Over the last couple of years, one of the most fun, or infuriating, Instagram accounts to follow has been @PreachersNSneakers. For the uninitiated or the slightly less active on Instagram, PreachersNSneakers is an account that mainly posts pictures of preachers in their expensive sneakers alongside information about the market value of those shoes. These photos are usually taken from the preachers’ own social media accounts, but they “hit different” when you realize that it might take over $900 to get kicks as fly as Steven Furtick. PreachersNSneakers started posting in 2019 and became something of an overnight hit, both in evangelical and sneaker circles. Immediately attention-grabbing, the account was also immediately controversial. Some people were excited to see what they perceived as takedowns of famous preachers and about half of Hillsong. Other people were distressed by what they perceived as encouraging division in the church. The account hit 100,000 followers very quickly and became a phenomenon (with merch) before the public even knew the person behind it.
Ben Kirby, the person behind the account, has been highly amusing and highly mysterious. He has recently revealed himself as the content creator and released a book, PreachersNSneakers: Authenticity in an Age of For-Profit Faith and (Wannabe) Celebrities. The book chronicles the PreachersNSneakers phenomenon and takes on some serious subjects. Kirby wants us to think through the relationship between Christianity and capitalism, consumerism, and celebrity culture. And the book is not just criticism of public figures. Kirby encourages the reader to consider their own lives and relationship to drip (a streetwear term related to style). And in keeping with Christian book tradition, each chapter comes with a set of discussion questions. The good news is, the book is a lot more affordable than most of the sneakers featured on the Instagram account. The better news is that this book opens a genuine conversation for the streetwear and Instagram crowd about how Christianity relates to our culture today.
Ben Kirby’s background makes him a good person to help facilitate this conversation. He is a regular guy. He grew up in the church, he was an officer in the Marines, he got an MBA after that, he loves sneakers, and he doesn’t really speak anywhere on Sundays. You can learn a bit more about his life from podcasts and interviews, but he is the kind of person you sit next to in the pew. That is the right vantage point for this book because the big questions are not about how preachers get sneakers or what they do or don’t pay for them (usually not as much as they cost), but about how the Gospel presentation is affected by social media and the appearance of big spending. How do “everyday” people react to church and to pastors when they look up on the stage and see Off-White shoes coming through the smoke from the smoke machine?
The PreachersNSneakers account took off because people are wondering about the right relationship between pastors, fame, and wealth. In her song “Slide,” Missy Elliott sang “I got Pumas on my feet/Fresh gear, everyday all week.” A number of pastors seem to be living that. The leaders of many hip megachurches these days not only dress like celebrities, they hang with them. Depending on the day, it seems like about a dozen people claim to be pastoring Justin Bieber. What does it mean when pastors circulate in elite entertainment circles and sometimes emulate those circles? What does it mean when Christian conferences turn evangelists into rock stars? Here we might expect Kirby to simply condemn some of the pastors involved, but he takes a more nuanced and even-handed approach. Kirby shows concern for celebrity converts, who often end up “used” to advance someone’s ministry. He also asks us to consider how or to what extent Christians can use fame to make Jesus famous or whether or not that makes the whole enterprise collapse.
For those not inclined to the kinds of indulgence on @PreachersNSneakers, it may seem obvious that getting fame is not the best way to make Jesus famous. If you come from a strong liturgical tradition, the laser light shows at some churches may already be objectionable to you. But depending on the angle, the relationship between status and spiritual upgrades is much less obvious. And it is all around us. Many evangelicals who do not identify with the prosperity gospel nonetheless practice a Christianity that affirms prosperity in significant ways. Dave Ramsey, who encourages tithing all along the way, does encourage people to save their way to the kind of wealth that can have a dramatic impact. Get rich, be more generous. Professional athletes with religious commitments find themselves encumbered by all kinds of expectations from other believers. And how often do other believers link their evangelism effectiveness to their sports success? Everyone talks about Steph Curry, what about the G-League Christian ballplayers? Are Christian musicians considered better witnesses when they have better album sales? Everywhere we look, we see encouragement to get big, then make a bigger splash for God. It is right to use whatever platform we have to advance the Gospel, but is pursuit of a platform a legitimate or useful approach to sharing the Gospel? The relationship between fame and faith is an important subject for us, both as believers and as witnesses.
PreachersNSneakers reminds readers that “churches, unlike any other organization, are charged with leading people to the Creator of the universe and making disciples out of those people — an immense calling.” Though Kirby is thoughtful and generous in his interpretation of how big churches and big name pastors operate, he guides the reader toward being critical of kinds of things that get featured on PreachersNSneakers. At the same time, he does not exempt the congregation from the need to self-examine the relationship between church and capitalism. If megachurches are filling up for pastors who deliver self-help sermons and promise material rewards for followers of Jesus, that indicates a pretty high level of demand for those things. If the pews are filled with people who want to be #blessed and not so much Sermon on the Mount blessed, that is not just on the pastors. Kirby uses everyday examples and information from Kate Bowler’s work Blessed, to help readers get a handle on this phenomenon and its scale.
Of course, the main reason that people were drawn to @PreachersNSneakers is the question of greed. Is it wrong to like nice things or wear them on stage? Looking at the story of Ananias and Sapphira, Kirby writes, it is clear that “God DOES. NOT. PLAY. when it comes to greed and the motivations of our hearts.” Some level of indulgence does cross over into inappropriate. Even churches that don’t have celebrity pastors may have some soul-searching to do. (Kirby doesn’t mention it, but how many pastors in khakis drive trucks that cost more than the annual salary of many church members? There is probably room for a @PastorsNPickups account). PreachersNSneakers does a good job of turning the questions back on the reader. How does greed shape the lives of normal parishioners? And, in particular, how do we all use social media? Are we fostering an unhealthy spirit of comparison or trying to make our own lives look fabulous when we post things? What is the right amount of luxury spending for lay people? In this way, the book does a good job of taking the examples of preachers on social media and using them to foster self-examination for the reader. After all, most of us are a lot more likely to actually be paying sticker price for shoes.
As the book ends, Kirby really brings home the bigger message. PreachersNSneakers has serious reservations about celebrity pastors and questions about branded churches, but the account and the book are clearly about starting “meaningful conversation,” not just gossiping about some big names. Kirby opens up about how he started the account and what he got wrong, with assumptions and practices, but ultimately recognizes that “people started questioning the status quo of the church and the lifestyle of famous preachers after my account came to light.” That was the starting point, but Kirby hopes that, after the book, “within your faith community you can be armed with meaningful questions that allow you to further protect yourself and your leaders from the allure of fame, power, and money.” He integrates some action steps from Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger and God and Money by Gregory Baumer and John Cortines, and asks us to really consider what prosperity in Christ is supposed to look like.
PreachersNSneakers is both an easy read and a worthwhile book. It has just as much wit and tongue-in-cheek pop culture analysis as the Instagram account. But it does what the account can’t do as well, like provide more nuance and backstory and insights from scholars and theologians. The book format also allows Kirby to do what is very difficult on Instagram — direct the conversation. There are plenty of serious books on spirituality and theology about wealth and fame and plenty of serious church members and leaders digging deep on the subject. But books like Ron Sider’s don’t always cross over well to the streets and the sarcastic world of social media. Through @PreachersNSneakers and its 266K followers, Kirby has managed to take the conversation to the people where they are. This book (and his podcast) is an opportunity to elevate that conversation and make it more productive while keeping it very approachable.
PreachersNSneakers is timely because it is clear that some corners of the evangelical world have confused platform with purpose. In the past two years, Sean Feucht, worship leader from Bethel Church in California, got especially famous and political. He held concerts across the country, praising Jesus while protesting COVID policies. According to Feucht, the “Let Us Worship” concerts weren’t campaign rallies, they were opportunities to share Christ, but Feucht’s politics aren’t as mysterious as God’s ways and his support for Donald Trump is part of his platform. Feucht made especially big waves when he started selling t-shirts that said “Jesus Christ Super-Spreader.” Feucht suggested he was using his platform to speak about political issues that mattered to him, but on the outside it looked like using politics to increase his platform. It certainly brought Feucht some attention and t-shirt sales. Feucht’s actions energized some American evangelicals but they also reasonably alienated many believers and non-believers, while conflating partisanship with discipleship and demonstrating something more like consumerism than compassion. Similar observations can be made about many evangelical leaders who have waded into politics or who equate album sales with effective evangelism.
Whether it is the pastor jumping into politics or wearing limited edition Air Jordans, too often Christians are attempting to flex the same markers of success that are recognized in the secular world. Feucht had big concert numbers, huge album sales, hot t-shirts, media attention, and even opportunities for political influence. Pastors wearing thousand dollar shoes and driving nice cars are also showcasing conventional markers of success. Those sympathetic to such approaches often argue that it is necessary for effective evangelism. There truly are people who will pay more attention to people dressed like them or who have a grasp on youth culture. Everyone wants the worship band to sound good. Some well-intentioned believers may really believe that a pastor in Yeezys helps more young people meet Jesus.
When you start putting any faith in Yeezys, you run into problems. Christianity is not intended to correlate well with conventional markers of success. Jesus preached what Donald Kraybill has described as an “upside down kingdom.” Jesus told his disciples that they would not be ascending to positions of wealth and influence, but descending to positions of servanthood. When Jesus encountered people with platforms, or political influence, like Pharisees and centurions, he never attempted to leverage their positions to spread His message. The biblical model of Christianity is one which rejects the world’s measures of status and substitutes others. Christians are not to be celebrated for being influential and successful, but for being kind and patient and faithful. We should not dress in ways that send a different message. Another problem with the argument that the fresh kicks and album drops get people in the door is the underlying conclusion: Jesus doesn’t get people in the door. If we use bait to get people to the Kingdom, what kind of King is Jesus? The dependence on appearances to help preach the Gospel suggests that many Christians don’t find Jesus very compelling all on his own.
It is easy to focus on the big names, but many big churches engage in the same kinds of practices philosophically that celebrity pastors do sartorially. Most megachurches work to create a logo and a catchy name. Even in medium-sized churches, no one wants to be “First Baptist” or “Front Street Presbyterian” anymore. But, as Kirby asks, “philosophically, what happens when a church establishes itself as a brand?” PreachersNSneakers points to examples of some megachurches selling expensive and/or limited merchandise, just straight up entering the streetwear game. But even churches that don’t make money off merchandise like to see their t-shirts on their people. There is a big difference between matching volunteers in ill-fitting tees out in the community and church wear that is a consumer good, but churches may be tempted to blur the line. Kirby asks: “Have we just written this form of branding and consumerism off as a natural progression in modernizing evangelism? Or is it worth asking if there is a better way?” Most churches aren’t selling high end streetwear, but they may be emulating the world in other ways.
Early in PreachersNSneakers, Kirby quotes Marshall McLuhan, “the medium is the message.” As churches, especially evangelical, seek to attract non-believers and create new Christians, they often strive to create an experience and give a sense of identity. Churches engage graphic designers and create a brand and an aesthetic. They sometimes pay the worship team to guarantee a certain quality of music. A little light show never hurt anybody. Running an evangelism campaign like a marketing campaign might make sense to people. Maybe evangelism can even be taught and practiced kind of like multi-level marketing. But what happens when instead of taking the “foolishness of the cross” into the world and setting that stumbling block out in front of everyone, we take the wisdom of marketing and hitch it to the Gospel to increase sales? We are borrowing from corporate culture rather than giving out church culture. When we sell the Gospel and do the church experience the same way we sell essential oils and support our sports teams, what is happening? All too often church has become just another brand and Jesus has become just another consumer good.
It’s not wrong to like nice things. Many of the shoes on @PreachersNSneakers are nice and many of those pastors didn’t pay for them. Many of your local church outreach campaigns would make great marketing campaigns. But Christians must strive for an approach to faith that does not make church interchangeable with other brands or leadership recognizable by conventional status symbols. Salvation is really not like winning on the SNKRS app. Christianity doesn’t mean “having it all,” it means having Jesus. Priests, pastors and parishioners already know this. The challenge remains not to let the image make the ministry say otherwise.