Just over two years ago, Ben Kirby was sitting on his couch on a Sunday morning watching worship videos on YouTube because he had slept through church.
“I had never done that in the past – ever – in replacement of going to church. And, for whatever reason, that morning I noticed one of the worship leaders wearing a pair of ‘Yeezy 750s‘ that I knew were worth like $800 or so.”
“I noticed one of the worship leaders wearing a pair of ‘Yeezy 750s’ that I knew were worth like $800 or so.”
He made a few posts for his personal Instagram about those expensive sneakers on that worship leader’s feet.
Kirby did not really know anything about celebrity church culture or the influence of megachurch pastors. He was just trying to be funny.
“I wasn’t an anonymous account. I didn’t have a strategy. I didn’t want anything to come of it. I was just trying to make my friends laugh and maybe show people like, “Hey, did you know, these sneakers are worth $800? That makes me feel something. Does that make y’all feel something?”
Kirby soon discovered there was an abundance of content for these posts. Plenty of photos were available online of Christian leaders on stage wearing really expensive sneakers. He also made a few videos.
Eventually, a friend encouraged him to start an account doing the same thing; Kirby’s mate thought his captions were funny and the subject matter was provocative. He did, about a week after his initial post.
Instagram’s PreachersNSneakers account was born.
“And … within like four weeks, I had a 100,000 followers. It was just me sitting on the couch with my phone, basically putting the price tag of a pastor’s sneakers next to a picture they had already posted of themselves,” he says. “And people lost their minds – in a lot of ways – about it”
They really did. Kirby’s Instagram followers skyrocketed, growing to the 260,000 followers he has today.
“My wife and I were just sitting there [asking], ‘What is happening?’” he laughs.
But whatever it was that Kirby had created quickly became a strain for him. He was in the throes of full-time grad-school study, working on a Masters of Business program (MBA), but the administration required to sustain his overnight empire mounted up.
“I’m having to create an email address to just make a website, having to make sure I maintain my anonymity, vetting media requests, all that kind of stuff. Just from my phone, doing it by myself,” he recalls.
“There was a few weeks there where I was like, ‘Dude, I’m going to shut this down’,” he says, noting that the account was not generating any income, nor did he have a goal that he was working towards. It was a lot of work upfront for something that was “cool that it is going viral”.
“I didn’t want to stop because this rarely happens to anyone, to have something go viral and have people talk about it and have news media asking about it. But then the heat started to come and people started to get angry about it. And that’s when it took a shift.”
‘Whoa, am I really doing something that bad right now? Am I really fundamentally dismantling Christianity?”
Kirby says it took him several months to get more secure in what he was doing – a process that included examining the motives of his heart and the consequences of his actions.
“I was hearing from Christians that had legitimate concerns about the impact I was making from the account,” admits Kirby.
“Some of their criticisms had merit, about people being mean in the comment section and really not knowing much about these guys and girls [featured on PreachersNSneakers].”
He brought the situation to his church community.
“I had to bring it to my pastor because I just didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t know if it was inherently good or if it was a net negative to the church or Christians,” he says.
“So I did have to do a lot of heart checking because, on one hand … I really like to make people laugh. I like to entertain people and I also like to make them think.
“And somehow … I’m able to kind of make captions that do both of those things. So it’s fun to do something in your strengths, where it feels like, ‘Hey, I’m good at this for no good reason’ … I wanted to keep doing that.”
PreachersNSneakers was growing, people were interested and it was getting people talking – all of which seemed cool.
“But at the same time, when you hear people – that seemingly believe the same thing as you – disagree with what you do … it did make me [ask] ‘Whoa, am I really doing something that bad right now? Am I really fundamentally dismantling Christianity?’”
Preachers called out on his account responded in a variety of ways.
“Some were mean. Some were understanding. Some didn’t care. Most of them didn’t even acknowledge it really,” Kirby says.
He found it a strange experience to be contacted by some of them – people who had seemed “larger than life”.
“It’s a weird thing to break those walls and be like, ‘Hey, I’m this nothing, average dude in Texas causing this big global stir.”
“I’m not a sociopath… I feel it when people are mad or angry at me, for something that feels like it shouldn’t be that big of a deal.”
All of this had a “multilayered” affect on Kirby.
“I get being upset about things, but I’m a ‘feeling’ type person. I’m not a sociopath. And so I feel it when people are mad or angry at me, for something that feels like it shouldn’t be that big of a deal. That discouraged me,” he says.
“But it also validated that I was pressing at something bigger than just the sneakers and it was causing people to really wrestle with some of their own internal biases about maybe what they expect of their pastor, or what they’re insecure about themselves. About how they spend their money or what they wear”.
Kirby can see that there are things he could have done differently. But he believes he did the best he could “reacting in real time”.
“This fell into my lap in a lot of ways. I didn’t have a framework. I didn’t have a strategy. So looking back, there’s plenty of things I think I could have done better,” he says.
“I could have reached out directly to some of these guys. But when I think about it, I really didn’t care that much back then. I just noticed a thing, I posted about it, and that was it. I didn’t expect it to turn into what it did.”
Two years on, Kirby says he got “a deep and wide look at the state of the modern church” – one that’s left him with some profound insights.
“Does God care about how we’re doing church and can it be done in a better way?”
“It seems like we put a lot of emphasis and money and time into things that don’t matter,” he says.
“A lot about ‘doing church’ right now is a bunch of stuff that doesn’t even point to Jesus at all. It just points to elevating who the best speakers and performers are.”
Kirby’s own worldview has shifted as a result, causing him to question: “Does God care about how we’re doing church and can it be done in a better way?”
For the past year, he’s channelled that thought and energy into writing a book that tells the journey of PreachersNSneakers and discusses what it has unveiled.
“Do we care too much about all this extra fluff that doesn’t matter at all?” Kirby asks. “Are we getting too wound up about the production, or wound up about our guy getting invited to all the conferences, or him becoming a New York Times bestselling author?”
Two years ago, Kirby didn’t think about this kind of thing. “I didn’t know I had a desire for justice,” he explains. “I fundamentally disagree with ‘prosperity gospel’ type preachers and I’ve learned … that I do have something in me that really wants to see justice enacted on people that take advantage of those in vulnerable situations.”
“When you’re stepping on stage preaching about the creator of the universe, you should … try not to distract people from that.”
So what does he think now about a preacher wearing a really expensive pair of sneakers?
“I do think it is wise to consider the message of your clothing,” Kirby says. “When you get up on stage, I can’t think of many situations where wearing a super flashy pair of shoes serves you in any way.
“Now, granted, not everything we do in life has to serve our evangelistic mission every second of every day. But when you’re stepping on stage preaching about the creator of the universe, you should treat that seriously and try not to distract people from that.”
Kirby believes the job of a pastor and/or preacher is “one of the most important things you could ever do in your whole life” and cringes at treating those roles “like they’re just a performer or a brand”.
“We treat them as a celebrity and all of that distracts away from pointing people to Jesus,” he says, concerned. “In a vacuum, I don’t think it’s wrong for someone to physically wear a pair of $1,200 shoes on stage. But I do think it would be wise for you to consider how that would be perceived.”
He doesn’t buy arguments that suggest that wearing a flashy pair of sneakers – a symbol of worldly value – is necessary to gain the attention of people who are not Christians.
“I understand the thought, but I think that’s a pretty shallow view of God’s ability to affect people. I think that you’re going to reach more people by how you communicate and how you love and care on people, instead of your appearance,” he says.
Kirby says he gets “the aesthetic thing” – the “wanting to be relevant”. But he’s concerned that, at a macro level, Christians care too much about appearance, too much about appearing cool, and trying to show the world that Christianity can be cool.
Kirby’s book – PreachersNSneakers: Authenticity in an Age of For-Profit Faith and (Wannabe) Celebrities – has just been released this week. It’s the latest addition to the PreachersNSneakers empire that now includes a podcast (launched May 2019), weekly email newsletter and range of merchandise.
And, it was just one month ago when, having written the book and wanting to stay in “the conversation about this weird relationship between the church and wealth and fame and all that stuff”, Kirby decided to reveal his identity.
“I couldn’t do anything on video, I couldn’t do any interviews like this one. At a practical level, it is exhausting to try to maintain an anonymous persona. So [given] all of that, just on a realistic level, I think two years was enough,” he says.
“I don’t want to just post about pastor footwear for the rest of my life.”
But exactly how far does he think PreachersNSneakers will take him?
“I don’t want to just post about pastor footwear for the rest of my life … I definitely want more out of life,” he says.
The book, he hopes, will enable him to take discussion of the issues to a deeper level – and not become an ironic comment about
“I wanted to be careful for it to not be a money grab or a just, like, a final hoo-rah, to get my last bit of publicity on the way out,” he says.
“I wanted to be thoughtful about doing something next with the account that would be meaningful for people and also not be a waste of my time.”
Kirby is grateful for the platform he has and the people he’s met throughout his PreachersNSneakers journey. And whether it be writing another book, or speaking, or doing something completely different, he is open to it.
“I’m just grateful to still be here. I’m grateful that I didn’t flame out,” he says.
“Just to still be able to contribute something to the marketplace of ideas, I guess, feels like a privilege.”