My family listened to Johnny Cash a lot on the radio when I was growing up. I especially liked his song A Boy Named Sue. But we also heard Folsom Prison Blues, Burning Ring of Fire, and Jackson. We didn’t have any of Johnny Cash’s records, but would often hear him on the radio in our car when we were driving. Dad almost always listened to WIRE-AM when he was in the car. That station played country music exclusively, and also carried the Indianapolis Pacers’ basketball games.

When The Johnny Cash Show debuted on the ABC-TV network in 1969, we almost always watched that, too. It wasn’t quite my cup of tea, but they did have people playing guitars on the program. Even if I didn’t like the music, I could still look at the instruments. They even had The Monkees on the show once.

Johnny Cash almost always wore a black outfit. After a while, especially after his TV show was on the air, people started to ask him why. His answered the question in a song called Man in Black. Here’s part of the lyrics: “I wear the black for the poor and beaten down, livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town; I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime, but is there because he’s a victim of the times…” The song goes on like that. According to Johnny Cash, his wearing black was a sign of his rebellion, and a symbol of the hurting and downtrodden in society. We’ll take him at his word. But the truth is, he had given other explanations earlier in his career.

Cash once said he wore a black shirt the first time he sang in church, because it made him feel dressy. His singing was well-received, so after that he always wore black when he sang for good luck. He also said that in the early days with his band The Tennessee Two, they wanted to wear matching outfits, and the only thing all three of them had that matched were black shirts. And he said that when they were on tour, they couldn’t always do laundry, and black outfits didn’t show dirt as much.

Or maybe he just liked black.

When I first started in the ministry, preachers always wore suits and ties in church services. Back then, even the shift to sport coats and slacks was seen as a little controversial, at first. And I always wore a shirt and tie on weekdays, too. I even wore a tie when I rode the motorcycle I had back then. I had to tuck the tie in my belt, because when I got above 30 mph, the tie would slap me in the face.

But the culture changed, and everyone started dressing more casually. Eventually even doctors started leaving off their ties. (Studies showed that unlaundered ties carry lots of germs.) And sometime in the Eighties, I began to get a little push-back for wearing “those expensive, fancy clothes.” I would always say, “Don’t give me that. I know how much Levis cost!”

But I began looking for a way to dress more casually, and yet not look, well, sloppy. God’s messengers should look like they are part of the culture they live in. You don’t want the way you dress to make people think, “Oh, I couldn’t talk to that guy.” At the same time, I wanted the way I dressed to communicate a certain seriousness of purpose, because the Gospel of Jesus is wonderful good news, but it is also very serious. As Randy Stonehill sings, “Everyone’s a breath away from Heaven or from Hell.” I wanted to find a middle ground between a coat and tie and, as one writer put it, “the eternal rumple of summer camp.”

A few years ago, I spent some time on a Special Grand Jury in Indianapolis. A Special Grand Jury meets one or two days a month for 18 months. (That’s right: 18 months!) I stayed with my Dad on the south side of Indy, and drove downtown to the courthouse for the sessions. On our 1-hour lunch breaks, I did a lot of walking around downtown. And I saw a lot of professional people on their lunchbreaks. One day I saw a man, obviously a young professional or businessman, smartly attired in a dressy black t-shirt and khaki pants. I began to notice other guys dressed in a similar fashion. A light bulb went off in my head, and I thought, “That’s how I can dress casually, but still seriously.”

Every Fall and Winter, I already wore black turtlenecks, often with a sport coat. Sometimes people would ask me, “Are you trying to look like a priest?” And I’d say, “No, I’m trying to look like George Harrison in A Hard Day’s Night. (Google it, you young whippersnappers.) So, I extended that approach year-round, and acquired some more black shirts in various styles.

Once our son-in-law’s grandmother was staying with us. Her name was Jackie, and she was originally from France. When I came out in the morning, ready to go to work, she looked at me, and in her delightful accent, she said, “David: you have on a black shirt and brown pants.” And I said, “Jackie, I’m a man of simple tastes.” I wear something similar almost every day. My wife says, “It’s like your uniform.” Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, did much the same thing in the last years of his life. He always wore blue jeans and a black turtleneck, every day.

I do try not to wear all black. One day all I had to wear was a black shirt and black pants. It was a weekday, and I thought, “Most people aren’t going to see me, anyway.” But just as I got to church, Bill Haun pulled in beside me in his truck. We both got out of our vehicles, and he looked at me and said, “Who are you supposed to be—Johnny Cash?” (I loved Bill. He once picked out a birthday card for me with a quote from the King James Bible on the front. It said, “David acted like a lunatic and dribbled down his beard.” It’s my all-time favorite birthday card. It’s still up on the bulletin board in my study.)

The bottom line is, I try to dress in a way that is casual enough for people to be comfortable around me, but serious enough to be appropriate to my calling. To put it another way: I don’t want people to look at me and immediately think, “Oh, he’s a preacher.” But I don’t want them to be surprised when they find out I am.

The President of my college was a godly old preacher named W. E. Dowell. He was also the Pastoral Theology professor. (Pastoral Theology has to do with the practical stuff about pastoring a church.) Dr. Dowell once told our class to never wear anything distracting while you are preaching. I’ve always remembered his advice.

I’ve seen guys wear ties that had cartoon characters on them, like Marvin the Martian from Looney Toons. I love ties like that. But I never wear anything like that when I’m in the pulpit. I don’t want to be preaching and have people staring at my tie, instead of listening to what I’m saying. It’s hard enough to keep people’s attention, sometimes.

You might be thinking, “I think it’s so sweet that you think we care about any of this!” Okay, here’s my point (and I do have one): The Bible tells Christians over and over again that we are to be God’s representatives to others. Jesus said, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) The Apostle Paul explained our purpose: “that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world…” (Philippians 2:15) And Paul wrote to his assistant Titus that believers should “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior.” (Titus 2:10) However it is that we dress, we need to remember our purpose: to point to Jesus.

At the Basics Conference for Pastors in Cleveland earlier this year, in a question-and-answer session, I got a chance to ask Pastor Alistair Begg about Parkside Church’s transition from a formal to a more casual style of dress for their pastoral staff. He said, “That’s a good question, but I want to say at the outset that, regardless of what I’m wearing, I always feel the weight of the responsibility I have to preach the Gospel.”

Amen, Pastor Begg.

But I do have to admit: the mischievous part of me still wants to show up to preach some Sunday morning in a brightly colored African dashiki shirt and a bandana. That wouldn’t be distracting, would it? (Relax, I’m only joking.)

So, how should we dress? Let’s let the Apostle Paul have the last word: “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (Romans 13:14)

Soli Deo Gloria!

Pastor David