Consulting a ministerial manual in mid-20th century America, the preacher was advised to garb and groom like a “minister and a gentlemen” with practical aphorisms, such as “a good gown covers a multitude of poor tailoring.” The preacher’s appearance, both in and out of the pulpit, was a matter of gender-specific social status, etiquette, and good taste.
By contrast, contemporary homiletics regards appearance as part of the embodiment of the sermon through non-verbal communication in diverse contexts and communities. Influenced by communication theory, this broader understanding of appearance includes not only apparel and adornment but also the movement of the body, including gesture (kinesics); the relationship of the body to space, objects, and architecture (proxemics); facial expression including eye contact; and the negotiation of the physical and psychological space between the preacher and the hearers (aesthetic distance). Rules and norms of appearance, once determined by position and etiquette, are now considered expressions of the interplay between theological and cultural worship traditions, occasion, congregational context, gender, and the role and identity of the preacher.
What Should I Wear to Preach?
The dynamics of tradition (or anti-tradition), context, and identity help to answer this question.
For liturgical churches, prescribed vestments are pedagogical symbols of the sacraments, ordination, and the traditions of the church. A white alb, stole, and chasuble remind the congregation of their baptism, the ordained responsibilities of administering sacraments and preaching, and the hope of the eschatological banquet.
In congregations where the wearing of such vestments is not prescribed, the preacher may still be faced with the choice of whether or not to robe. The black robe or Geneva gown, originally an academic gown worn by various professionals, is another common garment for ordained ministers leading worship. In its plainness, the robe deemphasizes symbols as well as the peculiarities of everyday dress, thereby focusing attention to the hearing of the Word of God read and proclaimed.
For yet other communities and occasions, the presence of the robe represents an institutional formality that is incongruent with the congregation, worshiping space, role or personality of the preacher, and the message proclaimed. In such contexts, professional or casual dress creates the least distraction and best facilitates the hearing of the sermon.
In choices involving appearance, a question worth asking is: How is the gospel best proclaimed to these people in this particular context? For some, what is seen enhances what is heard. For others, what is not seen directs attention toward the evocative power of the spoken word.
What do you wear to preach?