When pastors pretend to be style icons, they’re carrying on a long lineage that erroneously equates material wealth with divine blessing.
“It is rather remarkable that the men Justin Bieber has entrusted to deliver [spiritual] guidance have decided to dress like Justin Bieber.”
When pastors pretend to be style icons, they’re carrying on a long lineage that equates material wealth with divine blessing. (Other notable examples include televangelists in the 80s, priests in Martin Luther’s day, and religious leaders in Jesus’ day.)
Like an antifunctional version of a luxury watch, modern streetwear labels such as Supreme, Off-White, or anything designed by Kanye West serve to convey a certain level of wealth, status, and contemporary chic to an in-the-know audience.
Sometimes that in-the-know audience decides to blow up on Instagram.
Enter PreachersNSneakers, a semi-anonymous Instagram account that blends its creator’s Christian faith with a keen awareness of the hallmarks—and price tag—of fashion-forward streetwear and sneakers.
“Big homie up there literally wearing your paycheck,” went one typical (but since edited) caption under a photo of LA megachurch pastor and author Erwin McManus preaching while clad head-to-toe in Off-White and (in a likely inadvertent irony) a designer label called “Fear of God.”
Pairing many of these photos with the current retail value of sneakers, belts, tank tops, and one unfortunate pair of Gucci slippers (yours for only $1,100), PreachersNSneakers kicked off an entirely predictable (and thoroughly entertaining) firestorm of controversy.
Yet this controversy belies a deeper question: What does a faithful Christian witness look like in our culture of late-capitalism, with its rampant materialism and conspicuous consumption? To borrow Ron Sider’s provocative phrase, is it scandalous to be a rich Christian in an age of hunger?
What does a faithful Christian witness look like in our culture of late-capitalism, with its rampant materialism and conspicuous consumption?
Does becoming “all things to all people so that by all possible means we might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22) now require owning—and wearing—a $795 pair of “traxedos” pants? Or what would the belt of righteousness retail for if Gucci gave it a makeover? (Hint: $450.) How on earth can pastors have their “feet shod with the gospel of peace” when those feet are also shod with a pair of Yeezy Red Octobers (which currently sell for somewhere north of $5,000)?
While PreachersNSneakers refrains from editorializing, the comment section has no such reticence. One of the (more tame) comments reads: “I think it’s sad when the church feels it needs to conform to popular culture. As Christians, we should be the ones influencing our world. Hurts my heart!”
As a preacher myself who would never be confused for “fashion-forward” (most of my wardrobe comes from a local Tanger outlet), I feel a certain kinship with Judas as I Insta-stalk these celebrity preachers and their ridiculous outfits: “Couldn’t those Air Jordans have been sold and the money distributed to the poor?”
Unlike Judas, I’m not a thief.
Or am I?
St. Basil might say I am:
Now, someone who takes a man who is clothed and renders him naked would be termed a robber; but when someone fails to clothe the naked, while he is able to do this, is such a man deserving of any other appellation? The bread which you hold back belongs to the hungry; the coat, which you guard in your locked storage-chests, belongs to the naked; the footwear mouldering in your closet belongs to those without shoes. The silver that you keep hidden in a safe place belongs to the one in need.
I may not have silver hidden in a safe, but then again…anyone making $32,200 (USD) per year or more is in the top 1% of global income distribution. And I definitely do have a few old pairs of running shoes mouldering somewhere.
“So what’s the line?” goes another common refrain in the PreachersNSneakers comment section. Is it okay to spend $100 on a pair of shoes, but not $1,000?
I’m not prepared to draw a line in the sand, but I have hunch that if Jesus did, it would be quite a bit closer to poverty than my current standard of living.
I’m not prepared to draw a line in the sand, but I have hunch that if Jesus did, it would be quite a bit closer to poverty than my current standard of living. Even though I’ve never owned anything with a Supreme label, I also don’t make my own clothing the way some do (like my Amish neighbors…or, as I was reminded at a recent stop on his Beating Guns tour, Shane Claiborne.) My own consumption likely looks pretty conspicuous to many Christian sisters and brothers around the world.
The allure of materialism—its comfort, ease, seeming security, status—is as seductive as any idolatry that plagued the ancient Israelites. Whether we’re stepping out in the latest Gucci craze or dressing down in a come up from Goodwill, the warning of Jesus should never be far from our minds. “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”
Jon Carlson serves as Lead Pastor of Forest Hills Mennonite Church outside of Lancaster, PA. Jon and his wife, Lyn, are raising three kids who seem to have endless supplies of energy. Follow on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.