Growing up in a Christian context, I was privy to many a “modesty talk,” article, or lecture–even through college. Discussions about young women’s choices in dress and young men’s responses seemed to come up frequently, more often than many other equally important conversations. At times I could appreciate and resonate with what was being shared, and at others I felt like a lot was being hung on my shoulders. I eventually had to reach my own conclusions, because there often seemed to be two extremes, and with neither of which could I ever fully align.
The topic of modesty is part of a bigger conversation, one with many layers. And now as an adult youth leader, I want to encourage other youth leaders by sharing what I feel can be a helpful approach. I think this conversation is fluid, and can look different depending on the context, but can begin at the same starting point.
Where to begin
If you read nothing else, read this: When starting conversations about modesty (or really any topic in a young woman’s life) we first and foremost must be primarily concerned with the heart, mind, and soul of the woman. Clothing (and life) choices are always going to be a byproduct of the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs of young women–how they think about themselves and God, their worth and value, how they have been influenced by family and culture, and how they’ve grown up viewing their bodies.
To jump right to the issue of dress is to bypass the most important parts of a woman–her heart, soul, and mind–to go to what is truthfully the least important part–her appearance. While the rest of the world looks first at a woman’s appearance when determining things about her, the church is one place that should not. We should know better.
We must actively seek to build relationships with the young women in our churches. This will mean taking the time to get to know her thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, which will most likely be shaped at least in part by her life experiences and relationships with family and friends. Only after getting to know her can you understand the “why” behind what she does and speak to that.
I beg my fellow youth leaders, do not reduce the ladies in your church and in your youth ministry to a body. To do so is to do a great disservice not only to women, but to the entire church. It reduces a woman’s value and importance, and often leads to focusing on symptoms rather than causes. Women are vital to the work of discipleship within the local church and they need to know that; they need to understand their importance and value first (Ephesians 2:10; 1 Timothy 4:8). They need to be built up in order to live out their calling. (See Romans 16:1-16 where Paul lists numerous women important to the work of the early church.)
Our first priority
There are many layers to the modesty conversation. In my experience, I have most often heard the layer that focuses on men’s responses to immodestly dressed women. This is an important aspect as caring for each other is part of church body life (1 Corinthians 12:12-31). But I would also suggest that it is not the most important layer to the conversation. In fact, I would argue that the most important–and most basic–layer is the young woman’s relationship with Jesus.
For a believer in Christ, all things must build from our understanding of and relationship with God (Romans 12:2; 1 Corinthians 10:31). It is what should ultimately determine and dictate all our choices, actions, and beliefs. Do the young people in your church know this? Do they operate from this place? Do the young women look to Christ when deciding how they will dress, conduct themselves, and interact with the opposite gender? In fact, do they even have a personal relationship with Him?
As youth leaders, our primary concern should be this: do the young people in our ministries truly know Jesus? And if so, do they know that every single aspect of their life should build on and reflect Him? This is where the conversation must start. This should be our first priority in all things, including the modesty conversation. Once a young woman has an understanding of Jesus’ love for her, she should be encouraged to live out her love for Him in all she does.
Attire does matter
I want to be clear on this: I think modesty and clothing choices are important, particularly for the believer. I realized and decided this was important to me when I was in my late teens/early 20s, in response to my relationship with Jesus. I want to display my relationship with Him in my conduct and clothing, with the hope of giving Him glory and honoring the people around me (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
I also want my clothing choices to reflect the sense of self-worth and dignity that I have as a result of Christ. I’m not ashamed of my body, it was made by God and I reflect His image (Genesis 1:26-27). I want to clothe it in such a way that shows my love for Him, and my respect for myself.
From that place, a natural byproduct is the desire to dress in a way that won’t contradict my beliefs, or encourage someone to stumble. I say “encourage” because I cannot control what another person will think or do when they see me. But I can try my best to listen to the conviction of the Holy Spirit, and respond willingly to Him. If I feel like an outfit is questionable, I choose something else, or modify it with another clothing layer.
I share my personal convictions to show my heart for this topic, as well as to explain that I didn’t always feel this way. It took time for me to reach this understanding on my own because, as I stated before, the modesty conversations I heard typically focused on members of the opposite sex and their responses. Shifting the focus to Jesus and my relationship with Him turned modesty into a worshipful response instead of a frustrating duty.
Attire isn’t everything
When approaching conversations about modesty and male-female relationships, I believe it is vital not to hang all responsibility on the woman. Blaming her for a man’s actions, thoughts, and responses is wrong. We are each responsible for our own actions (Romans 2:6; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Psalm 1), and we are all sinful beings (Romans 3:23; 5:12). This needs to be made clear during conversations with both genders. At the same time, it is each believer’s responsibility not to intentionally lead others into sin or to influence them to stumble (Mark 9:42; Luke 17:1-2; Romans 14:13; 1 Corinthians 8:9). In short, our choices in all things matter and are important.
That being said, I want to be clear: choices in clothing do not always influence responses, or protect against unwanted responses. A woman can dress completely modestly and still experience assault. And a woman dressed immodestly does not deserve assault or invite it by her clothing choices.
Growing up my parents were heavily involved in my clothing choices–they determined what was modest, and as believers in Christ, had a good and honorable understanding of this area. All my clothing purchases were approved by both my mom and dad. During my junior year of high school, I experienced multiple instances of verbal and physical sexual harassment by male classmates. Never was this behavior invited in any way–by my behavior toward them, or my clothing choices–and yet it still happened. I remember exactly what I was wearing on several of these occasions, and I was more covered than many female classmates typically were. My attire had no bearing on the incidents and did not protect me from unwanted words and actions.
The truth is, modesty will not protect young women. Simultaneously, a lack of modesty (real or perceived) must never be used to dismiss wrongful behavior toward them. We must be sensitive to this truth when we approach the conversation of modesty. And we must be clear with both genders–we are each responsible before God for our choices. Therefore, our choices in clothing, how we treat each other, how we view each other and how we speak, matter. May we all encourage the students in our ministries to treat each other as Christ has treated us.
Along with taking the time to build relationships and have thoughtful conversations, there are some practical things you might find helpful when approaching the topic of modesty.
- Create a dress code or attire policy for your student ministry, and don’t leave out the young men. Make sure your guidelines are clear, direct, and provide a “why.” Students want to know why rules are in place, and articulating the “why” will show your heart behind your guidelines. Most often youth ministries provide dress codes around swimwear, but depending on your context, you may find it helpful to outline expectations for normal attire as well.
- In all things, give grace. Whether it involves your dress code, addressing a student directly, or speaking with the group at large, please season your words with grace. Discussions around modesty and the human body can carry such weight, and often times shame. I still remember many of the comments others have made about my body over the years. Whether the student is new to your ministry, or someone who you feel like “should know better,” remember that your goal is to point them back to Jesus and represent Him well in your interactions.
- Include parents. If you have attire expectations, explain these to the parents of each incoming group, or any time your guidelines change. Not all parents will have the same guidelines for their children, and some may not care at all, but they have more oversight into what is purchased than you will. If parents know your expectations and reasons for them, they can help ensure their students are following the rules.
- Don’t forget the leaders. If you have a dress code, the leaders should be the first ones to know it and model it for the students. They should also know the proper channels for handling issues that may arise. Make sure your leaders are equipped to serve well in all areas, including this one.
Remember this is an ongoing conversation, one that isn’t limited to just student ministry, clothing, or male-female relationships. The needs, beliefs, and values of a woman go beyond simple surface-level judgments. In order to best care for each other, we need to have open, Jesus-centered conversations. We need to have respect for each other. And above all, we need to do everything in love (Philippians 2:1-11; Matthew 22:35-40).