Social Media

When an Influential Pastor Becomes an #Influencer

A new Instagram account tracking the luxury clothes favored by celebrity pastors begs the question: What (and for whom) are they actually selling?

by Allie Jones
26 April 2019, 3:23am

Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz. Images via Getty and Shutterstock.

In the last five years, Pentecostal Christianity has become one of the most popular religions in Hollywood. Thanks to devotees like Selena Gomez, Chris Pratt, the Kardashians, and most notably, Justin Bieber, celebrities and celebrity-obsessed millennials have been flocking to mega-churches like Hillsong in New York, and Zoe Church in Los Angeles. These youth-focused, Christian-rock-concert-style services have become so popular that their leaders have gained their own kind of celebrity status. Preachers like Carl Lentz (Hillsong), Chad Veach (Zoe Church), Judah Smith (Churchome in Seattle), and Rich Wilkerson Jr. (Vous Church in Miami) all have hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram and regularly appear in paparazzi photos with Bieber and other Jesus-following celebs.

And these preachers look like celebrities. Since Hillsong launched in the U.S. in 2010, journalists have often noted the leaders’ devotion to designer goods. Now, a new Instagram account is reigniting the debate about materialism in evangelical churches and putting many popular pastors on the defensive.

Last month, an anonymous 29-year-old who goes by the pseudonym Tyler Jones started the account @PreachersNSneakers. Jones, who lives in Texas and is himself a member of the evangelical church community, has used the account to catalogue the high-priced items celebrity pastors are wearing on the pulpit. Posts showing Wilkerson Jr. (580,000 Instagram followers) wearing $995 Fear of God sneakers, Veach (237,000 followers) wearing $1,045 Saint Laurent boots, and Smith (600,000 followers) wearing $980 Gucci pants quickly gained attention inside and outside the church community. Veach even commented on one of the posts early this month, which increased Jones’ follower count and led to interviews with Fashionista, BuzzFeed, and The New York Times. As of this week, Jones has almost 150,000 followers.

Pastors and their celebrity friends
Clockwise from upper left, Judah Smith and Justin Bieber onstage; Carl Lentz and Oprah; Chad Veach and Bieber; Rich Wilkerson Jr marrying Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. Photos via Getty and Instagram

The preachers, many of whom are friends with one another, have not exactly welcomed the extra attention. Though their clothing choices have never been a secret, Jones is the first person to put photos of the pastors side-by-side with the dollar value of their items. The implication: Where are these guys getting the money to buy designer goods? Like most evangelical and Pentecostal churches, Hillsong, Zoe, and their ilk heavily encourage tithing (the practice of donating a percentage—or at least a significant chunk—of one’s income to the church, nowadays easily done online or via app). Commenters have been quick to note that these tithes could be funding preachers’ Yeezy habits. “This account is like the 21st century version of Martin Luther nailing his theses to the church door,” one wrote.

Most of the preachers have publicly ignored the posts, and some have pushed back privately, via DM. In an interview with VICE, Jones said that one church even sent him a cease and desist. (He declined to say which one.) But like a true celebrity, Lentz responded to the controversy after he got caught at LAX by TMZ cameras. He told the gossip site that preachers are “grown people” and that “they have the right to spend their money in a way they’re comfortable with.” He was wearing a pair of the newly released Air Jordan XXXIII SE sneakers.

Veach, the 38-year-old pastor who favors Saint Laurent boots and Off-White Jordans, has so far been the only famous pastor to respond directly to the account. Early this month, he commented on a post that showed him wearing $795 Rhude trackpants and a $1,980 Gucci backpack. “Wanna know what’s crazy? I legit did not pay for one thing i am wearing,” he wrote. “Is that wild to you? that’s wild to me… Thanks for the shout out tho. You’re a blessing.”

He then quickly deleted the comment and changed his Instagram handle from @chadcveach to @chadveach, ostensibly to make it look as though he had not weighed in. (He kept his followers.)

His response made plain what has lately become clear: the gap between celebrity pastor and regular old celebrity is quickly closing. These men have hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers; they are regularly photographed by paparazzi; they go to TMZ to respond to controversy. And if Veach is to be believed, they receive luxury goods from brands for free.

Are preachers just influencers now? Influencer in the Instagram #ad, aspirational-lifestyle-brand sense, that is. Of course, evangelical pastors have always influenced their flock to follow Jesus, and in recent years, have done so aggressively, through books, television, and livestreams (see: Joel Osteen). But now, it seems, they are modeling more than just a devotion to God. They are celebrities, marketing all the perks of a luxury lifestyle.

Since the birth of Christianity, there has been tension regarding displays of wealth in church. From Martin Luther’s aforementioned break with Catholicism right on up to last year’s controversy over televangelist Jesse Duplantis’ plan to buy $54 million jet with followers’ donations, Christian leaders have offered infinitely varied opinions on what kind of lifestyle is appropriate for a preacher. The posts on @PreachersNSneakers suggest that today’s celebrity pastors fall on the more stylish side of the debate. In past interviews, these preachers have said that wearing cool (i.e. expensive) clothes has a higher purpose: It helps them connect with young followers.

"If I walk into a place and I'm wearing something that makes people go, 'that's a cool outfit,' I am working with an advantage,” Veach told Fashionista in 2017. “Rather than a disadvantage of like, 'man, those are really wack sneakers.'"

But such an argument sparks a myriad of questions. How are these preachers funding this lifestyle? Is it possible that designers are simply giving them clothes for free? Should preachers disclose that kind of gifting to their followers, the way a traditional influencer is required to—though those rules are often skirted—by the FTC?

Given how many celebrities and stylish millennials follow them, preachers like Lentz and Veach would be attractive ambassadors for luxury brands. Lindsay Glickstein, an influencer marketing expert who runs Starlicity PR, said in an interview that it’s very possible brands are sending preachers the latest styles. These days, the more followers you have, the more willing brands are to give you exactly what you want for free. Glickstein said her influencer clients (who are not preachers but have similar numbers of Instagram followers) are regularly sent lookbooks from brands so that they can “shop” at home for items they’d like as gifts. In turn, the clients wear the items on Instagram and tag the designers.

The men of the cloth are not eager to talk about whether or not they participate in this kind of exchange. Lentz and Wilkerson did not respond to a request for comment, and, after some back and forth, Veach and Smith declined to be interviewed for this story. VICE could not confirm that Veach got his Rhude track pants and Gucci backpack for free, or, more specifically, from the brands themselves: a spokesperson for Rhude said that Veach is simply a “fan of the brand,” and Gucci did not respond to a request for comment.

But at least one popular pastor has recently admitted to receiving free designer goods. John Gray, who leads Relentless Church in South Carolina and has close to 1 million followers on Instagram, told the Times that designers have gifted him expensive items. He has also received gifts from NBA players he ministers to, he said. Last year, he gave his wife a Lamborghini, provoking fellow Pastor Jomo Johnson to suggest this week that Gray should follow his lead and downsize. (Johnson is calling this #TheJesusChallenge, and has suggested to his followers that they “choose to sacrifice one major possession per month or per week from now until next Easter,” per The Greenville News.) On @PreachersNSneakers, Gray was featured wearing Yeezy Red Octobers valued at over $5,000, which he said were a gift from the production company on his OWN reality show. (Yeah, he has a reality show. So does Wilkerson Jr.)

Lentz has similarly suggested that his fancy garb is gifted; back in 2017, he told WWD that he has “generous friends,” including Fear of God designer Jerry Lorenzo. He said the Rolex he was wearing at the time was a gift.

Jones said he thinks it’s indeed likely that celebs like Bieber are keeping their pastors clothed in the latest streetwear. “From what I understand about this level of pastors, they're in tight with some of the most powerful people in the world,” he noted. “You know, it's been documented that [Veach] and [Lentz] and Rich Wilkerson all hang out with Justin Bieber and hang with Kanye. Rich Wilkerson did Kanye and Kim's wedding. So, yeah, there's a good chance that they're getting way hooked up, especially if Justin sees them as having helped change his life. Surely Justin's like, ‘Dude, let me break you off with all this swag.’"

The pastors then turn around and sell swag to their flock, much like, in another meta twist, West did for his Sunday Service at Coachella this past weekend. Hillsong, Zoe, Vous, and Churchome all offer exclusive, streetwear-inspired church merch to those who would like to look just like their pastors or display their devotion to a particular congregation. Usually, churches release these graphic tees and hoodies in targeted “drops,” just like streetwear brands, to increase demand. Bieber is often photographed wearing church merch, which makes the items seem even more exclusive. And then, sometimes, churches collaborate with actual designers for exclusive drops: Fear of God’s Jerry Lorenzo designed merch for the Vous conference in Miami in 2016. (You can still find some items on Grailed.) The exchanges here become more and more confusing: When Bieber wears a Fear of God x Vous tee, which brand is he really advertising?

At left, a man wearing a Fear of God x Vous t-shirt. At right, Vous sweatpants on several women's legs
Fear of God-designed Vous merch; some of their own. Images via Vous

Based on a recent Instagram post from Lentz’s wife, Laura Lentz, preachers may feel pressure to keep up with the culture of consumption they have created in their churches. At the beginning of the month, Laura revealed in a post that she hired a professional stylist to help her put together looks for a Hillsong church conference. “Thank you @rebeccalaurastyle for making my week easy and SO FUN!!!...i LOVED this vintage leather,” she captioned a photo of her wearing a studded leather jacket and a vintage Harley Davidson tee, standing on stage with her husband.

Some of her followers weren’t pleased with the likely expensive look and let her know in the comments. “It’s an OLD leather jacket!” Lentz wrote back. “It’s not even mine... and i block people who are mean and say judgemental things that they know nothing about me or my life.”

The stylist, Rebecca Alaniz, chimed in, too. “If anyone else has an issue with the leather jacket that I styled into this look, feel free to send me a DM,” she said. “I’d be delighted to have a few words.” (Despite this promise, Lentz and Alaniz did not respond to requests for comment.)

If Laura Lentz employs a stylist, her husband probably does too, which means his peers may as well, whether they’re interested in admitting it or not. Like the celebrities they pal around with, these preachers seem to be constantly cultivating their brands, watching out for photo opportunities and keeping up with trends in the luxury market. What is left to separate these pastors from Bieber or Pratt or any number of Instagram models wearing gifted Gucci?

@PreachersNSneakers brought the undercurrent of materialism in evangelical churches back into the public eye, and megachurch followers will continue to debate whether it’s appropriate for pastors to spend money on luxury goods. But perhaps good, tithing members of Hillsong and Zoe and Vous and Churchome should not only ask Do I want my preacher to be spending $5000 on Yeezys? but also Do I want my preacher to be doing stealth marketing for luxury brands every Sunday morning?

Follow Allie Jones on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.