Social Deviancy in Church: Does Appearance Matter?

A guest post by Amy Pruch

In recent years, American Christian churches have become very diverse in their styles of worship, services, décor, and dress.  Different churches have a desire to reach out to different people groups, and therefore, change their style in order to fit the targeted people group. Contemporary churches may decorate with colored lights, have shorter services, louder music, and be dressed in jeans.  Conservative churches may decorate with flowers and crosses, play slower music, and dressed in suits and skirts.  It is true that a person will worship where he or she feels most comfortable and often where the congregation mostly looks, acts, and worships just as he or she does.  So, what happens when someone who does not fit that style enters the church?  Are they received well?  Is there equal opportunity for them to get involved and worship, although they may not be like anyone else in that particular church?

The norm I decided to violate is the conservative church’s dress and etiquette.   I visited two local churches in Waconia, Minnesota, Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church and St. Joseph Catholic Church, on Sunday morning, November 23.  In these churches, the dress was business-casual; make-up and jewelry were kept to a minimum.  During the services, there was much etiquette to know and respond to, such as kneeling for prayers or standing for Scripture readings.  Instead of following the norms of socially-acceptable business-casual dress, I dressed in black clothing, baggy jeans, gaudy jewelry, and gothic makeup.  Instead of following the church etiquette, I sat in my pew the entire hour, never opening a Bible or hymnal, never standing or kneeling when appropriate.  For the purpose of this project, my rules for the church services were as follows:

  • Do not approach anyone except the door greeters and welcome table.  Do not initiate any sort of greeting to those around me, even when the service calls for it.
  • If spoken to in conversation, I must ask how I could get involved in the church and/or what Christianity could mean for me.
  • My body language must be inferior with arms crossed, slouched over, eyes to the floor.
  • I must act nervous and timid, using soft speech when talking, often playing with my jewelry, and shifting from side to side.
  • After a conversation, I must reveal my true identity and purpose for the church visit.

The Setting
The first church I visited was Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church at the 9:30 service.  As I drove towards the church, I noticed a large banner outside that proclaimed, “You are Invited!”  The front doors led to the main lobby, which held a welcome center in the left corner and a table in the middle of the room for writing on name tags (everyone wore name tags).  Towards the right of the lobby was the entrance to the sanctuary. The seating for the sanctuary was split in three sections, the middle, left, and right, with the stage in the center.  The congregation size was estimated at 500 people.  The congregation consisted mostly of older adults, between the ages of 40 and 60.  The dress was casual, mostly jeans and slacks with nice shirts.

The second church I visited was St. Joseph Catholic Church for the 10:30 mass.  The front doors of the church opened to the lobby and to the left there were stairs leading up extremely large with four sections of pews, small sections to the very left and right, and then larger sections of pews in the middle, all facing the front stage of the church.  The congregation was very large, estimated at over one thousand.  The people group in this church was mostly young families (married couples in their thirties with young children).  The dress was very similar to the Lutheran church, in that most people wore jeans or slacks with a nice button-up shirt.

Deviancy and Observations
As I walked from my car to the Lutheran church, I felt embarrassed as I already noticed how differently I was dressed and how awkward this experience was going to be.  There were a few families that glanced in my direction, and as I followed a man into the building, he did not hold open the door for me.  I entered the lobby area and stood towards the back, allowing everyone who entered a view of me (I did not get a nametag, nor was I asked to).  I stood near an older lady who peeked in my direction, but otherwise, for the first five minutes, no one approached me.  As one of the pastors walked by, he looked me in the eye and extended a welcome. At this point, I had very much taken on my role and in reality felt lonely, out of place, and inferior, which made the pastor’s welcome very appreciated.  I walked over to the information booth and welcome center.  The lady behind the booth treated me as any other person in the church.  I asked how “a person like me” could feel comfortable “in a place like this.”  She had a puzzled look on her face, but then described Bible studies I could attend or volunteer work I could do in the church.  I thanked her, and then proceeded to sit down in the sanctuary.

In the sanctuary, I sat down on the left side, which faces the entire congregation.  This was intentional so I would be able to be viewed by the most amount of people.  I sat to the right of a twelve year old boy and his mother and in front of an older couple.  Throughout the service, I received several glances and the occasional stare.  I believe this was mostly from my appearance, not because of my lack of church etiquette. I acted as if I had never entered a church before, but it seemed more  people were staring because of my clothing and make-up rather than my lack of respect or knowledge for what to do during the service.

During the greeting time, six people came up to me to shake my hand, without me making eye contact or initiating a greeting whatsoever.  When the service had ended, an older woman in her 60’s welcomed me to the church and explained that she was “glad I had come this morning.”  I continued the conversation and asked how a “person like me” could get involved in the church.  She explained with a smile that there are many opportunities to explore within the church.  I told her that I did not know much about God and I wanted her to explain to me about what she believes.  Within a few sentences, she explained the gospel message to me clearly and adequately, after which I apologized for my deceptiveness and explained my true intentions of coming to the church.  She and her husband were quite surprised, but laughed and proudly proclaimed that God accepts everyone.  At this point, I headed out the door and caught the pastor before he left.  I again asked how a “person like me” could be comfortable in the church.  He said the youth group is a great place to start.  After a short conversation, I explained my true identity and purpose.  His facial expression revealed he was either taken off-guard or very offended; I hope it was the former.

Because of the ending time of the Lutheran church, I was ten minutes late to the Catholic mass at St. Joseph’s.  There was a minimal amount of people in the lobby as I entered the church, but I did catch a few children staring at me on their way to Sunday school.  As I walked into the sanctuary, I was intercepted by an usher who let me know where an open spot was (since I was not use to the setting, and not as many people were able to take a look at me, however, the people I sat by certainly seemed bothered).  There was a
man in his 60’s to my left who stared at me numerous times throughout the service, even when I looked back at him.  A teenager to my right looked at me once, but then acted like I was not there.  The harshest look I received was from a mother in her 30’s—her young daughter was about to step into my pew after communion, but the mother guided her away from my pew and gave me a long angry stare.  At this point, I felt very annoyed and judged by those around me.

Not only were my looks an issue with those around me, but I also believe the lack of church etiquette seemed disrespectful to those around me.  I did not stand or kneel at appropriate times, nor did I receive communion.  When the offering plate was passed, I acted as if I did not know what to do with it.  There were definite glances in my direction, as if to say, “What is she doing?” or “Why is she here?”  The most apparent rejection was noticed during the greeting time, during which I did not stand up, but I made it a point to look around for someone to say hello to.  I did not receive a single greeting, nor was I approached, nor was I looked at.  I was widely ignored, which made me feel extremely lonely amidst everyone else in the church who seemed perfectly fine looking past me.

The mass ended, and I lingered in my pew for a few moments, just to see if anyone would look at me on the way out, but again, I was ignored. Adults would have a quick glance and then stare straight ahead. Adolescents would stare for a moment, and then look away.  Children would stare and not tear their eyes away until their parents motioned for them to stop.  I shook the priest’s hand on the way out, and he said, “Thanks for coming,” just as he did for all others.  There was no “welcome table” to approach, but I saw one woman who had a booth for a Bible study.  I talked to her for a few moments, asking how “a person like me,” could get involved here.  She talked about her Bible study and said I am welcome to come.  I told her I did not know much about God and Christianity, and I needed her to explain it to me.  She offered to take me out so she could share with me everything she believes.  I declined, but asked her to share in a few sentences.  She proceeded to share the gospel in a very thorough and clear manner (in my opinion, even better than the lady at the Lutheran church).  I thanked her for her time and then explained my true intentions, after which she laughed and asked if she did a good job.

In visiting these churches dressed as a Goth and acting as a non-church goer, I realized that although I  received many stares, possible judgments, and awkward glances, I was received well once I showed an interest in Christianity and/or the church.  Therefore, my conclusion in this matter is that dress and etiquette do matter to an extent for the church congregation as a whole, however, it does not necessarily matter to individuals once in conversation.  Dress and etiquette certainly do play a role in conservative churches today, but it is a barrier than can be broken, although I believe it should not be a barrier at all.

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