PreachersNSneakers founder Ben Kirby never conceived that a casual social media post about celebrity pastors' high-priced sneakers would become a global phenomenon.
Kirby, who was no internet sensation at the time, initially took to Instagram to document the expensive footwear worn by some of the celebrity pastors he followed, listing the brands and the cost of each pair. Soon after, his Instagram following blew up and put the world of celebrity pastors under a new microscope.
The celebrity pastor craze, Kirby said, began because church attendees required a level of celebrity and entertainment from their shepherds.
After gaining over 144,000 followers on Instagram in just a week, Kirby knew he had struck a nerve by highlighting the latest designer footwear and clothing trends worn by mega pastors and church leaders around the globe.
Kirby has since written a book titled, PreachersNSneakers: Authenticity in an Age of For-Profit and (Wannabe) Celebrities (Thomas Nelson), which gives readers a chance to take a sober look at whether they have bought into the celebrity culture of Christianity.
"I was literally on my couch ... using my phone, that's about all the effort I put into it and it blew up into this global conversation over the years,” Kirby told The Christian Post in a recent interview.
He thought his account would garner some comments and laughs, but never thought PreachersNSneakers would become a hub of conversation about how parishioners view capitalism, consumerism and celebrity in the church.
Kirby maintained that he never set out to judge others — that wasn't his intent.
"There are plenty of people in the comment section that judge all the time," he said. "I still hold strong that I was never judging. I had questions and I had some critique about how you can present the Gospel better. But I'm resolute in the fact that I wasn't saying, 'You should never wear $1,200 shoes — that's evil.' I'm nobody to say who can [and can't] do what on stage. But I'm also very much allowed to ask questions about public figures and public facts.”
“If they're celebrities, and celebrity pastors finding themselves saying, 'Oh, it's just a bunch of haters.' Well, sometimes it's wise to take a step back and see if there's any validity to the criticisms that keep coming up,” Kirby noted.
"Some were nice, some were understanding, others were incredibly mean and didn't want to talk — they just wanted to yell. Some were kind of passive-aggressive,” he said without naming anyone in particular.
Kirby, a former DJ turned author and podcaster, said he’s faced the whole gamut with ministers reacting to his social media post. However, he understands their reaction because overnight people started to message these preachers with their criticisms.
"This touched on a nerve for a lot of people ... I think they weren't prepared — both the recipients and the givers weren't prepared to participate ... on social media,” he explained. “For whatever reason, my showing the world that certain sneakers were worth $1,000 made everyone lose their mind and it forced people to contend with, 'How do I feel about this guy wearing $1,500 sneakers?'
"For some, it made people mean, for some people it made them question, and others, it made them feel happy for these guys and girls that they're so blessed. It ran the full range."
PreachersNSneakers explores the various sides of the debate on the fame that comes with being a spiritual leader. When asked if American Christianity plays a role in the celebrity culture seen in some churches, Kirby said this exists more so in “Western Christianity.”
“A big part of it is that people that are attending church are demanding this kind of treatment or entertainment or setting,” he maintained. “It makes sense since we're so obsessed with celebrities in general, and our image, and comfort and entertainment — that it would trickle down into the way a lot of us conduct our faith.”
"I do think that it's time to take a step back and look at the overall macro look at the church and say, 'Hey, are we spending too much time and effort and money on things that don't matter? Are we elevating people to a point where they're always going to disappoint us, or always going to let us down?' Hopefully, we can refocus on what matters and that's following Jesus,” he continued.
Kirby said the COVID-19 pandemic really put things into perspective for a lot of people who realized that not even the stars in our society had the answer or the cure.
"I'm not saying corona was ever good, but I'm hoping that God has given us a wake-up call to say, 'Look, you can't depend on anybody other than the guy that created everything,'” he insisted. “I'm an idiot, imperfect dude, but I just want to point people to maybe reconsider what they value and audit their own lives online and personal image.”
Kirby said sneakers are such an influential marker in society because of the “many elements to sneakers that make it cool and interesting.” He became a fan of sneakers himself years back when he started flipping (buying and selling) them from his phone as a side hustle.
"It's such a cool element of culture and all the collaborations make it even cooler. The intersection of music and athletics and all those things have a secret element to them that makes it fun for a lot of different types of people,” he added.
Kirby warned that pastors and preachers should be careful not to immerse themselves in pop culture.
"I think in a vacuum, it's not bad for a pastor to be notable. I think it's a natural outcome of people being more talented or more gifted than others. Not every preacher or pastor is going to equally have the same platform and equally the same following, because some are just going to be objectively better sounding or better performing or have better insight into the world than others. But I do think very quickly, it can make it more about the guy or the girl than it is about pointing people to God. And when that happens, that's an issue, and that's idol worship,” he stressed.
"That's putting these guys and girls in a lose-lose position because now they have to fight against people thinking they are awesome and also they have to now fight to not ruin this massive platform that they've developed by a moral failure or saying something on the internet. It just puts the ministry at much higher risk when you're saying, 'Hey, this guy is the best communicator of our generation.' Well, now when he does inevitably screw up in some way that has a devastating effect on his or her ministry, and ... the overall outlook on Christianity, it allows other people to point to why they hate Christianity because it's another dude that's sleeping around or that's embezzling funds.”
The passionate Christ-follower described those deeds as being a bad “witness” to the world.
"Even for me, I've got a big platform and I'm writing a book. I have to fight against making much to do about myself too,” he admitted. “I don't want publicity. I really don't think I'm that special or anything. But also, it naturally feels good for people to be like, 'Oh, you're so funny. I like how you write these things on Instagram.' I appreciate that. But also, if I'm not careful, it very quickly can become an idol, building up my ego, which none of us are that special. We're all fallen sinners.
"The celebrity culture, I think a lot of it's caused by us, the followers or the people that are attending these places," he stressed. "Because if we weren't, these guys and girls wouldn't be celebrities. But since they are, I think it behooves them to really fight against making much of themselves and trying to make more of Jesus.”
Pop star Justin Bieber also recently weighed in on the celebrity pastor culture and criticized those who use their Christian platforms to boost their own fame. The young star stressed that every human being, regardless of their social status, “has the same access to God.”
Bieber made these comments in a recent issue of GQ magazine after he distanced himself from former Hillsong pastor Carl Lentz following the controversies that came after the popular preacher was fired over “leadership issues” and moral failures, including infidelity.
Bieber told GQ that he’s seen “so many pastors put themselves on this pedestal. ... And it’s basically, church can be surrounded around the man, the pastor, the guy, and it’s like, ‘This guy has this ultimate relationship with God that we all want but we can’t get because we’re not this guy.’ That’s not the reality, though.”
Kirby celebrated Bieber’s stance, saying that the megastar is making the entire celebrity pastor discussion “more in the mainstream.”
“Even Bieber, who basically made these guys famous, is now saying, 'Hey, this is probably an issue to make people famous.' It's ironic that the most famous person in the world is commenting on fame,” Kirby said. “But also, hopefully, if Bieber fans see him saying, 'Hey this seems like an issue to make celebrities out of pastors.' I hope something good comes from him saying that.
"I'm not sure how much more [God's] got to do to put it in your face to say, 'Look, the celebrity thing is not working."
If Jesus walked the Earth today, Kirby quipped that He would “either be wearing some used Chacos sandals or some Nike Airmax 1s that He got at an outlet.”
When asked what his ultimate mission is now, the author said as of late he's realized that what he “cares most about is authenticity, and pushing people to be real in everything.”
“I think if I can go to sleep at night knowing that I got people to at least consider how to be more real with each other and more real about their faith and get churches to be more real about the message that they're presenting, then I will have fulfilled what I think God's called me to do,” Kirby said.
"Social media is so easy to be fake and it's so easy to try to show people the highlights of your life, and that causes people to be anxious and depressed,” he told CP. “I think that's an issue. ... If I can get people to even just think about, 'Why did I post this? Did I post this to flex? Or did I post this to show people how proud I am of my wife for doing a good thing, getting us a vacation or something?'”
Kirby concluded the interview by admitting that he might have gone about posting preachers wearing expensive sneakers “imperfectly” because people's “feelings were hurt.”
“I've offended family members and I've offended church folks. I've offended a lot of different people, never intentionally. But I think the product is — at least through the book — that it'll get people talking about things that everybody's been thinking but not really saying,” he concluded. “I hope that it pushes people to take their faith seriously, be authentic, and have a more accurate representation of Jesus to the outside world.”
PreachersNSneakers, the book is now available everywhere books are sold.