Monday, September 7, 2009

Jeans and a T-Shirt

Most Sundays I wear black pants with a nice shirt and tie. Occassionally, usually when we have communion but sometimes for other special events, I'll wear a full suit. This Sunday I went to church and preached in jeans and a t-shirt without having shaved for a week and without having showered for a few days. I did this hoping that my outward appearance would add to the message that I was preaching from James 2. (You can listen to my sermon here.)

When I first decided to do this, I honestly didn't think it would be that big of a deal. Many people in our church dress up on Sundays but there are several who dress pretty casually as well. Aside from that, I thought everyone would just assume that I was dressing this way to make a particular point and that everyone would simply wait to see what that point was. In fact, early in the week I think the only reason I would have not dressed this way would have been because I thought it might not be provocative enough to make it worth it. I was surprised by how much tension a simple change in clothing created for both me and for others.

I am a jeans and t-shirt, shave when I feel like it kind of guy. But in a context where most were dressed better than I was and I was expected to be dressed nicely, the comfort of jeans and t-shirt was made to feel uncomfortable and awkward. Never in my life have I wanted to shave and put on a freshly ironed shirt and a tie like I did this past Sunday morning. Perhaps that says more about my own insecurities than anything else but I think it opened my eyes to some things about church as well.

For one thing, this experience was a fresh reminder of how intimidating it can be for someone to visit a church for the first time and how much we as a church must do to help them overcome that anxiety. It's not that the people in our congregation aren't gracious and welcoming. They really, really are. Our congregation is made up of some of the most hospitable and caring people I have ever met. But if I can walk into a church where I already know that I am loved and respected and still be preoccupied with what everyone is thinking about me simply because I am dressed differently, I can only imagine that feeling of insecurity and introspection must be magnified ten fold for a visitor who doesn't yet know whether this is a place where they will be loved and accepted or not. Again, I want to be very clear that this is not a condemnation of our church. I don't think my feeling out of place had so much to do with how everyone responded to me. It had more to do with knowing that the way I was dressed did, in fact, make me out of place. It made me stick out like a sore thumb. Believing that I am not an especially insecure person, I have to imagine that anyone visiting our church for the first time would wrestle with the same feelings because they would also know that they would stick out like a sore thumb regardless of how they are dressed simply because everyone knows that they are new. This speaks to the fact that a smile, a hello, and handshake often won't be enough to overcome the large amounts of anxiety that come with stepping into a completely new and different social situation such as visiting a church.

More to the point of my sermon yesterday, I have to imagine this feeling would only be magnified even more if someone felt like they stood out not only because they were new but also because their clothing made it obvious that they were of a different economic class than most of the people in our church. In churches we often say its important to maintain our buildings and an over all professional appearance in the way we do things so that people feel safe and comfortable in our churches. But honestly I have to wonder exactly what people we have in mind. If everything we do is designed to make upper-middle class families feel more safe and comfortable, won't those same things by their very nature usually make individuals who don't fit that mold feel all the less safe and comfortable?

The tension my clothing created for many in our congregation was palpable. A few found it to just be fun or relaxed but it was easy to see that there were several who were made uncomfortable by what I was wearing. This was a real example of how visual images and symbols have a power to provoke us in a way that words often do not. I imagine that I could have come up with all kinds of clever ways to talk about how God chose the poor but none of those would have had created the same kind of tension that my clothing did. I am not endorsing a crass theatrical approach to preaching where we do whatever we have to do to get and keep people's attention. However, I do think that good preaching allows the gospel to challenge us in ways that are not easily resolved. Of course, bringing that kind of tension to a worship service can be a risky thing. There's always a chance it will be badly misunderstood. There is a constant temptation to clarify what you mean, to help others work through the tension, to make everything plain and simple so that you are sure everyone is "getting it". But when we move too quickly to resolve the tensions that the gospel creates in our lives, we deflate its ability to move us to a new place, a place closer to God. So here's to hoping that the tension created by a simple experiment with jeans and a t-shirt moves myself and the people with whom I minister a little closer to the God that we serve.

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