You are more likely to see jeans and T-shirts at Easter Sunday services than bonnets and three-piece suits these days. While some churchgoers reflect nostalgically on hats, ties and stockings, traditional examples of “Sunday best,” most clergy and laypeople alike prefer a more laid-back vibe.
“It doesn’t impact your faith,” said the Rev. Kerwin Lee, founder and senior pastor of Berean Christian Church, which has locations in Stone Mountain, Snellville and Stockbridge. “Through the years, the African American church has gone through phases, and it got to the point that some people wouldn’t come to church because they didn’t feel they had the right clothes.”
Lee said that modern churches take the emphasis off clothes and focus more on the word of Christ. To make that transition, it starts with the leadership, he said.
Lee said he only wears robes to perform weddings, and that’s only at the request of the couple. It’s not out of character for him to preach in a polo shirt and khaki slacks.
“Our goal is to change the methods, but not change the message,” he said. “We’re still in the business of doing God’s works.”
The Rev. Mark Westmoreland, the senior pastor of Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church in Atlanta, agrees.
“Our morning service is pretty traditional,” he said. “And there are many members who wear suits and dresses every Sunday and they are very comfortable.”
But with so many families in the congregation, he said he’s glad to see parents who can wrangle their brood into anything and show up for the service.
“We want everyone to feel there are no barriers to worshipping here,” he said.
He recalled an Easter at Embry Hills United Methodist Church in Atlanta when college students were back for spring break and wanted to carry the cross in the procession.
“There was a girl with purple hair and afterward a couple who had been wondering about joining the church said that was a sign that it was the church for them,” he said.
Setting an example
Both Joe and Heather DeGonge grew up in traditional Catholic homes, and they are raising their three boys — Alex, 11, Owen, 10, and Ethan, 5 — with those same traditions. And although their religion is about much more than how they dress, both parents stress that showing respect and reverence for the sanctity of the church is important.
“We attend St. Ann in east Cobb, and we’ve seen a gradual shift toward more casual attire at church,” said Joe DeGonge. “But we both feel it’s important for the boys to wear collared shirts and regular shoes — not sneakers — to church.”
He said the family dresses pretty “dandy” for Easter with bow ties and suits.
Boys being boys, they aren’t so thrilled that they aren’t allowed to wear the jeans and T-shirts they see other kids wearing.
“I tell them your dad wears a suit every day because his job expects him to dress that way. And they should dress appropriately for church,” said Heather DeGonge.
Right now, little Ethan enjoys the compliments and attention he gets.
“We get nothing but positive feedback,” said Heather DeGonge.
Many religious scholars attribute the custom of new clothes for Easter to the idea of newness and a fresh beginning. It began with early Christians wearing new white robes for baptism during Easter Vigil services. Later, the custom expanded to everyone wearing new clothes in celebration of his or her new life in Christ.
Pastor Lee did note that cultures have an influence on church attire.
“Several generations ago, most black folks only had one good outfit, and they made sure that Sunday was sacred. They didn’t just dress better, they ate better and it was the day to rest,” he said.
But when Lee started his church at Renfroe Middle School in Decatur, they had to move furniture around before and after service, and all that sweating wasn’t conducive to dress clothes.
“We gradually moved away from suits and dressy clothes,” he said. “That doesn’t stop those who want to dress up, though. We have a very diverse mix.”
New attitude isn’t for everyone
In her weekly syndicated column, Ask Pastor Adrienne, the Rev. Adrienne Greene, who pastors a small Presbyterian church in West Harrison, Indiana, noted that “during the Great Depression, people utilized Easter to debut a new garment or hat. In those days, anything new was a substantial luxury and you wore your ‘Sunday best’ to church. Since most people were financially strapped, the purchase of a new item (or at least the material to sew it) was made once per year, in the spring. These new clothes dovetailed nicely with Easter and were worn proudly to that special church service.”
Most parishioners may opt for the casual look, but there are many who wouldn’t be caught without full regalia.
“In the winter, I will wear a nice pants suit,” said Bea Jones, “but you will never catch me at church without stockings and a hat.”
The octogenarian grew up in South Georgia in a small town where the church was the social center. It wasn’t just church that required formal attire.
“I wouldn’t even go into town without my hair done and my clothes pressed,” she said. “I see people now in shower caps and bedroom shoes at the store, and I just shake my head.”
Jones added that she grew up in an era where you showed respect for your family, your church, your race and yourself by your outward actions. She still lives by that code.
“We said ‘yes, ma’am’ and ‘no, sir’ and never talked back to grown folks,” she added. “I supposed God is the ultimate ‘grown folk’ in the sense that you don’t disrespect him by showing up slovenly in his house.”
Although she’s nearly the same age, Gaye Maggart said once she retired, she gave up on dressy clothes.
“I have an outfit for weddings and another for funerals,” she said. “Other than that, I usually wear jeans and sneakers to church and I think it’s wonderful!”
Maggart grew up in a home where church attendance was mandatory.
“In order to go on a date one Sunday, I had to attend evening service,” she said, recalling an experience when she was a teen. “We were running late and I had to go straight to the church. I rolled up the legs of my jeans and kept my coat buttoned, hoping nobody saw that I wasn’t dressed properly.”
Now she saves time and money with more casual clothes.
At 75, she appreciates the ladies who come all dressed up, but she said about 85% of the congregation at West Cobb Church takes the casual approach.
“It’s not about what you have on the outside,” she added. “It’s about the love of Jesus on the inside.”
How to mix style, comfort
For those who want to present a more traditional look without the fuss of old-fashioned attire, image consultant Jill Charisse said there’s a way to present a professional side that can be comfortable.
“Most of my clients are professionals who want to present a polished look in most situations,” she said. “Just because you want to be casual doesn’t mean you have to be sloppy.”
Many of today’s fashions use spandex blends for ease of movement — even in men’s suits.
Jeans and a collarless shirt can look put-together — not like you just rolled out of bed. The best way to be fashion-comfortable without being overly fashion conscious is to make sure clothes are clean, stain-free, wrinkle-free and odor-free. And for personal style, think about adding one quirky piece to a classic look — unusual socks (or no socks), a mix of patterns and textures or a bold color.
“How you perceive yourself is reflected in how you present yourself,” she said. “A good-fitting outfit and a confident stride tell the world that you look good and you feel good.”
More Easter fun
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