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, mu?umu?us, 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?