I am old enough that I can remember when going to church meant dressing up. Men wore jacket & tie; women wore a nice dress. Older folks wore hats. By the time the organist (who happened to be my mom) finished her prelude, the congregation was in place, ready to stand and sing the first hymn.
These days, jeans and a casual shirt are the norm for all genders. In the summer, flip-flops and shorts prevail. People likely dress up more for work during than week than for church on Sunday. Our mainline Protestant service begins with two or three contemporary Christian songs from the praise team. For the first ten to fifteen minutes, people continue to chat in the narthex, refill their coffee, grab a donut, and slowly filter into the sanctuary.
There is something comforting in the relaxed atmosphere, but I wonder: Has Sunday morning lost its specialness? There is something to be said for traditional hymns, a choir in robes, a minister in clerical attire. These things used to set church apart. Sunday morning was not like other mornings. Its differentness put people in a certain frame of mind—a knowledge that this time and place had a meaning beyond the everyday. If the church is trying to reach more people by becoming just another entertainment, it is not only going to lose to secular pop culture, it also risks losing its identity.
There are ways to be inviting, to foster a “come as you are” openness, while maintaining a sense of ancient otherness. I once attended an Episcopal church in Boston that discouraged dressing up, because it was an inner city church that wanted the area’s homeless to feel they could join in worship without feeling out of place. The service itself, however, was High Church. Sung liturgy, a censer with incense, rectors in vestments, traditional hymns accompanied by organ. The idea was to allow people from any station in life to attend casually yet be treated extraordinarily.
This type of compromise is not going to work everywhere. A church is more than a fancy building and elaborate accoutrements. Furthermore, church isn’t something to be done for an hour or two on Sunday morning in isolation from the rest of the world. But I think Sunday morning worship deserves to be both delivered and received as a special occasion.
“Oh wanderer come home
You’re not too far
Lay down your hurt
Lay down your heart
Come as you are”
– David Crowder / Ben Glover / Matt Maher