When I was a little girl in the 80s we dressed up for church. I wore itchy tights and lacy dresses with poofy sleeves and big hair. I still can’t understand how my mom managed to use hot rollers and hairspray on a six year-old. I’m pretty sure if I tried that with my daughter she’d end up in the ER pretty quickly. But I loved getting dressed up for church. It felt special and fancy when my Monday through Saturday gear was mostly t-shirts and jeans.
I went through a time in high school when I didn’t want to get dressed up anymore. Other kids were wearing jeans to church and we were all about being “authentic” and “accepting ourselves” so getting dressed up seemed like a remnant of the past. Even the adults were starting to dress down for church. As much as I pushed against it, my parents wouldn’t budge.
When my husband and I were newly married and in our early twenties we went to work at a children’s home. We became instant parents to six young men and were now responsible for making the rules about what was acceptable to wear to church. In the days since our youth, church had become increasingly an informal experience. We went back and forth about how much of an issue to make out of what they wore, since we knew God was more concerned with their hearts. It also became an issue because many of our kids didn’t own dress clothes and we’d have to purchase things specifically for this purpose. Was it worth it? Did it even matter?
Then JR came to live at our house. JR had grown up in a bizarre home environment. I struggle with knowing how to put the pieces together in a way that makes sense because the stories we heard were so strange. The bottom line is that his mother didn’t seem to care much for him and in the year he lived with us, she never once attempted to contact him. He had been raising himself under her roof for quite some time and during those years, Jesus found JR.
JR was wounded and angry and resisted anyone who wanted to love him, but he had a soft spot for Jesus. And because of that tenderness to Christ, JR would dress up for church. It wasn’t something we asked him to do. None of the other youth group kids were doing it. In fact, JR would be more dressed up than the pastor some Sundays. One week I finally asked him about it. “JR, getting the other kids to put on nice clothes for church is such a struggle. Why do you always make it a priority?” JR said something I’ll never forget. “Miss Maralee, a man died on the cross for me. The least a brother can do is put on a tie.”
From that day forward we made getting dressed for church a rule for our kids. Because we worked with boys we created the “Buttons and a Collar” rule. They could wear jeans or shorts, but they needed a shirt that had buttons and a collar. We’ve continued that rule for our own sons now and our daughters primarily wear dresses or skirts, even though the “dress code” for our church is very casual.
We know God isn’t impressed by our fancy clothes. We can come to him just as we are, and we DO! Six days out of the week we come to God in our sweat pants, in our pajamas, in our school clothes. We know God is with us all the time and he doesn’t require we have the money to buy the most in style outfits in order to come to church. He doesn’t want us to wait to come to him until we feel we’re presentable either in our outward appearance or in our inward attitudes. We come to God as we are and fancy clothes don’t fool him into thinking we have it all together.
But when I go out on a date with my husband, I don’t wear my sweats. I dress up for him and for myself. Every step in my slightly uncomfortable heels reminds me that this is a special occasion where I’m not chasing kids and I can fully embrace my femininity. Seeing my husband put extra time into getting ready for me reminds me that he loves me and wants to please me. That means something as we both devote time and attention to the other person even in the moments we spend getting ready by ourselves. The care we take on our appearance for each other reflects a heart of love and a prioritizing of the relationship.
That’s how I want to think about how I dress for church. It isn’t about impressing somebody else, but about communicating to God that this is time I set aside for him. I feel differently about myself when I’ve put time into preparing my heart for church by preparing my body differently than I do for other days. I feel a little less comfortable in my Sunday clothes and it reminds me that this isn’t just every other day– this is something special. I may not always wear a dress or a skirt, but I do take extra time to prepare my heart by preparing myself with intention.
When my kids question why they have to put on something nice for church, I can’t help but hear JR’s voice in my head. I know they don’t yet truly understand the sacrifice Jesus made for them yet, but I want them to at least understand that church is something special. The same way we put on a uniform for soccer or don’t wear our pajamas to school, the way we dress ourselves matters to the activity we’re participating in. God cares about our hearts and our attitudes and sometimes the way we dress can help us remember that we belong to Him.
Maybe you’ve always been casual about what you wear to church. Maybe it helps you relax in a way you need to in God’s presence. Maybe it helps you feel known and accepted for who you really are. Maybe the hassle of getting kids ready or the expense of owning separate clothes for church just isn’t worth it. Maybe being super fancy at your very casual church would be a distraction to others. I get it. I don’t believe God calls all of us to the same things or to express our faith in the same ways. But if you feel God nudging you towards putting on that dress you keep tucked in the back of your closet, go for it! If you think your kids might benefit from an outward reminder that today is not just any other day, it’s okay to change up the routine! As JR reminded me, the sacrifice is a small one when compared to what Jesus did for us.