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ASK BOB: Is Worship Becoming Too Casual?

by Bob Russell

(Copied from www.bobrussell.org)

 Occasionally people ask my opinion on various personal or church issues. I recently received the following question which I have reprinted below, followed by my response.



I’ve noticed lately at the church I attend that things are getting so lax. The dress is increasingly casual, eating breakfast biscuits and drinking coffee during worship, folk checking their texts and email, even streaming ESPN during worship service. During a recent visit to a Bible college, about 1/3 of students went to their cell phones and earbuds during chapel. Where are we going with this? Comfort and Convenience? I’m concerned here. Your thoughts, please.


     I share your concern about worship becoming too casual.  When the prophet Isaiah saw the Lord lifted high and lifted up in the temple, he cried out, “Woe is me; I’m unclean, I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people with unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5).  Isaiah wasn’t cavalier about being in the presence of the holy and all-powerful Creator. He was focused! Exodus 28 describes the sacred garments Aaron was to wear when he served as the priest, “to give him dignity and honor” (Exodus 28:2). There was a holy fear in the presence of God who is described in Scripture as “a consuming fire.”

     I want to share two conversations about this matter and then hopefully serve as a peacemaker in this ongoing conflict.  The first conversation was during the only time I ever met Henry Blackaby, author of the popular Bible study, Experiencing God. I asked him what he thought of preachers who dressed casually in the pulpit.  His answer was immediate and without equivocation, “They just don’t understand the holiness of God.” Dr. Blackaby was in his 60’s at the time.

     The second conversation was with Kyle Idleman, author of the best-selling book Not A Fan.   When he joined the teaching team at Southeast Christian, he was twenty-six years old. Kyle asked me if he could preach without wearing a coat and tie because doing so made him feel hypocritical and he feared he wouldn’t relate to his generation. I responded, “Kyle, we’re worshiping Almighty God here.  If you were going to visit the President of the United States don’t you think you’d wear a suit?”  He gently responded, “Probably not, if the President were my dad.”  I couldn’t think of a Biblical response! So I gave Kyle permission to eliminate the coat and tie.

     Obviously, there are two schools of thought.  One is that we are worshipping the Creator of the universe who is to be reverenced.  The other is that since Jesus died an atoning death on the cross we have been adopted into the family of God and we can come relaxed into the presence of a loving, accepting Heavenly Father. Romans 8:15 reads “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but received the Spirit of sonship. And by him, we cry, “Abba, Father.”

     It also helps if we understand there is a significant generational difference in attitude toward dress. The younger generation emphasizes the importance of being authentic and comfortable. They often see “dressing up” as an attempt to impress others. The older generation regards dress as a means of being at our best and a demonstration of respect for others. To older people, to dress down at a formal occasion is considered selfish and disrespectful.

     It’s also helpful to understand the difference in attitude toward the purpose of the Christian assembly. Many younger church leaders regard the primary purpose of the Sunday morning church service as evangelism. The more they can make unbelievers feel comfortable, the more likely they will relate to the church and accept the gospel. More traditional ministers regard the primary purpose of the Sunday morning worship service is to worship God. The main focus is on honoring God not relating to the seeker.

     In my opinion, church leaders would be wise to clarify the rationale behind their assembly and communicate what is expected on the part of the congregation. Most of us have attended evening vesper services at a Christian camp when we dressed very informally and yet genuinely praised God. Most of us have also attended traditional services where God was honored, and people were saved. But when congregations bicker over being too casual or too formal, the Holy Spirit is quenched, and little is accomplished.

     I think it’s possible to maintain a healthy balance.  I can both respect and love my earthly Father. And I can worship God with awe and worship Him with joy at the same time. Although I’m not a big advocate for casual dress, I’m hard-pressed to find a Scripture to back up my preferences.  Styles do change.  Simon Peter didn’t preach in a suit.  So while I prefer formal attire for Sunday worship I’m determined to practice the slogan, “In doctrine, unity; IN OPINION, LIBERTY; in all things charity…”

     When I’m a guest speaker, I ask the preacher what he normally wears, and then I try to dress a notch above that expectation.  But I’ll admit, when I see people strolling in late to worship, wearing flip-flops and shorts, sipping coffee and munching on donuts just seconds before observing The Lord’s Supper, like Dr. Blackaby, I question whether or not they grasp the holiness of God. The Bible says, ”The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.”  It seems to me we could all use a little more holy fear these days. – But I’m 75 years old!


                         Bob Russell is retired Senior Minister of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, KY.


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If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.

Romans 14:8