#BestOf2014: We Can Whine About the New Generation Or We Can Minister to Them – But We Can’t Do Both


Why don’t people wear their Sunday Best for church any more? A lot of older churchgoers (that is, my generation) seem to be worried about that lately.

I’d like to respond to that question with a couple of my own.

When did the members of my generation become such old fogeys? And why do they care so much about something that matters so little?

This is part of a growing sentiment from my peers that the new generation isn’t doing church correctly. Namely, they aren’t doing it the way we did it.

This week, several people sent me a blog post from CNN.com, wondering about my take on it. The article was built around an interview with a pastor who, according to CNN, if he “could preach a sermon to lift the souls of churchgoers across America, his message would be simple: Stop dressing so tacky for church.”


One message to every American churchgoer, and it wouldn’t be about salvation, love, prayer, worship, knowing the bible better, sharing our faith, repentance, or feeding the poor? It would be about what we wear for an hour on Sunday? 

(I’m not mentioning the name of the pastor, because this isn’t about him. I have no reason to doubt he’s a good man and faithful minister. But in this CNN article he summarizes a sentiment I’ve seen in numerous blog posts, forums, Facebook chats and private conversations.)

Do we actually believe that some of the biggest problems in the church today are

  • Skinny jeans
  • Flip-flops
  • Coffee cups
  • Spikey hair
  • Smart phones
  • Short pants
  • and untucked shirts?

It’s hard for me to imagine anything that would concern Jesus less than how we dress for church. Or the technology and instruments we use while we’re there.

This article was originally posted on April 23, 2014. It wasn’t one of the most-read posts of the year, but I think it’s worth a second (or first) look as one of the overlooked #BestOf2014.

As a member of the age group that is making most of these complaints, here’s my take on it.

We can either whine about how the new generation chooses to worship, or we can minister with them and to them. But we can’t do both.

Don’t we remember when churchgoers in our parents’ generation complained about the length of our hair, the shortness of our skirts and the fact that our Saturday Night Fever suit didn’t have a tie? Not to mention that we replaced some of their beloved hymns with our new praise songs, sung with guitars, not organs?

Have we forgotten how devalued we felt when they told us our music was worldly, our clothing was disrespectful and our opinions were wrong? It didn’t make us want to worship their way. It made us want to leave the church. And many of us did – never to return.


What Is “Proper” Church Dress and Behavior?

What’s considered “proper” clothing and behavior in one culture isn’t the same in another culture. Or in a different church down the street.

Respectful clothing will include

  • Aloha shirts in Hawaii
  • Cowboy boots in Montana
  • Removing your shoes in Japan
  • Kilts in Scotland
  • and maybe suits and dresses in your church

You know how people dress when they come to the church I pastor? They wear the same clothes they wear when they do other things they enjoy. Since we live in Southern California, that often means tennis shoes and T-shirts, skinny jeans and ball caps.

Teens and twenty-somethings regularly come to our church ready to go to the beach afterwards. They stroll in wearing shorts, grab a donut and coffee in the church lobby, then take those snacks with them into the sanctuary. They chat and laugh as they head to their seat in the front two rows – yes the front rows. From the moment the band starts playing, they’re on their feet, entering into worship with all their heart and soul.

When I open the bible to share God’s Word, they pull out their iPhones to read along using a bible app, taking notes between sips of coffee or soda. When church is over, they stick around for conversations, sign up for community service projects and help tear down the furniture for the next event.

It’s not unusual for many of them to seek me out with compelling questions about the message. And several of them simply will not leave church until they get their pastor-hug for the week.

By the time I get home, many of them have shared quotes from my message, lyrics from the songs we sang and other news about their church experience with their friends on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

And it’s not just the kids acting this way. The behavior I’ve described applies to a lot of the adults in my church, too. Including me.

People are offering their Sunday Best when they show up with enthusiasm, worship with gusto, give to the needy and share what they learned with their friends. As long as they’re doing that, I don’t care what they wear. Unless it’s an LA Dodgers shirt – you gotta draw the line somewhere.


Why Does This Matter?

If I’m sounding worked-up about this, here’s why.

Flip-flops in church isn’t a sociological phenomenon for me. As a Small Church pastor, I know the names of the people wearing them. I see their passion. I’ve cried with them through their sorrows. And I know that some of them are still working through resentment against churches that cared more about the flip-flops on their feet than the passion (or pain) in their hearts.

This isn’t an issue of treating God, the church or the worship experience casually. It’s about paying attention to what matters and ignoring what doesn’t.

Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” – 1 Samuel 16:7


Are There Any Dress Standards?

Yes, there are standards for how people should dress. Not just in church, but everywhere.

It’s important that our clothing is not

  • Immodest
  • Rebellious
  • or Prideful

Following those standards, the furs and pearls of yesteryear and the power suits of today may be more sinful than short pants and ball caps, depending on the attitude of the person wearing them.

Other than that, clothing is far more a matter of style and culture than of respect and holiness. So wear what fits your culture and context. And quit judging what others wear in their culture and context.

Like Jesus said, we need to “Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment.” – John 7:24


So what do you think? What does dressing properly for church look like in your context?

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(Whining photo from Kate Haskell • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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20 thoughts on “#BestOf2014: We Can Whine About the New Generation Or We Can Minister to Them – But We Can’t Do Both”

  1. This is good. Folks in my church wear jeans or what I call “dressy casual”, some wear more traditional. It’s a real mix – pretty much broken down my generational lines, but not always.
    What I find sometimes perplexing is that is seems “bad form” to criticize folks for modern dress and music…but ok to criticize churches who take a more traditional approach to those things. If it’s wrong to judge folks on the superficial then it should be that across the board. My “beef” is not with what people wear or what music they play – but when as small churches we’re told we must have certain music or our pastors need to dress certain ways in order to reach the new generation. I’m not convinced of that.

  2. Last Sunday on Easter I decided to wear slacks, dress shoes and “nicer” button down shirt. My normal attire is tennis shoes, jeans and a nice shirt. We are a mobile church and set up can be hot and dirty work. I couldn’t stop laughing at the loving barbs I received about my clothes. It was all in good humor. I love being part of a church that cares about people not their clothes…but we do insist people wear clothes. 🙂

  3. I ove this article. It is written so well. It is not offensive only well said. I come from the background of rules for dressing in order to attend church. However, over the years I have come to realize that it doesnt matter what you wear. one question I can’t seem to avoid with the “other generation” and find my self wondering too, is…there are certain standards of dressing for certain events such as school proms, an interview, weddings, a date, etc…we want to look our best and follow suit for those things and tend to dress or want to dress and look our best for these “events”, should we have the same respect for dressing nicely and respectfully to go to church? Dont get me wrong, I wear jeans to church, flipflops, my kids wear shorts & tshirts. I jst might need a lil more help in answering this question when the conversation arises and it will arise.
    Thank you for writing this article. It was well worth the read.

    1. That’s a great question, Valerie. For people who were raised to dress more formally for church, this isn’t an easy change to see happening. (BTW, I reject the idea that a suit and tie is”better” or “nicer” than shorts and flip-flops – it’s just more formal.)

      You’ll notice that each event you mentioned is a one-time, make-a-first-impression situation. For instance, we dress well for a wedding, but once we’re married we don’t wear a tuxedo every day to honor the relationship. The closer the relationship, the less formally we dress. Church is not about an event – or it shouldn’t be. It’s about the relationship.

      We need to ask why we think dressing up for church matters. If dressing more formally helps you strengthen your relationship with Jesus, then go for it! If dressing casually helps you relax and concentrate on building relationships (with Jesus and each other) instead of feeling uncomfortable and “on display” in a suit and tie, then dress casually.

      What we wear should fit the task at hand. For me, that’s done better when I feel more comfortable, not when I’m worried about how I look.

  4. Karl, this is an excellent article, so good I forwarded to everyone in our church and yes, I said you wrote it. These are issues we really need to stop and think about if want to win the next generation. I had a man in my church complain one time about a teen wearing a baseball hat. I told the man, at least he is here, leave him alone, hats don’t matter, his heart does!!

  5. What Would Jesus Wear? My guess is dusty sandals.
    Who would he be hanging out with? The guy in the brand-new suit with a superiority complex or the woman outside the front door getting the last puff on her cigarette before slipping into the back pew?
    This subject hit a nerve with me. Can we please, please focus more on grace and love and less on superficial crap!?

  6. This is the cry of a dying church: “Come, be like us and help us keep the doors open.”

    Rather than let people be transformed by the Holy Spirit’s application of God’s Word in their lives churches take it on themselves. We don’t trust the Holy Spirit to do this work in people’s lives, so we tell them what it looks like to be a fully devoted follower of Jesus: you’ll be just like us.


    Would I rather have a modestly dressed matron with a sharp tongue and a penchant for gossip, or a provocatively dressed young woman who’s heart is tender toward the Lord?

    Would I rather have a smug, self-assured and self-sufficient businessman dressed in business casual, or a raggedy-*** biker who knows he’s broken merchandise?

    File this one under “N” for “No-brainer”

    1. …to continue your illustrations. A well-dressed, know-it-all Pharisee who thinks he’s God’s gift, or a shame-filled tax collector crying out for mercy from the back of the room?

      Great thoughts, Bud.

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  9. Great article Karl! As a small Anglican church plant we invite those who come with:
    •Skinny jeans
    •Coffee cups
    •Spikey hair
    •Smart phones
    •Short pants
    •and untucked shirts

    I seem to remember Jesus saying something to the effect of: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.” And also: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.”

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