How to Dress Missionally

I know what you’re thinking.

There should probably be a picture of a skinny jean clad, TOMS wearing, manigan-loving, coffee-snob sipping man with black horned rimmed glasses. This, after all, is what the “Missional Man” looks like, right? (I’m not even going to try to describe the “Missional Woman”).

The issue, of course, is that this is basically a picture of what is cool and trendy right now for 20-somethings. Go to any Anthropologie or Urban Outfitter catalogue and you might as well slap “Missional Dress-Code” on the cover. The funny/sad thing is how “missional” has almost turned into a look in and of itself. Clearly this says something about how we understand true missional engagement and how “missional” has turned the corner from the re-embracing of the missio Dei to yet another passing fad within evangelical Western Christendom.

All that being said, I want to actually answer the question, “How do you dress missionally?” It sounds silly, but it is the question I have had to answer in the last few months. Again…I realize the somewhat silly nature of this question. Furthermore, I’m going to talk about my personal style in a way that might sound strange or even bordering on narcissistic,  but bear with me for a few. It’ll turn a corner.

My personal preference for style or clothes is what my a few of my friends have dubbed the “hipster nerdy professor.” What this essentially equates to is good jeans, Chuck Taylor shoes, untucked button down shirt (sometimes a tie) and a blazer of some sort. That’s pretty much me in my element. When I lived in Richmond, VA planting a church, that look was pretty much my M.O.

Then two important things happened and it’s taken me a year to honestly deal with this in an intentional way:

First, I moved to Pawleys Island, SC.
Second, I began working with 3DM full time, working primarily with Senior Pastors of churches.

In other words, my mission field changed dramatically. I went from a slightly urban place to a rural beach town…while also changing working primarily with those in their 20′s and 30′s to mostly people in their 40′s-60′s.

Two very large cultural changes.

But, being the stubborn person I am, I refused to change anything about the way I dressed.

Again, I know this sounds silly, but in the last few months I’ve come to learn something pretty significant that is also probably self-evident: The way you dress actually matters to the people you are actively trying to engage with. For instance, people in Pawleys Island, this rural beach town, are slightly distrustful of people from the city. One big reason for this is that people who move from the city tend to move on after only a few years. So every time they see you wearing “city clothes”, it seem to be a subconscious reminder to them that you think you’re moving on soon. Another way they interpret it is that you’re too good for them.

Seriously. That’s what they are thinking. Doesn’t even matter if it’s true or not.

But here’s something else I discovered. And this is about me personally. I am pretty young, right? I’m only 30 years old. And not to be arrogant about it, but I’m fairly intelligent and that can come across in how I talk with people or present material. However, in my work with 3DM I’m regularly working with people who might be as much as twice my own age and often my task is to bring significant challenge to the way they understand the church and their vocational calling as pastor.

That’s a difficult task for anyone.

And it’s particularly a difficult task for someone who is only 30 years old.

In processing it, what I’ve come to understand is that because I can come across as a pseudo-intellectual by nature, when I dress as the “hipster nerdy professor,” it can make me seem aloof and unapproachable…regardless of whether I am or not. If I’m bringing challenge to them, they can quickly write me off and say, “He’s just one of those intellectual theorists.” It’s like my natural personality is amplified and for many, it puts up a large barrier for engaging in the conversation we’re trying to have. It’s not that I haven’t been dressing well or dressing appropriately…it’s that for my personality and age, my dress was creating barriers for the people I am trying to engage with.

All of this to say…in the last 6-8 weeks I’ve had to undergo a somewhat significant wardrobe overhaul. While I still have my other clothes, I’ve had to go ahead and embrace a slightly different “look”…and to be perfectly honest…one that I don’t really love. And as strange as it may seem, I’ve had a much easier time engaging with people both in Pawleys Island and on the road as I represent 3DM.

Gone are the nerdy hipster professor days…and here are the pink, pressed button down shirt, well ironed khakis, tucked in with a Vineard Vines whale belt and boat shoes. (I HATE TUCKING IN MY SHIRT.)

Oh yes.

But here’s my encouragement. Perhaps it sounds stupid or trite, but the way we dress can create openness or barriers to the people we are trying to engage with. As Paul says, “To the Greek I became a Greek. To the Jew I became a Jew.” This is how to dress missionally.

For me, in my culture, reaching out to the people I’m engaging with…I am now Mr. Business Casual with a Southern flair.

That being said…feel free to pray for a radical re-envisioning of business casual, Southern culture.  

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doug@3dm.com'
Doug is the Director of Communications for 3DM, and organization devoted to building a disciple-making culture in the local church.