At first glance PreachersNSneakers seems like satire but it isn’t. What began as a simple Instagram account now includes other social media, merchandise, a podcast, and a book.
For those who haven’t heard of it, PreachersNSneakers is self explanatory: it posts pictures of preachers wearing, you guessed it … sneakers. It’s just that these preachers are more cool and stylish than chubby Reverend Thompson because their sneakers cost several hundred to several thousand dollars a pair.
Naturally, similar sites have sprung up identifying pastors with expensive excesses like Rolex watches, designer clothes, exotic cars, etc. My personal favourite is PastorPlanes which posts flight paths showing the “trips to ministry events and travel destinations” of private aircraft purchased with tax-free donations.
The sites come across as humorous or cynical but they are actually bold, serious commentary about the state of the success-driven western church.
When Jesus came to earth no one expected a Messiah born in a manger, much less one who would find a home among ‘unimportant’ people. It wasn’t predictable that he would teach on hillsides, talk with women, find comfort with the poor, or love his enemies.
Matthew 25 is an explanation of how God wants us to act toward everyone, especially the so-called ‘least’. Jesus makes two summations:
“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (v40)
“Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” (v45)
Notice how the parable hits on the positive of doing and the negative of not doing – helping people in need is rewardable, ignoring them is punishable. Notice too, that the emphasis isn’t on large crowds of people but on the importance of “one”.
The parable tells us that our place in God’s kingdom is demonstrated by how humble, kind, and inclusive we are with each person crossing our path – even those who are inconvenient or unlikeable.
Isn’t it interesting that governments can talk about caring for vulnerable people even as they’re ignoring vulnerable people? We live in a world where mega-corporations and oligarch billionaires talk about their concern for social issues while accumulating obscene wealth for themselves.¹
Often christians (and their churches) function the same way. Perhaps it’s because they’re insecure but often they are motivated by visible success: size, money, influence. Their words say they speak for God, that they care for everyone, but their priorities say the opposite.
Spiritual leaders can see success as proof of God’s approval but usually they are lacking healthy doses of empathy, honesty, wisdom, humility.
The problem with ‘worship by number’ churches is their notoriety convinces them of their own importance and elevates their instinct to perpetuate themselves. Church scandals are way too frequent these days but when there are attempts to cover them it confirms the leaders think the institution is more important than the victims.
That is in stark contrast to Jesus who never thought of power as something to preserve. He didn’t see people as subsets or statistics or expendables. His ‘ministry strategy’ was merely to be present with each and every “one” he met.
Who are the “least of these” Jesus is speaking of in the parable? I think the list probably includes anyone who is inconvenient or distasteful. Anybody I don’t want to be seen with.
Humans can only know God when we are humble. Remember that.² In God’s inverted value system, humble is godly, weak is strong, the least are the greatest – yet our instincts for success are just the opposite.
Pastors and churches who are driven by the pride of accomplishment ultimately rule over empty kingdoms, unfit for a needy world. Humility unmasks the emptiness of success because it is honest and pure.³
Have you ever wondered why those famous faith healers don’t go to hospitals? I have. Wouldn’t a few hours of healing go a long way at a rehab centre or children’s wing? You’d think so.
But they don’t go. They won’t go where their hearts can’t follow. They haven’t learned how to feel, hurt, hope, or love outrageously alongside people in desperate need. They have already achieved an empty ‘success’ that disqualifies them from things that are deeper and more meaningful. Their egos have malformed their faith.
“Oh, that you would burst from the heavens and come down!” – Isaiah
The Story began on a barren trade route occupied by a foreign superpower. An unwed teenage girl brought God into the world as a Jewish baby. The baby was first visited by smelly, field-dwelling shepherds, then by pagan astrologers from the land of an old enemy.
Nothing in Jesus’ biography suggested worldly success: he wasn’t wealthy, didn’t hold office, didn’t travel, didn’t build an organization. His only success was the way he shared the presence of God with any person who was humble and needy.
So let’s be humble and needy.
We are now well into the season of Advent, our yearly reminder that the Creator entered Creation as a vulnerable, inconvenient baby. I like to think that if Jesus was walking the earth today he would be wearing a pair of comfy sneakers.
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¹ A billion dollars is a lot of dollars. If you saved $5,000 dollars each day for the next 500 years, you still wouldn’t have your first billion.
² You can’t get much humbler than Rahab, the ‘traitorous’ prostitute who hangs in Jesus’ family tree.
³ As I was finishing this post I noticed that U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson told an audience, “the Lord told me very clearly” that he would be another “Moses” to lead the country in “a Red Sea moment”.
a) I was taught at a young age that people who say ‘God told me’ are not to be trusted.
b) Fr James Martin wrote this response on X: “In spiritual direction, you always tell people who speak so glibly … that it must be tested out. Does it lead to humility or is it simply to support your own plans, agenda, and success? If it’s the latter, then it’s probably not coming from God.”
c) Anyway, it can’t be true because God told me he wanted me to be another Moses. I’ve already started growing a beard and I ordered a full-size staff from Amazon. So…