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.