It was cool to have a secret identity, for a bit. Then it got exhausting. At least that's how Ben Kirby felt as he was anonymously running the PreachersNSneakers Instagram account, where he posts pictures of famous pastors and preachers alongside the market value of their designer clothes. The account started in 2019 and went viral among the megachurch crowd as it resurrected the age-old discussion: "It's kind of weird when a representative of Jesus wears expensive stuff, right?"
Kirby was anonymous at first for a few reasons. The megachurch culture he's critiquing is a small but loud and passionate faction of American Christianity at large. There's also the small detail that his wife works at a megachurch in Dallas. But as the project expanded – to a podcast and now to a new book called PreachersNSneakers: Authenticity in an Age of For-Profit Faith and (Wannabe) Celebrities – Kirby found the anonymity stifling. "I just didn't see myself effectively able to continue to be in the conversation without being fully out in public," he said in an interview. So he went public with his identity in The Washington Post last month, no longer just a guy talking trash anonymously online.
Which is kind of how it started. Kirby is a 31-year-old sneakerhead and Christian. He was on his couch one Sunday, watching worship songs on YouTube (he had a DJ gig the night before and slept through church). As he watched the good-looking people of Elevation Worship on stage in their Yeezy sneakers and designer clothes, he posted on his personal Instagram: "Hey, Elevation Worship, how much are you paying your musicians that they can afford $800 kicks? Let me get on the payroll!" He didn't put much thought to it – "It was just a poorly informed joke for my four hundred followers, delivered with a dose of cynical snark," he writes in the book.
Kirby never meant to become a minor internet celebrity. But a friend nudged him into starting an account with more of that type of content. Nine days later, the PreachersNSneakers Instagram was born. It featured pictures of Pastor Rich Wilkerson Jr. on stage in sweat pants and a pair of Yeezey Foam Rnnrs that were going for $500; Pastor John F. Hannah sporting a $2,580 Gucci Jacket; and Pastor Steven Furtick Jr. wearing a classic pair of Jordans that cost nearly $1,000. The response was intense. Some commenters accused him of enviously attacking hard-working preachers for his own clout. Megachurch outsiders were gleeful as Kirby reinforced their opinions about celebrity preachers. And a few thought it was fun, until the account came for pastors they cared about. "Then it's, 'you used to be funny,''' said Kirby. "That's what they say, 'You used to be helpful. But now you've gone too far.'"
The new book expands the central frame of the Instagram account, questioning other aspects of megachurches: the fancy production values, the self-help stylings of the sermons, the preachers posting pics of themselves on beautiful vacations rubbing shoulders with the Kanyes and Beibers of the world. And Kirby considers what it means that all of this is out there packaged and beautiful on all the socials for us to enviously consume, which, in turn, encourages believers to emulate the lifestyle.
"Why are we so determined to let the world see into our beautiful lives?" he writes. "Is it to normalize us as regular people? Is it to encourage others to take time to recharge, rest, and reflect? Or, deep down, might we juuuuust enjoy the idea of our followers thinking we've got a pretty dope life?"
The aspirational approach to preaching is far from new, but it got a huge boost when sight and sound came together on television, says Marla Frederick, professor of Religion and Culture at Emory University and author of a number of books about televangelism. "At that point in time you started to see many more people performing with a kind of wealth," said Frederick. "Especially as the '70s rolled around and you saw the rise of what became the prosperity gospel." Which is the idea that if you performed the right kind of faith, and you spoke it out loud, good things would happen to you.
"So you have preachers who are telling people that you can be healed, you can be healthy, wealthy if you sacrifice, if you tithe, if you sew into this ministry," said Frederick. Of course, it helps to be the proof of your ministry. She points to Reverend Ike, the flamboyant minister who got famous in the 1970s for preaching the prosperity gospel. "He felt like Black people in particular had always been told that to be poor was to be Godly," said Frederick. "And so there was this correlation between poverty and your level of sanctification and righteousness. And he felt like that was a mindset that really needed to be broken."
But while the idea isn't new, the aesthetics of aspirational preaching have been changed. The suits and ties of Joel Osteen have given way to streetwear and high fashion hype beast looks. Kate Bowler is a professor of history at Duke University, and is an expert on the prosperity gospel. She says that a central tenet of the theology is that God isn't going to wait around and give you these gifts later. It's that God is present now, and is relevant to your life today. And so the Pastors then become willing to "wed their theology to this very aggressively hyper celebrity-driven, hyper youth-culture-obsessed version of popular culture," said Bowler.
Like secular celebrities, these pastors have their own stan armies who came for Kirby when he poked at them. NPR reached out to a few pastors featured on the Instagram account but haven't heard back. (Though, Pastor Hannah of New Life Southeast did post a recent fitpic with the caption "Someone did a post about me wearing a Gucci jacket that cost 2300 dollars. Anyone that knows me know that I am the SALES/HOOKUP KING! Look at this amazing coat that I picked up from a second hand store ..." )
For Kirby, the response from megachurch followers was discouraging. These were people "that say they believe the same thing as me, but are being incredibly mean-spirited," he said. While the comments have gotten nicer as he's gone public, it did get bad enough to trigger a crisis of faith, or at least some doubt, some room enough to wonder: "Am I really a Christian at all if I care about these kinds of things?" he said.
In the book, Kirby addresses all the criticisms that have been thrown his way. Yes, those expensive Yeezys that some pastor is wearing in a PnS post might've been a direct gift from Kanye West himself. Yes, Kirby does sell his own merch as he criticizes pastors who do the same. Yes, the resale price of a grail item will inevitably be higher than the retail price. But the criticism he seems to take the most seriously, and addresses most vociferously, is that he's a gossip, spreading false witness to bring down others. In his response to that he drops the irreverent 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 convictions I saw the church being misrepresented or mischaracterized?" For Kirby, the Preachers N Sneakers project isn't about dismantling Christianity, but questioning if flexing is aligned with the faith.