A snarky social media post he dashed off in 2019 about a worship leader’s $800 perks boosted Ben Kirby from a nobody online to proprietor of a viral Instagram site – PreachersNSneakers with 254k followers — calling out Christian leaders lolling in luxury. Now, his debut book, Preachers N Sneakers: Authenticity in an Age of For-Profit Faith and (Wannabe) Celebrities is coming out from Thomas Nelson, April 27.
The book has laugh lines, many at Kirby's own expense. But it raises fundamentally serious questions. Should ministers sell the Gospel for personal gain? What about celebrities cashing in on Christian audiences by making a nod to God? In the book, he addresses the intersection of “capitalism, consumerism, and celebrity culture,” with a religion that calls on believers to “elevate Jesus over everything and everyone.”
Kirby talks with PW about his journey as an ex-Marine, writer, and marketer to a critic examining where spirituality and spending collide.
(This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
Where’s the bling? According to The Washington Post, your Instagram was known for price tag peeping, like noting Dallas pastor T.D. Jakes’ $1,250 Louboutin fanny pack or Gospel preacher Paula White’s $785 Stella McCartney sneakers. The book? Not so much.
The book has a different tenor than the Instagram posts. The price tags are just the surface of what we’re talking about. The state of the modern church is what we should be wrestling with – the extra fluff like overproduced worship services with fog machines and obsessive interest in big personalities and massive multimillion campuses and congregations with zero financial reporting requirements. The fixation of appearances and entertainment all makes Christianity look like a joke.
You write that the “worship-industrial complex” sends the wrong message, and that, "Power, money and fame were never an end goal for Jesus.” But critics abound on your site. Does this bother you?
I want people to know I may have done this imperfectly but I tried my best. I didn’t pick fights, or sneak into people’s homes or raid their garbage. I commented on what they were doing publicly. And I don’t want to shy away from hard things.
What’s your beef with “blessings” and “favor” that many preachers say God will bestow on people who support their ministry? You write in the book that it seems like “God is disproportionately blessing rich folks and white folks and Western folks.”
The God I believe in created everything and blesses everybody. The blessing I see is having my sin paid for by what Jesus did by dying on the cross. But in modern churches today, pastors will do whole sermons on how God is going to bless you with a promotion or a raise or a check in the mail. It’s such a low view of what God can do. God is not a vending machine.
You write, “I have zero problems with the concepts of branding, commerce, or capitalism.” You have “merch” for PreachersNSneakers and you’re a sneakerhead. So I have to ask, What are you wearing right now? Do you have a shoe, too?
I don’t have a shoe. I’m wearing our grey hoodie with the site logo, Mack Weldon pants, mismatched socks, and Hoka Arahi running shoes.
We created the hoodie in response to demand from followers. In 2019, sales raised $20,00 for Unlikely Heroes, which combats sex trafficking, and Charity Water, which digs wells for clean water is needed. But we mostly lose money on it after paying for platforms and hosting online.
How has this experience – holding public figures to account -- changed you? In the book, you also point out where some wealthy preachers have given deeply to social causes.
I have a better understanding of nuance. People’s relationship with spending is more complicated than I realized initially. Personally, the biggest thing for my wife and I is to audit our own lives and hearts: How are we spending and giving our money and how do we present ourselves online. I’m still a Christian but I’m not a professional Christian.