In the medieval church, priests and bishops often wore precious jewels and lavish vestments embroidered with gold. In today’s megachurches, pastors are often sporting designer clothes and $5000 sneakers.
Ben Kirby, an evangelical layman, has been chronicling conspicuous consumption among the clergy. He started an Instagram account, PreachersNSneakers, and began asking bigger questions. The issue is not just expensive clothing, but, as he says, noting how wealthy so many of these pastors have become, their consumerism, and the way they are emulating celebrity culture.
He has written a book on the subject entitled PreachersNSneakers: Authenticity in an Age of For-Profit Faith and (Wannabe) Celebrities, to be released April 27.
Sarah Pulliam Bailey has written an article on Kirby and his findings, Preachers and their $5,000 sneakers: Why one man started an Instagram account showing churches’ wealth.
After showcasing one pastor’s $3,600 Gucci jacket, another’s $1,250 fanny pack, and another’s $2,541 Ricci crocodile belt, Kirby began to wonder, “Is it okay to get rich off of preaching about Jesus?” And should pastors really be so preoccupied with social status?
I don’t usually begrudge people the money they make. And I certainly don’t begrudge pastors, the vast majority of whom deserve to be compensated much more than they are. And not all pastors of big churches are like this.
But Bailey cuts to the deeper problem, a confusion about the pastoral ministry, and how many of these ministers are actually performing quite different roles:
In his book, Kirby writes that these pastors who have enormous social media followings aren’t just simply pastors anymore, he writes. Often they are motivational speakers, corporate coaches and leadership consultants. Kirby said he has heard of churches where a volunteer was designated solely for the purpose of carrying the pastor’s Bible. Often, he writes, these pastors have private entrances, reserved parking spaces, security details and a gaggle of personal assistants or handlers. And, often, they promise blessings from God to their followers if their followers bless the church.
“Like Hollywood — a world so often criticized by the pietistic — these institutions and their leaders celebrate and reward the ‘blessing’ of fame, popularity and influence,” he writes. “Pastors function like ‘talent’ performing for an audience or like a spokesman for the church’s ‘brand.’ ”
As for those who might argue that pastors wearing $5000 sneakers is no different from the ostentatious vestments worn by some clergy of the Middle Ages. . . .
Underneath those gold-encrusted vestments, the bishop would often wear a hair shirt, sackcloth, or even barbed wire around his leg. The robes were for the public, observed Chesterton, while the ascetic mortification was for himself. I don’t know that these megachurch ministers wear a celice.
At least some of those medieval clergy, misguided though they may have been, were trying to glorify God, as opposed to glorifying themselves. And, in any event, the Reformation condemned the way the church and its bishops were accumulating and displaying wealth, status, and power, seeing this as a symptom of the worldliness that was distorting the Gospel.
I recognize that the stated motive for the megachurch ministers will be evangelism, trying to make the unchurched think that by wearing cool clothing, they are creating the impression that Christianity is cool. But Christianity is not about fashion, status, and glory of any kind. As this week must remind us, it’s about the Cross.