So hear me out: As a 25 year old preaching pastor I had no idea what to wear. My church was a roughly middle class church in a blue collar city. A city, by the way, that was 70%+ Hispanic. It didn’t help that if I even had a “look” I tended toward the hipster (if what I wore could even loosely be described as a “look”).

Whether you’re headed into the pulpit for the first time or have been preaching for 10 years I’ve been you’ve wondered at one time or another: What am I really supposed to wear? You’re usually asking this while staring at some shirt in question. And for heavens sake please do not Google this or you’ll end up at Ed Young’s terrible (and largely fashion tone-deaf) website.

Now, I’m making some assumptions in even asking this question. I’m assuming that everyone understands that basic decency and modesty apply when dressing as a pastor about to deliver a sermon. I’m assuming we’re not talking about gender-bending outfits. I’m assuming we all have common sense operating. For heaven’s sake don’t show up wearing Magnum P.I. short shorts, a glittery deep V-neck shirt, purple sunglasses, and a mullet. (If I need to tell you that then you need a different kind of help than what’s about to be provided in this post.)

I’m also assuming, in these questions, that there is not one style of dress that is the “right” style of dress for all cultures and places. Let’s be brutally frank: the Bible says nothing about what the pastor or elder should wear, other than what applies to all Christians. Arguing that “You can’t preach in jeans without bringing dishonor to God” to me seems similar to the first century argument over which days are “holy” to Christians (Rom 14:5-6). While there’s no shortage of strong opinions, there is a shortage of Scriptural clarity. So then, I think, wisdom applies.

1) What are people wearing in the city around you?

Start with the obvious: If you’re walking into a restaurant near your church gathering place at lunch, what are people wearing? Are people wearing work boots and T-shirts? Are they wearing suits? Are they all wearing sport polos khakis? There’s usually a range of styles, so what’s the range most people fall into?

Here in El Paso it’s pretty casual. We’re talking slacks or jeans and collared shirts for most business contexts. But not too “business-y.” Roll up those business shirt sleeves.

2) What do you wear when you’re not required to wear anything in particular?

Check out your closet–what’s the range of styles there? Then– be honest–which clothes do you actually normally wear?

Let me venture to say: your natural style may be just terrible. You can’t say “sweatpants and a raggedy T-shirt.” If you’re that guy, then go to “What does your wife like you to wear? What does your family like to wear? What do people that love you and dress well encourage you to wear?”

My closet used to have a range of nerdy clothes to ill-fitting formal clothes. Now, after several bags of clothing were removed by my wife 6 years ago, there’s a hipster-preppy tint to what’s left in the closet.

3) Is there a common ground between what people around you wear and what you’d normally wear?

Think of the range of the first and the range of the second. Very likely you’ll want to be in the common ground there. This will help you eliminate the extremes in your wardrobe. I know that wolves howling at the moon shirt is hilarious and that you think your camo shorts look awesome, but those probably just got eliminated.

Personally, this means I can’t wear my salmon colored skinny jeans and Beatles shirt. But fitted slacks or dark jeans in neutral colors are good to go. Now, if I were in San Diego a Hawaiian shirt might stay in, but in my community that comes out.

4) From that starting point, what would it look like to dress up a degree or two to be “respectable” in your context?

There are two reasons to dress up a bit, after you find your starting place: You want to have some measure of respectability and authority when you preach. You want what you say to be taken seriously. 

This is where you need to also take into account any social issues in your context. A pastor I know who ministers to a significant immigrant community always wears a suit jacket when he preaches, otherwise those in the immigrant community won’t take him seriously. In other communities looking too “stuffy” might get you written off.

5) Will what you’re wearing be distracting from the message you’re preaching?

The last adjustment you may need to make (depending on your personality) is to dial back how “cool” or “loud” or “remarkable” your clothes are. You want people to talk about the sermon afterward not about how trendy you were or how frumpy you were.

I hope you’ve gotten what really is the main goal here: you want people to be listening to your message, not distracted that you’re under-dressed, or over-dressed, or loudly dressed, or strangely dressed in their context. This verse shouldn’t be shoehorned into this discussion but there is a natural principle here:  “To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22 ESV) When it came to cultural preferences, Paul did what he did to win the widest possible hearing for the gospel. Surely, we can do the same with our wardrobe.

Perhaps that’s way too much though put into such a simple thing. But think of it this way: people are going to be looking at you for a good long while when you’re preaching. You owe it to your audience to put a minute of thought into what you pull out of the closet.