On March 18, 2019, a brand new Instagram account dropped five posts of three different well-known pastors, all wearing expensive shoes. Chad Veach, Rich Wilkerson Jr. and Erwin McManus were shown rocking the sorts of shoes more commonly associated with social media influencers and famous musicians — Yeezys, Fear of God, Gucci — and the approximate price tag was posted as well. The captions didn’t have to do much heavy lifting although there were a few riffs (“fanning the flame with this Gucci heat”!), but the audience picked up on the point right away. What exactly are these pastors doing with these shoes that cost more than some of our rent checks?
If you’re a regular reader of this magazine, you’re probably familiar with what happened next. PreachersNSneakers became an internet phenomenon, amassing 200,000 followers; write-ups in NPR, the Washington Post and other mainstream platforms; and a celebrity fan base of its own that included the likes of Joel McHale and Questlove. It also boosted a conversation that had mostly been kept to certain Christian corners of the internet into the mainstream. Pastors from influential churches like Hillsong in New York City, Churchome in Washington state and Reality LA in California were already getting some attention from fashion rags like GQ and Esquire for the way their pastors had swapped suits and ties for ripped jeans and leather jackets. They treated it as a curiosity. By posting the triple and sometimes quadruple-digit price points in play, PreachersNSneakers subtly took the issue one step further, from “is this normal?” to “is this OK?”
Some called the conversation important, an overdue reckoning for the celebrity pastors. Others called it an example of cancel culture, saying the owner of the account wasn’t aware of the various nuances that come with being a well-known individual (many of the pastors who’ve appeared on PreachersNSneakers have insisted that shoes were gifts).
For years, the owner of PreachersNSneakers remained anonymous, writing under the pseudonym of “Tyler Jones.” But this year, Ben Kirby finally stepped out from behind the Instagram account.
“There are a lot of reasons why I kept it a secret for so long,” he says now. “I mean, one of the biggest ones is that religious leaders are powerful, and angry religious leaders can be dangerous.”
But anonymity served more than one purpose. For one, Kirby maintains that he never wanted the conversation to be about him and posting from the shadows helped. For another, as the debate itself became more unruly and complicated, Kirby found his account at the middle of a far broader discourse than he’d anticipated — one in which easy answers were hard to come by and celebrity pastors were far from the only people in need of repentance.
“I was completely unequipped,” Kirby says. “It was really just me making some jokes. It was easy for me to be crass and kind of just think about it at one level.”
In person, Kirby is funny, affable and thoughtful. He’s open about how little he knows and freely acknowledges how quickly he got out of his depth. At times, he seems almost apologetic about how much of a stir he’s caused, but he also takes his accidental success seriously and owns the reality that since he chose to call the problem out, he should be responsible about moving the issue forward in a constructive, healthy way. Easier said than done, of course.
As the Instagram account turned into a full-blown event, Kirby started to be dragged into deeper questions and learned more about the ins and outs of contemporary church ministry. The punchlines were easy, and not necessarily unearned. But the topic itself had more dimensions.
“Before the day I started posting about the sneaker prices, I had no clue about all the different nuances that go into pastoral relationships,” Kirby says. “Green rooms, worship teams, how people want to honor the people that they pay to come perform for them. No idea, had no experience with any of that.”
Kirby also got a quick education on how different streams within Christanity felt differently about the topic of pastors and how they dress. He felt one way about it, and many of his Christian friends felt the same way he did. But there were other people from different cultures both inside and outside of the church who felt differently. Some people agreed that the shoes were ridiculous and maybe even set a bad example. Others, according to Kirby, felt defensive. “They go to this guy or girl’s church, have been affected by their ministry and feel really strongly that their message is great or that they’ve helped change their life. They’re pissed at me for even questioning anything that they would ever do.”
The more Kirby listened, the more he learned about how complicated the issue was.
“I realized, ‘Oh, there’s a lot here,” Kirby says. “Atheists, agnostics, people very deep in the church, people very deep in the Pentecostal movement and also super conservative Southern Baptist movements. Everybody had a different take on this kind of thing.”
Ultimately, it boils down to one thing. “I was naive,” Kirby says.
Kirby isn’t apologizing for the jokes. But he is aware that the jokes opened up a broader discussion than an Instagram account can meaningfully engage. Now that he’s had some time to sit back and think it over, he’s written a book (PreachersNSneakers: Authenticity in an Age of For-Profit Faith and (Wannabe) Celebrities) to tackle some of the deeper themes and use the question of “how much stuff should pastors really have?” to more intimate, personal territory.
So Kirby’s learned a few things. First of all, he doesn’t think the pastors he’s been putting on blast are bad people.
“Most of them aren’t doing it in a malicious way,” he says. “There is a whole lot of nuance in every situation, and most people aren’t malicious.” He does acknowledge that some of them may have gotten “a little caught up in it” or might “have their individual struggles with feeling like they’re awesome.”
But here, he shrugs. “I struggle with those things too.”
This seems like the crux of Kirby’s two-year struggle with this topic. Pastors in Yeezys make for easy targets, miniature Christian celebrities that make for convenient punching bags in much the same way the Kardashians have operated for the world at large. Their faults and foibles happen on a stage, and their lives end up as tiny morality plays for the rest of us to laugh at, leer at or maybe even learn from. That, Kirby acknowledges, comes with the territory of being a well-known person.
But the people who watched Keeping Up With the Kardashians to gawk at Kim didn’t always have the wherewithal to dig deeper, and that’s what Kirby’s trying to do. What does PreachersNSneakers’ success say about the rest of us? In what ways are we implicated by our own bemusement?
“The sneakers were never really the problem,” Kirby says now. “It’s more about the system that we have created that can create celebrities out of guys that are preaching about a Jewish carpenter that got murdered on a cross and buried in a borrowed tomb.”
This is the question Kirby’s interested in now. It’s easy to mock pastors for dressing like low-level pop stars. It’s harder to look inward, and ask how we’ve contributed to a society that glorifies material possessions.
“If you feel like there’s an issue with celebrity culture, or an obsession with wealth and appearance in the Church, it’s an indictment on us Christians that go to these places, in a lot of ways,” Kirby says. “I mean, we’re the ones demanding this type of entertainment.”
He takes on a somber look.
“People don’t want to hear this, but it is the reality. It’s supply and demand,” he says. “If there was no demand for this, there would be no churches like this.”
So now what?
“I want to be very quick to say I don’t have all the answers,” Kirby says.
Kirby says the issue is systemic and, like any systemic issue, doesn’t have easy fixes. If every famous pastor sold their $400 shoes tomorrow and gave the money away, materialism would still be worming its way through our society. Kirby’s convinced that the real change has to start not with the dozen or so famous pastors who pop up on his Instagram, but with the rest of us who — inadvertently or otherwise — are cultivating a Christian culture of hero worship.
“I do think that it would do a lot of us good to all self-audit our social media presence,” he says. “Why do we post what we post? Audit how we spend our money, how we give our money, how we treat those that are less fortunate than us or in a position that can’t benefit us.”
Kirby says running the account has made him realize how easy it is to point fingers, possibly as a way of deflecting our attention from wrestling with our own lifestyles. “Plenty of people will come into the comment section and say, ‘These shoes could have been sold for $1,200 and given to the poor,’” he says. “But if you want them to be about that, you better be about that.”
He’s also interested in helping people who go to church start interrogating what they’re really looking for in a church experience. He says if we’re worried about “how hype the worship is, or how motivating the speaker is,” then we might be subtly contributing to a church culture that celebrates fame and influence over love and service. He thinks we need to encourage new measures of authenticity and transparencies in church, which means new levels of accountability.
“If you have questions about your church leadership — the people you donate money to — it is very OK to say email your pastor email and say ‘Hey, I’ve got some questions about how the church spends money. Is there a way that we could talk about this?’”
And Kirby says those conversations are happening, even in some of the comments and private messages of the PreachersNSneakers Instagram. He says people reached out to thank him for demonstrating that it was OK to wrestle with these questions about church leadership and pastoral accountability while still being a Christian and advocating for the Church. He says those messages “really made me feel good about the account.”
“It’s nice to know that there’s people out there that are willing to ask questions, still believe in Jesus and not just accept the status quo in order to not ruffle feathers of people in leadership,” he says.
Kirby doesn’t spill much tea, but he does acknowledge one pastor who’s made frequent appearances on PreachersNSneakers and reached out to go a little deeper: Churchome’s Judah Smith.
“He told me straight up that he felt like it was a good wake up call to the people that were in positions like his,” Kirby says.
“I’ll never claim that this started out as about church accountability or anything,” Kirby says, tellingly. “But from his perspective, he thought it was a good dose of slight accountability.”
“It was refreshing to hear that he saw some value in it, and wasn’t just writing me off as a hater like many of them have.”
You get the impression that since Kirby’s joke account can no longer be dismissed as just telling jokes, these sorts of interactions are the best possible result. PreachersNSneakers started out as online potshots and digital dogpiles, but it has — against all odds — become something more. And in an era when the natural state of the internet is for stories to milkshake duck into increasing levels of chaos and cancelation, Kirby is trying to evolve PreachersNSneakers into something better, healthier and holier than its origins. He believes that the issues PreachersNSneakers raise are too important to ignore, but he also thinks they say a lot more about us than they do about our preachers.
“God is doing something here to get us way more focused on the things that matter and way less focused on the fluff that we’ve kind of stressed out about,” Kirby says. “I don’t think it’s going to be comfy. Like anything, when you’re trying to improve, it’s not exactly an easy road. But I’m hopeful.”