Saturday morning, I woke up to a text from my friend Rachael which was simply a link to the new Instagram account preachersnsneakers. I tapped the link and my anger slowly grew into a heated blood boil as I scanned the posts of pastors juxtapositioned next to the cost of their outfits. At the time of the text, the account had roughly 40k followers. As of the time of writing this, is has over 81k. It has doubled in less than three full days and shows no signs of slowing down.
The account has sparked myriad discussions among Christians and non-Christians alike, primarily in its comment section, and I’ve struggled to pull myself away from the drama all weekend long. I’ve never been one for sports stats or ‘checking scores,’ but I found myself repeatedly refreshing the page to see how many new followers it had accrued and what type of response there was now. And now I KIND OF understand sports fanatics, but not really…
I’ve been waiting for more articles to open up discussion about the pastors and actions the account has called into action, but have thus far only seen one, with which I vehemently disagreed because it came out in support of the expensive wardrobes of the pastors. The rest of the articles simply describe the account and the story thus far without taking a side, so I decided to chip in my two cents.
The first thing I need to address is my own sinful heart and the smug joy it brings me to see these celebrity pastors ripped apart by the internet. A big part of me sighs with relief and happily says It’s about time these rich jerks got called out. It’s incredibly hard not to let my fleshly joy in seeing them internet-shamed overwhelm my response to the account. With that precautionary word set in place, let me move forward in my analysis of this episode’s cultural and theological significance.
If you haven’t seen it, here is what the average post looks like.
You have the image of the pastor next to select items of his wardrobe (or accessories), listed on separate websites with how much they cost. The captions are always hilariously neutral, in that they neither criticize or praise the man, save to hype him up like an MC on a catwalk (Chad Veach in particular replied to this post and seems to have gotten so angry/offended that he changed his name on Instagram).
And that’s it. Just a pastor wearing his digs (usually on stage), the price of his clothes, and a funny caption. And this has blown up the internet. The Christian-net, anyway.
There are three types of commenters: Those trying to defend the pastors, those shredding them, and the typical trolls or those who indifferently think the account is hilarious. Of the first two, I’m willing to bet that each one understands the others’ position, but that has never prevented a comment battle on the internet before. The underlying question is, which side is actually more biblical?
When I lived in LA for a hot second, I attended a ‘private church’ which ironically was hosted by one of the pastors featured on the account. You needed to be on their text list to know where the meeting was each week. I defended this by stating that people like Justin Bieber and Taylor Lautner need a place to go and worship without being berated by their crazed fans.
“You don’t understand their world until you go there,” I would tell people. This may be a worthwhile excuse for the style of church, but many questions still arise about the biblical nature of such an exclusive church. Regarding their clothing choices, defenders say that in order to move in certain circles in LA or NYC, they need to be wearing the latest digs or no one will listen to them. Strong arguments can be made there too.
Personally, I don’t think that argument is strong enough to hold water, because in both cities, men have spoken strongly into culture without a Supreme sweatshirt or Gucci belt buckle. One of my generation’s favorite speakers, Francis Chan, dresses like a chill dad. Most often, Chan is found in a plain t-shirt, jeans, and nondescript shoes. No one would ever write about his fashion sense except to say that he could stand to spend more money on his wardrobe.
Has this hindered Chan in his ability to get his message about Jesus out? Not at all. He has been invited to speak at every gathering under the sun, not just limited to the Christian sphere either. In 2017, he was invited to speak at the Facebook headquarters in California (and still showed up in a black t-shirt and jeans). Historically, Chan has been outspoken against celebrity pastors, and Christians with abundant wealth. He even set up charities to funnel all the money from his multiple best-selling books, so he and his wife and seven children could live on his middle-class church salary and not touch a penny of his millions in royalties.
Tim Keller manifests the same spirit on the opposite coast. His four-campus church has been a staple of the city for decades, and Keller has penned numerous best-selling books, almost all of which came to rest on the NYT best-sellers list. And does he dress extravagantly like his Hillsong counterpart Carl Lentz? Of course not. He’s a humble and average-looking (though tall) man whose fashion sense would turn zero heads. One of the times I met him, I even asked for a photo and he politely turned me down on the spot.
Yet who attends Redeemer, Keller’s church? The minds of Wall Street and the CEO captains of business who make culture turn in the Big Apple. You would be hard pressed to find someone to deny Keller’s impact on the Christian world, as well as on his home city, much less basing it on his lack of high-end fashion.
All that is to say that no, fashion is not a necessary element to connect the pastor to his people. Lentz has stated that his is a church where, when you come in, everyone looks like a normal person from the street, including the pastor, and hopes that this will make folks feel more comfortable there. He kindly ignores the fact that so few people in the world could even afford one of his outfits, so no, they don’t all look like you.
Not only that, but how does trying to “out-cool” your entire congregation make you seem more approachable? I’d rather have a coffee with FranChan in a t-shirt than someone dripping in swag who’s trying to impress his followers any day. Additionally, what does this mindset say to the lower-class single mom who comes in and sees you wearing her entire paycheck on stage? What kinds of bridges are built there, between the shepherd of the flock and the downtrodden and oppressed?
I haven’t done the math, but I’d wager that if you added together all the price tags on the preachersnsneakers page, you could feed multiple families for years. Is this not the point of giving to a church? Is not the church God’s vehicle for advancing the kingdom of God on earth, filling stomachs, battling oppression, and clothing the naked? Instead, what this account has proven is that pastors are allocating more attention and money to their threads than to the Word.
Many of the pastors claim that their clothes and shoes were gifted to them by their high-profile friends in the industry. This is a tricky one for me as well, because humanly, I would have a very hard time saying no to some free Off-White merch and not flashing it from the pulpit. However, this begs more questions about what we support than about how it’s acquired, as well as the marriage of the Western Church to rampant capitalism. In other words, these brands win over the truth of the Word when a pastor influences his flock to shop at a certain store more than he influences them toward holiness.
Put another way, take a more explicit example of sweatshops. Imagine that I found a sweet Abercrombie (a company notorious for both sweatshop abuse and fat-customer discrimination) shirt at a thrift store. Would it be wrong to wear this on stage at a church? I think so, not because of how I acquired it or where my money went, but because I am promoting the A&F brand itself, and everything that goes with it, to my congregation. Pastors are not meant to be Nascar drivers, littered with vogue advertisements before a very impressionable audience.
Additionally, such high-fashion clothes can serve only to distract from the message being preached by the pastor more than help him connect. I remember seeing a pastor at a huge conference wearing 3-inch high heels beneath skin-tight jeans. Do I remember a word he said? No. But I remember his outfit like it was yesterday. It haunts me.
And again, going back to the single mom illustration: she doesn’t know these were gifts. She comes in and sees a multi-thousand dollar outfit draped on her pastor and is she going to sense a solidarity with her situation, regardless of whether or not he actually paid for his duds? Probably not.
PNS has revealed where the ‘treasures’ of much of American evangelicalism lies. We speak with our wallets more than with our words, and hopefully this serves as a wake-up call for many of the featured pastors. I want to build more of an argument from Scripture, but this post is already ridiculously long. Perhaps I’ll write a second part, depending on the response to this piece.
The shortest way to say it is that Jesus speaks a lot about money and almost none of it is positive. He warns us to stay on our guard against greed and piling up treasures in this world. There is no shortage of passages against riches and eyes of needles and camels and the like. Compared to the mere 6 passages on homosexuality, we would be wise to see wealth/greed as a much more heinous sin than the former, yet it’s something many of our most famous church leaders have given in to.
Mammon is alive and well and we sacrifice our souls on the altar of relevance and a million other excuses we compile to justify our haphazard spending and cutthroat fashion expenditures. Don’t give in, no matter what your occupation is. Give back to God, who already owns the cattle on a thousand hills (read: all the money everywhere). Give to the poor, the needy, and as poet Anis Mojgani says,
the ones the amendments do not stand up for,
the ones who are forgotten,
the ones who are told to speak only when you are spoken to
and then are never spoken to.
i feel like this is something that has even creeped into our own “less famous” mega churches… it has bothered me for years! nice article 👍🏻
First I must say, I love your blog, I’ve been reading it for a while and I love your approach of the very actual topics. It often stirs new questions. You are the one who inspired me to start my own blog (in French cause my primary language haha) mixing culture and faith. To help you understand my following response, I’m French and grew up Christian. I live actually in Marseille, France but lived in Norway and Australia and keep traveling a lot. I’ve been surrounded by all kinds of people, conservative or liberal Christians, and be part of French or English Christian congregation. I say that so it gives you a better picture of my mindset : I love listening to different opinions and I’m always open to any discussion.
It’s funny, but your article got my attention because I’ve just seen some comments online yesterday about this terrific instagram account everyone’s talking about. While I agree a lot with everything you say, to me your point of view lacks one major thing that could have helped us ask ourselves even better questions. You don’t talk about this specific problematic of wealth or the image we reflect within the historical context of the Bible. Cause to me this topic is not just actual but it’s been there for ages. You talk about how money is one major theme adressed by Jesus and it’s true but you don’t go further. So your article is amazing because it helped me think about the topic within the historical context and raised questions like : “What was the perception of the people regarding King David’s life and leadership? What about his house? A palace made out of gold with amazing views over the land. Bed linens made out of the best fabrics. Plenty of wives and servants ready to do anything at just one command? And what about Job who ended blessed with flocks extending far beyond anything he used to have before the trial he went through? What about the priests and sacrificators? Dressed in the best clothes and wearing gold and breastplates made out of the finest jewels? What did people think of those incredible leaders appointed by God? What would non Jewish people think of the people of God building a temple on His command, all this money invested in a construction that could have fed a lot of people. Do we have to feel bad when we go on mission to very poor people in the most undeveloped places on earth (I know it sounds cliche)? Do we have to wear something different? Do they actually care about that? Or is that a western culture problem?”
The Apostle Paul said that he lived with plenty and with nothing, he had a shelter and was shipwreck many times. He could enjoy a soft bed or endure the rock pillow that was given to him in prison… Maybe this approach is the best. When we start less focusing on what we have but know how to not deny and enjoy what God gives and still focus on the only thing we need, his salvation and love. I’m gonna say something that can sound aweful but hear me as I say it with love. Maybe the mom with 4 children who attends the church of one of these pastors wearing those expensive outfits should celebrate instead of comparing. How many people under David’s leadership did not have even one tenth of what he had? Did it stop them to celebrate the victories and the blessing of his leadership and God moving through the people? Of course the same question goes to those leaders. Do you wear this stuff because you feel better knowing obviously your audience and congregation will look at you?
To me, you can be Christian and wear whatever you want, even a $1000 jacket or a $10 shirt. Whether it’s given to you or you bought it working hard (or not). I truly don’t care! Because my focus is on what you say and bring on the table. And I must say I’ve been so blessed hearing from the latest podcasts of Erwin McManus and Levi Lusko. I’ve been blessed by Francis Chan’s books. These are some of the best leaders that inspired me as much as you Ethan can inspire me, as much as my parents can inspire me by their faithful heart to God and how they raised my brothers and I. In the end, whatever we do with the wealth God gives us, it’s between Him and us. Did we manage well? Did we take care of the poor? Did we enjoy humbly the blessings of God or did we always compare ourselves with others?
Thank you Ethan for reading this and again for your article!
Hi Pascal, first off, thanks for your continued readership and encouragement! Second off, like I mentioned in the article, I meant to include more arguments from the Bible, but by the time I finished typing up my preliminary response, I was already at 1,800 words (600 more than my usual posts!). Maybe you’re right in that I should write a follow up with a more biblical examination of wealth. To take some of your examples, like kings David or Solomon, I think we need to have a more accurate view of their wealth. For one, it’s a HUUUUUUUUUUUGE leap to simplistically compare a 21st century capitalist church pastor to a 7th century BC king in the Ancient Near East. I know you know that, but think about it this way: When people celebrated their king’s wealth, it was largely because the king’s wealth was a reflection of the nation’s prosperity. And per Levitical laws (and other laws from the Torah), the widows, orphans and aliens had special provisions to benefit from their nation’s wealth. So, when they celebrated their king’s wealth, they were celebrating their own wealth and deliverance from enemies, famine, etc. We take another leap when we then jump 700 years forward and bring Paul and Jesus into the mix, because they even would have differed in their views of wealth from the kings of the OT. Even Samuel cautioned the people of Israel AGAINST having a king for the very reason that he would take some of their crops and wealth and attract enemies. God outright opposed David’s wish to build Him a temple in 1 Chronicles 17 and said He preferred to live in a tent and travel with His people. I suddenly have to run now and will probably expound on this in a full post…. Thanks again man!
Ok, I’m back now after rushing off! I just wanted to add one more thing about the single mom vs. rich pastor situation, which is that pastors are in a very unique situation because their livelihood is based on people DONATING money to them. Paul writes about not muzzling the ox while it’s treading out the grain, which is of course a metaphor for paying pastors a fair salary. The problem is when the pastor’s salary swells to the size of buying $5k kicks, and the church still expects all of her attendees, including the single mom working 3 jobs, to tithe their hard-earned money to pay for them. I think this is a misuse of church money. Should a pastor be able to comfortably afford a house and feed their family and not have to worry about a car, etc? Of course! But there is a wide berth between that and affording a different boutique outfit every single week. What does that say about the church’s priorities with its funds? Depending on the size of the church, it should be paying its pastor a comfortable wage, and the rest should go to missions and kingdom work, like helping the poor and needy, rather than robbing them of what little they already have so the pastor can buy a Lamborghini (true story). Imagine how many single moms a church could HELP if it cut back on paying its celebrity pastor. And the pastor should be the one to say, “no, I have enough money. Let’s give some of this to the needy.” Look at another hero of mine, Rich Mullins, who voluntarily accepted ONLY a middle-class wage and gave millions to poor Native Americans. Ironically, he was famous for going everywhere barefoot too.
Thanks for your genuine answer. I like this réflexion a lot!
This article reminded me of a quote by Spurgeon-
“A time will come when instead of shepherds feeding the sheep, the Church will have clowns entertaining the goats”
It doesn’t directly relate to your article but it’s definitely a thread from your discussion.
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