SUNDAY SERMON: What should I wear to church?

Rev. Stephen Baldwin

NT: James 2.2-5

FAQ: What should I wear to church?

Whenever I invite someone to church–and I hope yall are inviting people to church, because that’s the #1 way to get someone to come to church–the first thing they usually ask is, “What should I wear?”

It always takes me by surprise, no matter how many times I’ve heard it. Because…the way I see it…what does it matter what you wear to church? Nobody asks what they should wear to WalMart. They just go! Nobody asks what they should wear to the fair. They just go! And if I invite you to church, I don’t care what you wear…as long as you wear something! Which doesn’t always happen at WalMart or the fair. Just go. 

But that’s from my perspective. Or from our perspective as the person who is inviting someone else to church. Think about it from the perspective of the person you are inviting. 

They want to fit in. If people dress up, they don’t want to be the only ones in jeans and a t-shirt. If everyone wears jeans and a t-shirt, they don’t want to be the only one in a dress or a suit and tie. People want to fit in. They want to be respectful of the traditions of the church. So we need to be prepared to tell them what our church traditions are. 

If someone asked you what to wear to your church, what would you say? As far as I can tell, there are basically two camps. One says it doesn’t matter, just come to church. Another says wear something respectful. Your Sunday best. 

You can find scriptures that make an argument for both those camps. There are scriptures about dressing modestly and scriptures about focusing not on the what clothes are on the outside but where your heart is on the inside and there are scriptures about presenting yourself respectfully.  

The scripture I’d like to share with you today is James 2.2-5: “Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in.  If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,”  have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?

These words are attributed to James, brother of Jesus, who was an early church leader. James was concerned with practical matters. He wanted church people to know how to be the church. So he didn’t focus his teachings on fancy beliefs or dogmas; he focused on doing things. How to be a Christian. 

And in the second chapter we just read, he mentions the scenario we’ve discussed this morning. What should I wear to church? 

James doesn’t really fall neatly into either camp we talked about before–the just come camp or the dress respectfully camp. Instead, James keeps it simple. He teaches the early church to fully accept anyone who comes to the church, whether they are dressed to the nines or they don’t have a dime. James is emphatic that people of faith should not show favoritism for or against their neighbors. Love them all! 

I want to tell you the story of the Rev. Willie Lyle, who was appointed by his Methodist bishop to take on a new church in middle Tennessee back in 2013. One night before he started at the church, he was awakened by a dream 2AM. God called him to live undercover as a homeless man amongst the community he would serve before starting his job at the new church. 

He didn’t want to do it. It seemed silly. Crass. Even disrespectful to those who were actually homeless. But God kept calling on Rev. Lyle. This is what he said God told him, “I hear you preach the word of God and share the message of Christ. Now, I want you to actually live it. And I want to hear how you liked having nothing and being treated with disrespect and disdain by almost everybody. Then I want you to tell your new congregation about your experience and challenge them to make a difference in the world, beginning right here in Clarksville.”

So he did. He went undercover. He had his wife drop him off on the street on the Monday before he was to start preaching the following Sunday. He didn’t have any money or a cell phone or a place to sleep. He learned where he could go to get a meal. Where he could sleep. Where to hang out and where to avoid. He learned why the homeless often walk so slowly. “Because they physically hurt all over from having to sleep the way they do,” he said.  

He made friends, including a family whose father worked but didn’t make enough to house his wife and children. He met volunteers who worked at soup kitchens and treated him with dignity and respect. 

Then on Sunday morning, he walked to the church where he was set to be introduced to his congregation. He didn’t have far to go, as he’d slept under a tree wearing an overcoat outside the church the night before. He had not shaved or combed his hair for quite some time. 

He walked to the front as the service began. His daughter, who knew what was going on, had him sit in a chair by the pulpit. She began cutting his hair and shaving his beard, as he began to preach. He changed his shoes. He removed his overcoat to reveal a tattered suit and tie. 

He transformed before their very eyes on his first Sunday, and he talked about the need to treat everyone with dignity and respect. No playing favorites, he told them, because God doesn’t play favorites with us. 

What should you wear to church? Whatever you can. Whatever is comfortable for you. Whatever is respectable to you. God welcomes you as you are, and so will we. Amen.

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