys to tuck in their shirt tails. It upsets the kids to have to do this. But, you know, says the headmaster, they stay so upset over having to tuck in their shirt tails, a lot of the bigger problems never even come up.
There is much talk now about how Christianity is at war with the culture. Certain hot-button issues, such as abortion, are much in the news with church leaders on both sides of the issue. But sometimes I wonder if the churches havent absorbed a great deal from the culture without even being aware of it and particularly the way we are tempted to make the way we dress for church conform to the ways of the wider culture outside.
A minister friend of mine recently conducted a wedding for a groom who planned to wear his cowboy hat with his tuxedo. (Its a popular look, I am told.) She asked him if he was going to take off his hat in the house of God. When the groom demurred, she leaned down and asked him if he intended also to wear it for the wedding night. With that, the cowboy doffed his hat before Gods altar!
From Gods point of view we are accepted just as we are but from our point of view, there ought to be nothing casual about the worship of the God with whom we have to do. We should never be so superficial as to identify holiness with a certain cut of clothes, but by the same token our clothing should reflect the awe with which we behold our Lord. God looks not on the outward appearance but upon the heart, but often there is a correlation between the two. As long as people resolve to be thoughtful and reverent in the house of God, I think the current fad of casual worship will be seen for what it is.
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