Not much can keep Maggie Gibson of Estero from attending Sunday service at Estero United Methodist Church each week. With three distinct services to reflect the congregation, Gibson is a regular attendee at the traditional 11 a.m. service. Over the years, she’s seen a host of different wardrobe choices among her fellow congregants and on those hot, humid summer mornings, she can understand why women would want to don a sundress and men might opt for a polo shirt and shorts.
“It’s appropriate for Florida weather because it’s hot,” she says, adding that she never sees church members get “too casual.”
Regardless of the denomination, it seems more and more Southwest Florida churches are taking a “come-as-you-are” approach to wardrobes. While most churches don’t dictate a dress code, some are more formal than others, especially during tourist season, when an influx of more mature worshippers who grew up attending church in their “Sunday Best” return for part of the year.
“For the most part, it’s a formally casual experience,” notes the Rev. Dr. Dan Lamey, assistant pastor of First Congregational Church of Naples of the wardrobe choices for “in-season” members of his parish. Some women dress in their finest; some men still wear a suit and tie.
But in the summer months, says Lamey, “it’s whatever you need to stay cool. The heat, humidity and rain changes everyone’s wardrobe. Any sensible Christian in Southwest Florida will change.”
He’s not alone in embracing a more casual style of dress during the summer months. The Rev. Kyle Bennett of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Marco Island believes congregations, including his, reflect the greater society which has gradually embraced a more casual dress and outlook in just about every facet of life.
“Churches just went along with it,” he explains.
The slow pace of the summer months, and what Bennett describes as his “personal casualness” are all factors as well, he believes. Instead of hosting six weekly services, Bennett just offers one during summer, and he even wears fewer liturgical stoles. “I think things tend to slow down (in summer).”
On the other side of Collier County, Assistant Pastor Trent Casto at Covenant Presbyterian Church doesn’t see much of a change in dress during the summer months. Men usually wear slacks and a polo or Hawaiian shirt, while women might opt for a sundress, or slacks and a blouse — clothing appropriate to going out to a fine restaurant. But, frankly, Casto says, what worshippers are wearing is the least of his concerns.
“We have a culture of making people realize that we really don’t care what they’re wearing,” he says. “We care about how the worship experience affects you. Your dress can be an indication of where your heart is, but not always.”
Lamey believes younger members of his church, specifically, embrace this more modern approach, refusing to equate how they dress to how God might receive their prayers.
“The younger generation is in no way going to adhere to a dress of code of the older generation. It’s a different world.”
To bridge the gap in worship styles, many churches offer both traditional and contemporary services. For instances, Estero United Methodist features an 8 a.m. traditional casual service, a traditional service and a contemporary service with modern “praise music.” However, in the summer months, with fewer congregants in the pews, the need for multiple services decreases and some churches opt for just one service. For Lamey, trying to merge both styles often leaves one group of worshippers disappointed.
“You want to honor the music of the ones in that older group (who prefer traditional services) and create something new for others.”
Jesus meets Jimmy Buffett
One local congregation may have completely changed worshipper’s perspective of what a service looks. Year round, just about anything goes in terms of dress at Celebration Community Beach Church, which holds services in Naples’ Cambier Park each Sunday morning. Some dress ready to head to the beach; others just wear shorts and tank tops. In starting his parish more than a decade ago, Senior Pastor Gene Scott says he realized that people moving to Southwest Florida wanted a different lifestyle and that applied to their worship service, too.
Describing his church as “Jimmy Buffet meets Jesus,” Scott lightheartedly asks that since “Jesus Christ wore sandals to church, why can’t we?”
Even in the summer months, the church attracts as many as 600 worshippers. In season, that number doubles.
“We want services to be uplifting and stress-free,” says Scott. “We don’t hang you with a tie.”
While the laid-back pastor acknowledges not everyone would be comfortable attending his church, he firmly believes that “it takes all kinds of churches to meet all kinds of people’s needs.” The relaxed dress code, Scott says, allows parishioners to concentrate on the message.
Clearly “Sunday Best” has a different meaning in 2011 than it did in 1951. But local pastors believe casual dress, regardless of the season, is here to stay, in Southwest Florida and beyond.
More and more churches are telling their parishioners to “come as you are” — and really mean it.