It all started with a pair of sneakers.
One Sunday morning in March 2019, Ben Kirby missed church and decided to watch worship videos to assuage his guilty feelings. In one of the videos, he noticed that the worship leader wore Adidas Yeezy Boost 750s, a pricey shoe brand manufactured by Adidas in collaboration with Kanye West.
“How could a dude leading a worship service at a church be so blatantly unaware of the optics that his shoes portrayed?” Kirby wondered. “And how could his boss … be preaching in front of thousands of people each week in a new designer outfit that most of the congregation could never dream to afford?”
With these questions in mind, Kirby did what many do these days and posted a picture to Instagram. “Hey,” he tagged the church in the post, “how much are you paying your musicians that they can afford $800 kicks? Let me get on the payroll!”
Thus began PreachersNSneakers, an Instagram account that put a price tag on the designer clothes worn by America’s celebrity pastors. The account went viral and sparked controversy, and now Kirby has written a book about the lessons he has learned since that first post.
Or, rather, the questions. PreachersNSneakers uses expensive footwear as a springboard for conversation about how pastors and churches should use their influence. Here are the questions Kirby asks:
- Is it OK to get rich off God?
- What do we do with Christian celebrities?
- Does God bless with bling?
- Are lifestyle posts a sin?
- Should faith leaders use platforms for political influence?
- Can self-help and the gospel coexist?
- Where does production value stop and vanity start?
- What happens when a harmless brand becomes our golden calf?
- When can Christians question public figures from afar?
Consider the first question. Scripture teaches that churches should pay their pastors (1 Timothy 5:17–19), but it doesn’t say how much. Usually, on analogy with the business world, the compensation of a pastor (i.e., CEO) is tied to the growth of the congregation (i.e., business). That’s understandable, but Kirby writes, “the idea of making the church more and more like a standard corporation gives me pause.”
Or take the question about production values. A congregation needs a space and place to meet. But how much should a church budget for what Kirby calls “buildings and amenities”? Are stage décor, light and sound systems, coffee machines, and the like — all standard features in most contemporary churches — the best investment of scarce resources? Or, “Has our desire to perform the most ‘excellent’ service and production slowly transitioned into being a vain practice to cater to human desires?”
Kirby doesn’t answer any of these questions definitively. After 31 years of continuous ministry, I can’t either. What is needed in any case isn’t a hard-and-fast rule but a heart shaped by the gospel. “While many of the questions I have raised don’t have super-defined answers (yet),” he writes, “I believe that we can actively push toward a more humble and generous posture, constantly emulating Jesus’ lifestyle.”
Amen to that!
Ben Kirby, PreachersNSneakers: Authenticity in an Age of For-Profit Faith and (Wannabe) Celebrities (Nashville, TN: W Publishing, 2021).
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