women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing.” 1 Timothy 2:9

It is the final week of class at Campbell University, and I had an interesting conversation today in my Introduction to Christianity course with about thirty-five undergraduate students, mostly millennials in their first or second year of college.

One of their class requirements is to visit a Christian church different from their denominational background or upbringing. Today, they shared reflections about those visits.

According to the students in my class, they prefer attending worship services in which contemporary music is sung rather than traditional hymns. They also want to attend a worship service that does not last over an hour-and-a-half. Being in a worship context with other young people is important to these students. None of this surprised me, but what I did find surprising is that the vast majority of these students felt wearing “Sunday best” attire is most appropriate for church. Based on their prior reflections and age, I guess I expected them to say, “Come as you are.” After hearing from my students, I want to pose this question, “How should one dress for church?”

women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God.

Enforcement of these New Testament principals would certainly result in the excommunication of a great number of African-American women (myself included) from churches today. In our context, dressing to impress has cultural significance. As a people, we were taught to wear Sunday best in and outside the church. “Dressing up” meant people would respect you more, you would be taken more seriously, and you would not be overlooked as “the Help.” However I must confess, the principles of dress code for church that I was taught have changed drastically over the years. It seems to have shifted from Sunday best to Sunday worst! Arguments can be made from both the Old and New Testaments as to what is deemed proper attire for church. Yet, this blog is about manners.

A mark of civility is being considerate of others. Therefore, we should be mindful about how we dress (especially for church) for what we wear could be offensive and inconsiderate in certain contexts. While in Israel, I covered my head in the holy places as a sign of respect for that context (AND my hair was braided—oh my!)

I firmly believe whether you wear Sunday best or khaki casual, it is best practice to dress decently when attending church. It goes without saying that expectations for dress will differ from congregation to congregation, but how should one dress for church?

I encouraged my students today to be respectable and considerate of others when they attend worship. First and foremost, all should feel welcomed in God’s house, regardless of dress. Preparation for worship should give less thought to people and more attention to praising God. Nevertheless, we should all be mindful of what we wear on any given Sunday. Here are a few tips I gave them:

  1. When in doubt, always dress in business casual or Sunday Best (I guess).
  2. Be mindful that your dress (wearing jeans, flip-flops, sleeveless shirts or t-shirts) may be deemed offensive in certain congregations.
  3. My former preaching professor, Dr. Haddon W. Robinson, always taught that when you preach you should dress “one notch above the congregation.”

For more information about proper attire in the pulpit, check out my new book: Manners & Money: A Manual on Preaching Etiquette.

This conversation could also be extended to address clergy attire—To Robe or Not to Robe? That is the next blog question, so stay tuned!

C. Lynn Brinkley serves as the director of student services and alumni relations at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina. Lynn is also an adjunct professor at Campbell and an ordained minister at First Baptist Church in Clinton.