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Saturday, May 19, 2007

An Oxford and a Pair of Dockers

Since the demise of the short-sleeve pastel "missionary shirt" (you know- the one with two pockets on the breast and two at the waist), the button-down Oxford shirt with casual chinos has been the uniform of missionaries around the world. Some people like to spice it up a bit with an embroidered logo. Others dress it up with a shiny belt and pinstriped shirt. More than a few dress it down with hiking boots (or white sneakers) and a baseball cap. The outfit would seem to be the perfect attire for any situation that a missionary might find himself in.

Should missionaries dress like the people to whom they are ministering?

As foreigners, we will always be different from the people around us. But if some of those differences can be minimized by changing our shirts, shouldn't we do it? When the bright, colorful sneakers with the white tube socks come walking up, most European nationals check out. What if dressing the part makes our message and transformed lives seem a little less foreign? I'm not talking about allowing missionaries to dress provocatively or immodestly (both concepts extremely relative, by the way) in the name of contextualization. By writing this post, I'm not refusing to submit to the authority of IMB leadership. I have nothing against my Dockers-wearing colleagues. I'm not a liberal.

I'm just asking.

In some cases, it seems clear that adopting the traditional style of dress is a necessary part of incarnation and cultural integration. Wearing robes, dashikis, muʻumuʻus, burqas, and whatever they call those barber-smocks that Pakistanis wear, all seem like the price of admission into the culture for missionaries. But those are all cases where the people wear more clothing than we typically do in the States. What about those cases where it is the custom of the nationals to wear a loincloth or less?

What if dressing like the nationals means wearing Hugo Boss, Prada, or Dolce & Gabanna? In Western Europe, fitting in can be expensive. What if dressing appropriately for the cultural context means having to upgrade from Old Navy to Burberry?


stepchild said...

Sorry, Comments were closed for some reason. I'm not sure what happened, but it should be fixed now.

Strider, I be you wear a suit and tie every day.

bj said...

I think that we contextualize our dress and lifestyle as far as possible in order to reach the people we are working among. We contextualize up to the point where further contextualization would violate biblical principles/Scriptural guidelines. A woman wearing a head covering is not a violation of biblical principles. A woman wearing a tight, short skirt and low-cut top would be in violation of biblical principles of modesty even if such attire is considered acceptable by the national population. Likewise, wearing “upscale” clothing might be necessary in order to not erect unnecessary barriers to reaching folks with the Gospel. Should WE folks receive extra parity to purchase such clothes? I am not sure about that. :)

Brittany said...

Prada? I'm just trying to get the RVA folks to embrace flip flops and tats! When flip flops have appeared in the White House but not the Monument building, then we have a problem. What about my demographic? My peeps? My former boss threatened to enforce the "no visible tats" rule at RVA until I told her my solution was to grow leg hair in that one particular spot to obscure said tat. She eventually dropped her complaint :)

stepchild said...

Thanks for your thoughts.

You said that "A woman wearing a tight, short skirt and low-cut top would be in violation of biblical principles of modesty even if such attire is considered acceptable by the national population."

How would you apply this idea to a culture in which the women do not wear tops at all?

Extra parity- that's great! I can see it in the budget now: "Account 955: Field clothing allowance- Handbags"

Right. This subject carries over into "should those who minister to bikers wear leather?" and "What about those who work with punk rockers?
But please, stop looking for real-world examples of what I talk about here.


BJ said...

Our fellow workers in Africa (and on the beaches of Western Europe) would perhaps be better equipped to answer the question regarding women not wearing tops and how they have dealt with it. Western workers should not try to fit in to that extent though regarding dress (or lack of). I do think modesty can be a subjective perception (it’s ok to go without a top but never ever show one’s knees), and it is unhelpful for workers to mandate changes. My experience regarding my personal life and in working with new believers is that the Holy Spirit will bring about correction when it is needed at the exact right time.

Deanna said...

Great topic for me since I work with European university students. When it gets hot, the clothes come off. And my perception is that it's not very sensual, it's more practical. What about the definition of modesty in a culture where sexual standards have gone so far out there, that what is sexual to us (American SB Christians) isn't even arousing anymore to a population immersed in it? I"m not sure there is a cross-cultural standard for modesty. That being said, I'm still not wearing tube tops and short shorts, even if it is "OK" by my new culture's standard.

Watchman said...

let me whip my one trick pony again and say that this is yet another issue of morality that has been treated as an issue of faith. Morality always follows faith, not vice versa. It seems to me that regardless of the morality of the culture, the missionary cannot use things like clothing as the starting point for the conversation. Even if the university students walked around campus naked, is that the missionary's first concern? For the sake of the Good News, Could Deanna (or anyone else) wear a tube top and short shorts, or even less, if she did so by faith, even though her morality might dictate otherwise?

knnuki said...

Dude, you are so back. I like to think that my six weeks of non-stop chanting ("We Want Stepchild! We Want Stepchild!") had something to do with it.

stepchild said...

The modesty concern is why many of my colleagues pack sixteen pairs of their favorite (high-waisted, loose-fit) jeans and four years worth of granny-panties. The clothes sold in Western European shops are too tight, short, and low-cut by American Christian subculture standards.

Publius said...

Just curious - do your colleagues wear American mom jeans because they're more comfortable, out of a personal sense of modesty, or in order to conform to the corporate culture (not that there's anything wrong with that)?

stepchild said...

I'm not sure. It's pretty often that I hear about how the clothing here is "immodest" or "revealing," so I guess that for many of them, it's a "moral" issue.

Men who import their favorite clothing seem to do it because it's cheaper and more comfortable.

Just for clarification: usually it's the women who wear the American Mom jeans.

ewinwe said...

this is so kewl! actually bringing up an issue that i'm dealing with myself!

i try to dress the part for the work i do. here in WE, that usually means jeans and a t-shirt, but could also mean capris and a button down. being a 40-something guy, it could also mean a suit (gag) but as all i have is an american-cut suit, and none of the field-parity to purchase an italian job, i'm pretty much not going to go with a suit at all.

swim suits are something different ...

recently, there was a huge story in the local german papers about an american guy who thought that all germans walked about in their "adam suit" all the time, so he made it his mission to do the same. he was arrested and fined 200 euro for indecent exposure (story here: Reuters Oddly Enough).

actually, my wife has had the most worries about the clothing - having to buy almost a completely new wardrobe just to fit in. not prada, nor anything overly expensive, just good old C&A or H&M. still, it is a pain.