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Outward signs

Outward signs

One of the things I like about my parish is that while a few of the men come to the Eucharist dressed in jacket and tie, many people show up in jeans and sweaters. I am among the latter. It isn’t that I consider the Eucharist a casual affair, quite the opposite. But I need to step out of the costume I wear to establish my credentials as a person who should be taken seriously in the working world into clothes that allow me to present a humbler front to God.

This, I understand, is an entirely subjective rationale and might look as though I am theologizing my desire not to wear a tie. I don’t necessarily expect other people to feel as I do about it. But it has made me wonder about the non-liturgical factors that lead us to worship where we do, and I wondered if people would like to talk about that.

Some of these factors—such as wardrobe and automobiles—tell you something about parishioners’ economic achievements. I have found it difficult to worship in a sustained way among very affluent people, so that influences my choice of churches. The racial and ethnic make-up of a congregation tells a story, but it often takes a while to figure out what that story is. I know people who won’t attend a church that has flags in the sanctuary, and others who are influenced by a church’s tolerance for wiggly children, even though they don’t have children themselves.

Put aside for the moment the nature of the liturgy and the music, and whether you find the people who attend a certain parish friendly. What are the unspoken (and possibly unintentional) ways in which a congregation communicates its values to you on a Sunday morning?


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I wear what I want to church, which usually ends up being nice-casual, but not jeans, except for weekday services. I expect my clothing is a bit more dressy than some, but it’s probably because I am old, and habits die hard.

Do we really need to concern ourselves with clothing? I don’t care what others wear. Consider the lilies…

June Butler

Gary Gilbert

Along with class, I would add race as factor in what people wear to church. Books have been written about African-American church ladies and their hats. African-Americans could express a belief in their inherent worth by dressing up on Sunday, even though they lived in a country which denied their basic humanity. Previous denominational affiliation might also be a determining factor, as well as gender. My impression is that women are more easily criticized for their clothes, whereas men are allowed more leeway.

The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has written about the connection between taste and social position.

Gary Paul Gilbert

Bonnie Spivey

In my church people wear what is comfortable for them. For me the most important thing we all can offer is our hospitality to everyone who comes.

Our rector is always gracious and welcoming. Big plus.

And, while I have had people tell me that they just don’t know how to greet newcomers my observation is that the more newcomers they greet, the better their skills become.

I hope we never talk down. That we help and welcome the stranger in our midst. That we answer their questions. That we invite them to return. That we don’t judge them by what’s on their backs. And having said all that, the one thing I never apologize for is them wiggly and sometimes very vocal children.

We confimed 14 new members recently. So, I think our strategy is working.

I don’t believe I own a pair of jeans. It’s either very dressy slacks or skirts.


I’ve often heard it said that it’s some of the (economically) poorest communities, that dress up the most for church (ala, “the best for God”). Make of that what you will.

JC Fisher

I’m a “jeans—as long as they’re clean” Episcopalian myself.

Andrew Downs

I’m with you, Jim. My own experience with an affluent congregation is not jso much dressing up, but dressing as someone I’m not to impress people. As a PK (priest’s kid) we never had a “Sunday Best” but more like “Sunday Clean” or “Sunday Something Other Than A T-Shirt”. There is something very uninviting about being the only one in jeans or the only one without a jacket and tie.

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