You probably know what to wear to church for a baptism, funeral, or wedding. Yet for the standard Sunday worship service, the expectations are far less clear. Is it disrespectful to wear casual clothes, or should you always wear a tie? If you want to know what to wear to church this Sunday, we’ve got you covered.
What constitutes acceptable Sunday wear has changed greatly over the years and across denominations and regions.
The practice of dressing up for church began in the mid 1800s, when “Sunday best” was quite literally the finest clothing you owned. However, following a more relaxed sartorial shift across American culture in the 1970s, dressing up for worship has been on the decline. In some churches today the congregation and church leaders wear jeans on Sunday morning, following a “come as you are” philosophy.
Yet despite this decline in formality, the recommended dress code when attending a worship service remains smart, and certainly a cut above the casual clothes you might change into for an afternoon barbecue. Depending on the church, following the guidelines for either a business or smart casual dress code remains your safest and most respectful choice.
Dress for your denomination
When preparing for Sunday service, always consider the denomination of the church you’re planning to attend. Some denominations, including Baptist and Presbyterian churches, try to maintain a formal dress code and expect men to wear a smart suit. This is especially true when attending a Catholic Mass. Arriving in casual clothes like shorts or a tank-top could see you turned away at the door. On the other hand, many Methodist, Episcopal, and Calvary Chapel churches prefer a relaxed dress code where a three-piece suit would feel out of place.
If the church offers multiple worship services, consider which you’ll be attending. It’s possible that family-orientated and traditional services will have different dress codes within the same church. Even the pastor may be in robes at 8:00am but sporting khakis at 11:00!
Finally, consider regional differences. In general, churches in the South adhere to a more formal dress code than Northern churches.
Traditional formal Sunday worship services call for a dark-colored suit, like navy, charcoal, or black. Pinstripes or checks are perfectly fine but do keep in mind that some historically African-American churches favor lighter or boldly colored church suits.
It’s not always necessary to wear a tie with your suit, but it won’t be out of place either, and does afford an opportunity for color and style. Similarly, a pocket square, while not obligatory for regular Sunday worship adds color for special events like baptisms, or for holiday services at Easter or Christmas.
Finally, a pair of polished black or brown Oxford shoes is the perfect complement to your smart suit.
Smart-casual church wear
At more relaxed churches, wearing a suit may make you the odd man out. In this case, adopt a smart casual look.
Dark-colored pants are the preferred option for church, although colored pants will work when paired with a smart shirt. Khakis are a good summer option, but no matter what the pastor or worship team is wearing, stay away from jeans. While your preacher is dressing to convey approachability, your goal is to show respect for the church and its services. Always wear a belt.
For your top, a crisp white buttoned shirt always works, especially when paired with a smart blazer or sports coat. While you will doubtless see more than a few people in t-shirts or hoodies at relaxed services, you should avoid casual wear. Even if you’re not pulling out your “Sunday best,” your smart casual ensemble will help you feel comfortable, respectful and most importantly, not out of place.
Leather loafers, boat shoes, brogues, or moccasins complete your smart casual look. Always avoid tennis shoes or sneakers, and definitely don’t enter a house of worship in flip-flops or sandals.
When in doubt, dress up
When attending a church service, it’s best not to draw undue attention to yourself by either over or underdressing. If it goes against the culture of the church, a full three-piece suit complete with tie and pocket square will make you stand out like a sore thumb. In other churches a t-shirt and shorts can seem disrespectful.
If you’re unsure, call to check the dress code with the church you’re attending. Alternatively, visit the church’s website which may feature a dress code or, at the very least, photos of the congregation which will give you an idea of what other people wear.
When in doubt, err on the side of caution and dress smartly for your first service. You can always adjust your look in future if you need to, or simply remove your jacket and tie once you’re settled into your pew.
Navigating the line between formal and casual can be a challenge, but follow these recommendations and you’ll never be stumped by what to wear for Sunday worship again.