As a youth pastor I am often asked about dress standards—from teens, from parents, and from other youth leaders. Do we have a dress standard? What is it? How do we enforce it? Why do we have one? What about visitors? The questions and the reasonings sometimes seem endless, and can actually be seriously distracting from the central point of student ministry. To get straight to the point, this is a real issue in youth ministry in the twenty-first century and many are looking for balanced biblical answers.
As culture continually slips into sloppier and sleazier, many churches and families have all but given up this battle. Many are opting for the “well, God loves us no matter how we dress” approach to Christianity. And of course He does! No one argues that point. But God loves me regardless of how I live too! That’s just not a valid argument when considering “what to wear.” God’s love or acceptance isn’t the issue—pleasing Him and representing Him well are the issues.
If you are a parent, I will encourage you to consider biblical principles for your children and your own home. If you are a youth leader or pastor, I will challenge you to reasonably define and compassionately lead your group environment to be honoring to the Lord. Either way, I hope we all decide to “raise the bar” for some very good, biblical reasons. I believe the Bible is very clear—YES—God does care what we wear.
In Matthew 11:7–9 Jesus is speaking about John the Baptist. And while the central context of this passage is not about clothing, He draws a clear distinction between what a godly man wears and what would be worn in a pagan environment. (The term soft clothing in this passage refers to common homosexual practices of the day.) The Bible draws the same conclusion in Proverbs 7:10 where it says, “…the attire of an harlot.” Point being—different types of people dress differently, and clothing certainly identifies us with a lifestyle. To put one point of these verses in plain English: godly men don’t dress the same as effeminate men, and godly ladies don’t dress like harlots.
Would you consider with me your dress choices? Would you consider what you allow your teenager to wear in a variety of contexts, and would you let those decisions be subject to God’s will? I recently gave our students and parents ten reasons why we have a student ministry dress standard, and why I have a dress standard for my family.
1. To please the Lord Jesus Christ and honor Him above all. So many of our dress decisions are purely based on pleasing self and pleasing others. When you wake up and get dressed, for whom are you dressing? First Corinthians 10:31 teaches, “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.”
2. To submit to the biblical principle of modesty. This is more of an issue with ladies because men are “sight oriented.” If you have a home with only girls, you may not really get this. What some ladies or moms think is “cute” is very often provocative. Dad must be the authority and moms should work to educate themselves on what their daughters “look like” through the eyes of young men. First Timothy 2:9 teaches, “In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel….”
3. To submit to the biblical principle of appropriateness and to identify with godliness. Philippians 4:5 teaches, “Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand.” The definition of moderation is “appropriateness.” While young men might not struggle so much with modesty, they certainly should be taught what is appropriate dress for various environments.
It seems our young people are being taught that wearing their “ball-game” clothing to church is appropriate. It simply isn’t. When it comes to dress, we should have a higher respect for spiritual environments than we do for mowing the lawn. It’s the same reason we dress better for weddings and funerals—because we respect the people and the environment involved. Why should the Lord get less respect than the dead?
4. To promote an environment of purity and spiritual growth. Sadly, teens today are more sexually educated, sexually active, and sexually tempted than they have ever been in American history! In our homes and church environments we should be committed to maintaining a pure and godly atmosphere—and that means dress should be modest and appropriate. The way we dress absolutely contributes to the environment of a group or family setting, and these environments should be Christ-honoring.
Additionally, teens often draw much of their identity from their clothing! They are highly self-conscious and image conscious. Read this statement carefully: A group dynamic where every individual is consumed with social status and fashion trends doesn’t lend itself to individual spiritual growth! They must get over themselves before they will grow spiritually.
Every time our youth group meets, we are pursuing spiritual transformation! This is not a light thing. It is a very serious matter. And our dress should contribute to the process, not detract from it. Romans 13:14, “But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.” Romans 14:19, “Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another.”
Think of this “environment” principle this way. When my daughter was born she was eight weeks early, and for two weeks she had to be kept in the NICU ward of the hospital. Strangely, every time I wanted to hold her or see her, I had to scrub my hands and arms and cover myself in the most odd-looking blue outfit you have ever seen. Why? Because the NICU is about a delicate health environment where little lives are at stake. The value of those lives places a premium on the cleanliness of the environment.
So, how valuable are the young hearts we are raising up in today’s godless culture? How safe and pure is the environment you create for young people? Is your church or youth group a place where spiritual growth is highly valued? Or is it a place where sensuality reigns in the name of “grace.” I know that’s strong, but I fear that we have devalued our spiritual environments and are killing the chance for real life transformation. The environment matters, and kids don’t need us to juvenilize God and His truth. They need us to call them to higher ground that rises above the dictates of culture.
5. To honor the convictions of our pastor. What could possibly be wrong with simply preferring another person—especially one in spiritual authority? The Bible is clear on this principle in two ways. First, we are commanded to honor those who have the rule over us. Hebrews 13:17, “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls....” Second, we are commanded to prefer one another! Romans 12:10, “Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another.”
For young people, the question of dress is as simple as, “What do my authorities want me to wear?” The attitude that says, “I’ll wear what I want no matter what anybody says” is not only rebellious, it is just purely selfish and childish. Any two year old can display that on cue! If I know an authority figure prefers that I dress a certain way, I’m right to honor and to prefer my authority just to show love and respect.
Question: Why will we do this for employers, restaurants, golf courses, and bowling alleys (Yes… I’ll explain that one later), but we won’t do it for the Lord or for environments that represent Him? When I was sixteen working at McDonald’s, they made me wear a blue hat! I didn’t like it. I didn’t want to wear it. I thought it was stupid. But I wore it—and with a good attitude. Why? Because they paid me.
6. To give an account to the Lord with joy. This one is really big. We really do have to stand before God to answer for the environment we allow. May God give us the courage to make our dress choices not by the movement of culture, but by the principle of accountability to God. Second Corinthians 5:10, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.”
7. To promote a spirit of maturity. Maturity isn’t an age, it is the acceptance of responsibility. The young people we influence are quickly becoming adults, and responsible adults don’t get to dress the way they want all the time! We accept given boundaries in a multitude of environments—because we take responsibility seriously.
When we let kids wear whatever they want, we are teaching them to be self-centered—to believe that the world revolves around them. The sooner I can get our teens over their fashion-conscious insecurities, the more mature and responsible they will become. First Corinthians 13:11, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
It is possible to help this generation of young people understand what it means to be mature examples. In fact, this is what God commands in 1 Timothy 4:12, “Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.”
8. To exemplify a distinct lifestyle not conformed to the world. Simply put, the attitude that says, “I can wear what I want when I want and nobody can tell me different” is not a spiritual life—it’s a carnal life. This is a life conformed, not transformed. Ephesians 5:8, “For ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light.” Romans 12:2, “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”
I still believe that God intends for us to walk “out of step” with the world. This simply isn’t the case for modern Christendom. Most Christians are trying to blend in as best as they can with the world’s styles. Why do we care what the world thinks more than what the Lord desires? God instructs us in Galatians that, even as we are in Christ, we are also to put on Christ. Most Christians are more than happy to be in Christ, but far fewer really desire to put on Christ.
9. To protect the thoughts and innocence of young men and young ladies. No parent would want young men lusting after their daughter. No parent would want a son tempted at a youth function. Unfortunately, our sons will most likely see more inappropriate clothing by accident during their teens years than their grandfathers could have looked for in a lifetime.
For this reason, I contend that a church youth group should be a “spiritually-safe” environment for young people. When we teach modesty to young women, we are teaching them to value themselves as God does and to save themselves for marriage. And we are protecting the hearts and minds of young men—teaching them to guard their thoughts. When we teach appropriateness to young men, we are teaching them responsibility and respect toward the Lord and others.
Second Timothy 2:22, “Flee also youthful lusts: but follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart.” Proverbs 4:23, “Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.”
10. To be a clear witness of the Gospel. You would have to take several dozen teenagers to public places on a regular basis to understand this one. When our teenagers pile out of a church bus in a McDonald’s parking lot, or stand in line together at a theme park—they are noticed. And when they are dressed sharp—they flat out SHINE!
Not long ago, we had a group of one hundred senior-highers at an In-N-Out Burger (a Southern California favorite). As our group spent forty-five minutes enjoying food and fellowship, they were dressed sharp, they acted respectfully, and they were kind to others in the restaurant. Toward the end of our visit, two adults approached me and asked where these “wonderful students” were from. I happily said, “Lancaster Baptist Church”—to which they replied, “Well, this sure gives us hope for the next generation! What a great group of young people!”
I was so thankful for the testimony that the Lord allowed us to have at that moment. Sadly, I’ve seen some youth groups that were in no way different from any other group of teens in secular America. Why can’t we remember that man always looks on the outward appearance—1 Samuel 16:7? Jesus taught us in Matthew 5:16, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”
So there you have them—ten principles to validate that God does care what we wear. I pray you will consider them and teach them. Teens want to know “why.” They won’t always understand all of our rules, but this is one area where they are more than capable of connecting the dots—if we present them reasonably and biblically. Everybody knows that dress matters. It’s really just a matter of submitting our selfish wills to God and living to please Him first.
These same principles would apply to hairstyles, manners and other areas of outward conduct as well. Perhaps as you read these principles you thought, “Well, that’s just not ME. I have to be ME.” May I gently encourage you to give up that self-centered thought process. I figured out a long time ago that “being myself” was a losing proposition—and a very limiting one. The winning life is really about surrendering your identity fully to Jesus Christ.
I would like to contextualize everything I’ve stated earlier with this final thought. Encouraging Christians to dress to honor the Lord is not about legalism or arrogance. We (as a youth group) are not “Gestapo” about this. We don’t look down on someone who doesn’t dress perfectly to our standard. We are compassionate towards them. Every week, we welcome hundreds of teens to our church that don’t dress the way we would. Yet we still love them, teach them, and minister to them.
We just don’t buy into the argument that successful youth ministry requires rock music and grunge dress. In fact, the youth groups that I see with that philosophy are failing miserably at life change. Judging by the product—NO THANKS!
As you raise the bar, please do so with tenderness and compassion. Teach the truth with love and patience. Teach your teens that decent dress doesn’t produce a right heart—it should reflect one! Christ-honoring dress should be the product of a pure heart, not the white-washed exterior of a proud one.
Finally, I haven’t tried to define your standard. That’s up to you, the Lord, and His Word. It’s up to your authorities. If your standard isn’t mine, I’m not accountable for that. My standard doesn’t define spirituality, it merely defines what God has put on my heart for the environments and people that I influence. You must define your standard by God’s leading, and be prepared to answer to Him for it. One final story and we’re done.
Not long ago I was with my family strolling through an open shopping area when we happened upon a new bowling alley that served lunch to your lane. We needed lunch and bowling sounded fun, so a few moments later, we were bowling, eating, and making some great memories. It wasn’t until we were leaving that I noticed a large sign at the entrance explaining the dress code. I read this sign in disbelief.
The rules were as follows: No sweatshirts or sports jerseys, no jogging pants or jumpsuits, no MC colors, no hats or headgear, no baggy clothing, all clothing must be neat and clean, no long shorts, no boots, no long or baggy T-shirts, no sleeveless shirts, and no solid color T-shirts. Wow! All that just for bowling!
In closing, think about that bowling alley. Somebody there really respects that environment. When it comes to dress—do you care as much about honoring the Lord as they do about bowling?