Sunday best just isn't the same nowadays

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Nowadays, jeans, shorts, sneakers and sandals are as likely to be seen in pews as tailored suits and extravagant hats.

Jerolynn McMahon always wore a dress and hat to worship at St. Rosalia Catholic Church when she was growing up in Greenfield, Pa.

While she still won't wear jeans or shorts to church, McMahon, 63, often wears pants and, in summer, has gone without nylon stockings -- once unthinkable for women of her generation.

McMahon, a eucharistic minister at St. Rosalia, occasionally hears others complain about short skirts or tight tops on young parishioners at St. Rosalia, but she's indifferent.

"I don't think God cares what they wear," she said. "I'm so happy that they're there taking the Eucharist that that takes precedence over what they have on. Just so they're here -- that's the most important thing."

Once, "Sunday best" meant just that -- families decked out royally for church. But nowadays, jeans, shorts, sneakers and sandals are as likely to be seen in the pews as tailored suits and extravagant hats.

'Utterly foreign' to some

"There's a growing number of people under 40 who have never owned a suit or tie, so the thought of buying one just to go to church is utterly foreign to them," said Craig Detwiler, a professor of mass communications at Biola University in La Mirada, Calif., and author of the book, "A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture."

"Outside of the corporate world, we are by and large a more casual society. It's part of a larger trend throughout the culture. As the workplace moves to casual Friday, it's not a big leap to casual Sunday."

Cases of people going too far down casual lane seem to be few. However, some say T-shirts, cut-off shorts, spaghetti straps and flip-flops are far too casual for church.

For Janis Greene, 92, of Shadyside, Pa., who remembers making special trips to a local department store to buy white gloves for church, dressing for church means looking your very best because God deserves nothing less.

"I think it's honoring him really to look your best," said Greene. "I think the older people probably feel the same way I do. They were raised that way."

A church's worship experience can influence how worshippers decide to dress. At Shadyside Presbyterian Church, an affluent, upper-middle class congregation, pipe organ music and clergy clad in elaborate vestments signify a high church experience. Suits, dresses, hats, gloves and pearls are de rigeur.

"The style of worship really sets the tone for the way people dress," said De Neice Welch, the church's associate pastor of mission and urban ministry. "Also, some worship spaces don't lend themselves to casual dress. I think the traditional approach is, you do your best for God, you put forth your best, and in turn he will put forth his best for you. This is a sacred space and a holy space. It's not approached from a casual nature of any kind."

Ron Gadsden, 23, usually wears a dress shirt, slacks and dress shoes -- and sometimes a khaki suit -- to church because those styles fit in with how most members dress.

"On a weekday I might wear jeans," he said, "but I dress a little better for Sunday. I feel it's a little more formal than a weekday."

While many agree that how one worships is more important than what one wears during worship, some believe clothing choices say something about attitude toward church and worship.

"The more churches advocate this drop-in, come-as-you-like, go-as-you-like approach, it ends up with a more casual view of discipleship," said Detwiler.

Dress and discipleship

That may be true if everything, not just attire, is approached casually, said Dan Chaverin, executive pastor of Northway Christian Community in Pine, Pa.

"We have to guard against becoming too absorbed in the culture," he said. "But dress and discipleship are two different things. And if we don't take a casual attitude about the importance of discipleship or our walk with God and the importance of true servanthood, then dress does not have to dictate those things."

Northway welcomes people to come as they are and dress as they feel comfortable, he said. Of the 3,500 people who attend worship services each Sunday, most are dressed casually.

"We want people to be who they are, to be real," Chaverin said. "Because of that, we've always felt it was OK for people to come as they are. Everybody has a different style of dress. We just want people to feel comfortable here, feel welcomed and like they belong, and not have to look the way someone else thinks you ought to look."

Jason A. Barr Jr., senior pastor of Macedonia Church, noted that discipleship "is taken extremely seriously" at Saddleback Community Church, a renowned California megachurch where pastor Rick Warren sometimes leads worship in casual shirts and sandals.

"How do you measure people's spirituality and level of discipleship or spiritual maturity by the way they dress?" Barr asked. "I don't think we want to get into that."

'Just part of the culture'

Although he usually is impeccably dressed and immaculately groomed -- still a strong tradition among black pastors -- he isn't fazed that his 14-year-old son, Jason III, doesn't wear suits or neckties to church.

"I think it's just part of the culture they've grown up in," he said.

It's a culture that is changing within a larger cultural change. As far back as slavery, blacks typically dressed in their best for church, regardless of class or income level. In fact, black Americans have always tended to dress up for "any occasion that is reverenced," whether it's a high school graduation, a football game at a historically black college, or Sunday morning church service, said Gwendolyn S. O'Neal, professor and head of the Department of Consumer Apparel and Retail Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

That has changed as American society has become more casual in general and as congregations have become larger and more integrated, O'Neal said.

From Scripps Howard News Service.

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