It was cool to have a bit of a secret identity. Then it became exhausting. At least that’s how Ben Kirby felt when he ran this anonymously PreachersNSneakers Instagram account in which he publishes pictures of famous pastors and preachers alongside the market value of their designer clothes. The report began in 2019 and went viral among the mega-churches crowd as it revived the age-old discussion: “It’s kind of weird for a representative of Jesus to wear expensive stuff, isn’t it?”
Kirby was initially anonymous for a number of reasons. The mega-church culture he criticizes is a small but noisy and passionate faction of American Christianity in general. There’s also the little detail that his wife works in a mega-church in Dallas. But as the project expanded – into a podcast and now a new book called PreachersNSneakers: Authenticity in an Era of For-Profit Beliefs and (Wannabe) Celebrities – Kirby found the anonymity stifling. “I just haven’t effectively seen myself being able to continue talking without being fully in public,” he said in an interview. So he went public with his identity no longer just a guy on the Washington Post talking anonymously about trash online last month.
That’s how it started. Kirby is a 31-year-old sneakerhead and Christian. He was on his couch on a Sunday watching worship songs on YouTube (he had a DJ gig the night before and slept through church). As he watched the handsome Elevation Worship folks on stage in their Yeezy sneakers and designer clothes, he wrote on his personal Instagram, “Hey, Elevation Worship, how much are you paying your musicians to afford $ 800 kicks “Get me on the payroll!” He didn’t give it much thought – “It was just a badly informed joke for my four hundred followers that came with a dose of cynical snarks,” he writes in the book.
Kirby never wanted to be a minor internet celebrity. But a friend got him to open an account with more content of this type. Nine days later, the PreachersNSneakers Instagram was born. It showed pictures of pastor Rich Wilkerson Jr. on stage in sweatpants and a pair of Yeezey Foam rnnrs that went for $ 500; Pastor John F. Hannah with a Gucci jacket valued at $ 2,580; and Pastor Steven Furtick Jr.. Wearing a classic pair of Jordans that cost nearly $ 1,000. The reaction was intense. Some commentators accused him of jealously attacking hard-working preachers for his own clout. Megachurch’s underdogs were cheerful when Kirby re-affirmed her opinion on celebrity preachers. And some thought it was fun until the report came out for pastors who were important to them. “Then they say,” You used to be funny, “said Kirby.” This is what they say: “You used to be helpful. But now you’ve gone too far. ‘”
The new book expands the central framework of the Instagram account and questions other aspects of megachurches: the unusual production values, the self-help styling of the sermons, the preachers who post pictures of themselves during happy holidays and rub their shoulders with the Kanyes and Beibers World. And Kirby ponders what it means for all of this to be wrapped up and beautiful on all social networks so that we can jealously consume it, which in turn encourages believers to mimic the lifestyle.
“Why are we so determined to let the world see our beautiful lives?” he writes. “Is it to normalize ourselves as normal people? Is it to encourage others to take time to recharge, rest, and reflect? Or, deep down, we could enjoy the idea of our followers thinking we had a pretty one Dope life? ” “”
The ambitious approach to preaching is far from new, but it got a huge boost when the picture and sound came together on television, says Marla Frederick, professor of religion and culture at Emory University and author of a number of books on televangelism. “At that point, you saw a lot more people coming up with some kind of wealth,” said Frederick. “Especially when the 1970s were going around and you saw the prosperity gospel rise.” Which is the idea that if you exercise the right faith and speak it out loud, good things would happen to you.
“So you have preachers who tell people that you can be healed. You can be healthy and rich when you sacrifice, when you tithe, when you sew in this ministry,” said Friedrich. Of course, it helps to be proof of your service. She points to Reverend Ike, the flamboyant minister who became famous in the 1970s for preaching the gospel of prosperity. “He felt that black people in particular were always told that being poor was divine,” said Frederick. “And so there was this connection between poverty and your degree of sanctification and righteousness. And he felt that this was a mindset that really needed to be broken.”
Although the idea is not new, the aesthetic of aspiration preaching has changed. Joel Osteen’s suits and ties have given way to streetwear and high fashion hype beast looks. Kate Bowler is a professor of history at Duke University and an expert on the gospel of prosperity. She says that a central tenet of theology is that God will not wait and give you these gifts later. It is that God is present now and is relevant to your life today. And so the pastors then get ready to “tie their theology to this very aggressively hyper-celebrity, hyper-youth culture-obsessed version of popular culture,” Bowler said.
Like secular celebrities, these pastors have their own Stan armies that came to Kirby when he nudged them. NPR reached out to some pastors who were featured on the Instagram account but haven’t heard from it yet. (However, Pastor Hannah of New Life Southeast did make a post current fitpic headed, “Somebody posted a post about me wearing a Gucci jacket that cost $ 2,300. Everyone who knows me knows I’m the SALES / HOOKUP KING! Check out this amazing coat that I picked up in a second-hand shop … “)
For Kirby, the reaction from supporters of the mega-church was disheartening. These were people “who say they believe the same as I do but are incredibly mean,” he said. While the comments got nicer when he went public, it got bad enough to cause a crisis of faith, or at least some doubt, enough space to ask, “Am I a Christian at all, if I subscribe to this type of interested? ” Things? ” he said.
In the book, Kirby addresses any criticism that got in his way. Yes, those expensive yeezys a pastor carries in a PnS post could have been a direct gift from Kanye West herself. Yes, Kirby sells his own merch for criticizing pastors for doing the same thing. Yes, the resale price of a Grail item is inevitably higher than the retail price. But the criticism he seems to take the most seriously and the loudest he addresses is that he is gossip spreading false witnesses to bring down others. In response to this, he drops the disrespectful online voice he uses in the rest of the book (one of the chapters is called “Bad and Boujee? More like God and Gucci!”) And asks, “What if in my deepest beliefs I’ve seen the church misrepresented or misrepresented? “For Kirby, the Preachers N Sneakers project isn’t about dismantling Christianity, but rather questioning whether bowing is consistent with faith.