In 2019, Ben Kirby unintentionally set a fire on Instagram. In a post, he questioned how it was possible that a church worship leader was wearing $800 shoes — Yeezys, to be precise.
Kirby went on to anonymously launch the popular Instagram account @PreachersNSneakers which offers side-by-side comparison of the shoes a pastor is wearing with their price tag. The account has more than 200,000 followers.
Some of those followers supported his work as accountability, while others derided it as “cancel culture.” Religion News Service published an opinion piece by Kirby, who wrote under the pseudonym “Tyler Jones.” Pastors who Kirby had criticized began to respond or reach out, as did celebrities who found the account interesting.
But in his book PreachersNSneakers: Authenticity in an Age of For-Profit Faith and (Wannabe) Celebrities, published last month, Kirby does more than throw stones at ultra-wealthy pastors; he asks readers to self-audit and consider where they’re spending, lest they throw that stone and shatter their glass houses.
“How's your relationship with the hobbies and/or things you own?” Kirby asks in a discussion question at the end of the book's fifth chapter. “What helps you prevent these from owning you?”
In the conversation below, Sojourners’ assistant news editor Mitchell Atencio talked with Kirby about rich pastors, the relationship of U.S. churches to capitalism, and how we should all examine our spending habits. Kirby doesn’t claim that he has all the answers, but he wants people — himself included — to wrestle with the questions.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Mitchell Atencio, Sojourners: What made a book the right medium for these questions you want to address in this project?
Ben Kirby: Instagram is visual, short-time quips, and I prefer to communicate in tiny sentences or captions, but the subject matter that came out of talking about preachers literally in sneakers was so much deeper and had so much more nuance to it. It was impossible to have an actual, constructive, long-term conversation [on Instagram]. The topic needed some research, context, and behind-the-curtain looks into some of these things. So, to me, the book seemed like a no-brainer. It’s definitely not an academic, heady thing, but there needed to be enough room to expound upon some of the nuance around why people are getting pissed about this kind of thing.
Most people are immensely uncomfortable with people who work for the church getting rich. But why, as Christians, should we not be equally uncomfortable with any Christian getting rich? It seems that there’s plenty in scripture to suggest that none of us should be exorbitantly wealthy.
Well, for one, most people working for the church are living off the donations of others. And those donations are being given in obedience to what God has called them to do. For a lot of people, including me, it feels — at a minimum — sticky to see someone living a lavish lifestyle or growing a huge brand and celebrity status on the backs of people’s donations to further [God’s] kingdom. Because it looks like you’re furthering your own kingdom.
The whole idea of capitalism in general, I don’t think I’m qualified to say if making more money than the median is ever OK or not. I would like to be able to take care of my family as best I can, doing it in a way that doesn’t take advantage of others, while also taking care of those that are less fortunate and considering others in the world that are living in immense poverty. I think that should be your focus more than trying to avoid getting rich altogether. I think the possession of money, in a lot of ways, can be amoral, but you need to be sensitive to making it off the backs of people that are trying to give sacrificially.
I think one of the reasons we can get sucked into making more money is because we know what happens in this country when we don’t have money. If you don’t have money, you have insecure food and housing, you’re likely to face increased health risks. We want to avoid those types of things.
When you face those health risks, you get bankrupt by not having good insurance or not being able to afford the medical bills. Life costs money, and it causes you to really wrestle with how radical you want to live, or how concurrent to Jesus’ lifestyle you want to live as a Christian.
Exactly. And it seems to me, if the church is to be a part of breaking people out of that mindset, the church will have to help create safety nets — things like universal healthcare, universal housing — or be that safety net itself. Do you think the church can do those things?
Yeah, I mean, I go to a church that already is. Nobody’s doing it perfect, but the churches I’ve seen, there is some element of them providing service to the community. The church that I go to, Watermark, has a legit, completely free clinic, staffed by nurses and doctors that are working pro bono, for those people that have at-risk pregnancies or literally no health insurance.
The church is called to take care of the widow, the orphan, the abandoned, the person that is downtrodden, the sick — we’re all called to do that — and I think a time is coming where the churches that stand out will be the ones that over-index on using the majority of their funds to affect their local community and the international community. They’re saying: “We want to be the hands and feet of Jesus, even if you don’t believe [in Jesus] we can still serve you. We’re not doing this in a transactional way, we are called to take care of the poor regardless of what you believe.”
I think more churches will, hopefully, get their priorities straight instead of spending millions on production, real estate, and all that, and deploy that into helping the community and helping the world. That is the right long-term play. I’m not a theologian, I’m not a church strategist or anything, but like many people that follow my account, I think our priorities have been way off and it’s time to refocus them.
Though you have a business degree, you talk a lot about the church needing to be counter-cultural and say the the church should not operate like a business. Can the church function as a counter to the behavior of capitalism without resisting the economic system wholesale?
I like that question. To your point about churches emulating capitalism, or functioning as capitalistic organizations, they should not do that. Because it very quickly turns into making faith — Christianity, the following of Jesus — into a retail strategy, marketing strategy, or a product. Then the church is elevating a product, instead of pointing people to the Creator of the universe. Now, having a business background, I think there are some merits to [capitalism]. Capitalism drives innovation, it incentivizes people to work hard and solve problems that maybe would not have been solved if they weren’t incentivized to solve those problems. I always think about DoorDash. I know it’s not an eternal, moral good but our lives are easier. We’re able to have food delivered to us because someone had a capitalistic mindset. But the church is not a business, or it should not be a business, and it should have no incentive to emulate a capitalistic model, because the whole point is to point people to Jesus, take care of the less fortunate, and call people to repentance. None of that deals with a sales funnel, profit margin, or increasing your revenue verticals. I think there should be a very distinct difference between the church and the marketplace. Right now the church operates, for all intents and purposes, exactly like the marketplace.
Capitalism may have made it so that someone created DoorDash so that I can get food delivered easier, but it’s also responsible for the fact that I am getting a COVID-19 vaccine much quicker than most of the rest of the world and countries below certain income-levels. Why? Because these companies have patents on them, they won’t let anyone else create their COVID-19 vaccine.
I like that. There are many people that aren’t even willing to wrestle with that. I mean, I’ve got my MBA, I recognize the fact that capitalism exists, it’s a way to make money, there are other ways to do it, but also you have to wrestle — especially if you’re Christian — with the fact that there’s billions of other people in the world that aren’t getting any of this and have no access to all the comforts that we have. And it makes you wrestle with: “Does God care differently for those billions of people? Are we really so much more divinely anointed that we get to have all these comforts and be so blessed as Americans?” That’s something I wrestle with a ton.
And I didn’t [wrestle] until I was involved with the [PreachersNSneakers] account. I just accepted capitalism as the best way. Writing this book and working on this account has really opened my eyes to some of those bigger issues that I don’t have answers for, but I at least want to be the type of person that wrestles with them.
In Luke 3:11, John the Baptist “If you have two coats, you have stolen one from the poor.” I’m thinking it’s really easy for us to be like “Yeah, that guy owns 100 sneakers, that’s too many,” but do you own 10 sneakers? Do you own two coats? And it was kind of interesting to be working on those stories while reading your book.
I try to point at that [in the book]. Because if you want others to be about it you better be about it yourself. And it’s very easy for Christians to come into my comment section and say, “such and such could have been sold and given to the poor,” when I’m very confident they went to Cabo last year, live in a super-nice house, and didn’t give a second thought to how they spend their money. If you care about emulating the lifestyle of Jesus and pointing people to him, we all have work that we can do. We can always do better in terms of sacrificing, giving in a way that hurts — and I’m definitely not perfect at it. If they’re willing to judge others on that, they better be willing to audit their own lives and how they spend and give.
I think that gets at one of the problems in our culture; we don’t really want to talk about money. None of us want to sit down and say, “this is how much I make a year; this is how much I spend, and this is how much I have stored away.” It seems necessary, to me, that if we’re ever going to have a community-based mindset we have to be willing to sit down with the people in our churches and show them our budgets.
We do that at Watermark. Our community groups — we’re in community with two other couples — they have seen our budgets and all of our accounts. This is super radical to a lot of people, and it’s very uncomfortable. Because now you have to explain some of the bigger purchases you make. You probably need to go through that practice. Not everything that you want is righteous for you to buy.
And for the longest time, in Christian circles, we were much more willing to talk about sex and purity than our spending habits. I think that was to our detriment as well. I don’t know why we are cagey about money. I guess certain people treat others differently once they find out that they’ve got a million bucks in the bank, but that’s an issue in itself. I think I’m agreeing with you. If church communities really want to have radical relationships and the ability to influence others around you, you need to be transparent about your situation. Money is such a huge part of life, and as Christians we’re basically trying to table that whole aspect of our lives and say “to each their own, who am I to say something about their money.” But we are called to a different standard, so I think we should be more transparent with our budgets.
I’ll end with this: You've said, "I’m not an expert, I’m just asking questions.” Do you think you would have written this book even if you didn't start the @PreachersNSneakers account or, because it fell into your lap, did you feel responsible to do something more than the Instagram account?
I do feel like it fell into my lap. I do feel like part of this was me trying to steward the opportunity. I said, look, [God] is either making this happen or allowing this to happen in my life, and I want to be aware of that and see it through. The subject matter is uncomfortable, people’s reactions to it are even more uncomfortable. I am the type of person that wants to get along with everybody. So, this has been a practice of me trying to push past my comfort zone. It’s self-indicting, it makes me audit my own life, but it also causes people to get really pissed at me, and I don’t love that.
I get messages all the time from people saying: “Thank you for pointing this out, it’s made me question how I dress or what I post on social media;” or “we haven’t given to our church in years, we haven’t given to social organizations ever;” or “it’s driven conversations among our church leadership teams.” Nobody has to believe people have said those things to me, but I get those messages every single day. Different people are experiencing this account and this book in ways I could never have planned or forecasted or strategized. For whatever reason, my showing the price tag on the sneaker and the sneaker on the preacher has caused people to wrestle with deep issues about money and fame. I don’t think I’m great. I don’t think I’m anointed or inspired or whatever. I don’t think I’m better than any person, or more gifted in writing or speaking or anything, I think that God has a hand in this, and He’s trying to do something with it. I’m just trying to be obedient and go along with it the best I can.