“Relevance to culture is not optional.”
That statement is one of five of Mosaic’s “Core Values,” along with tenets such as, “Love is the context for all mission” and “Structure must submit to spirit.”
Mosaic is a non-denominational Christian church headquartered in Hollywood, with locations throughout the West Coast and Mexico City. At first glance, its website doesn’t read like that of a church, with polaroid-style photos showing Los Angeles and hands raised at concert-like venues, and promotional videos mixing images of young adults in Thrasher T-shirts with clips of baptisms. Mosaic’s lead pastor, Erwin McManus, doesn’t really look like a stereotypical pastor, wearing Air Jordans and Fear of God in favor of a priest collar. And that is precisely the point. “I purposefully align myself with the person who would never go to church, and I would rather be relevant to them than the person who is already committed to going to church,” McManus tells HYPEBEAST.
McManus is certainly not the only Christian pastor to wear streetwear. Individual “cool” or “hipster” pastors and churches have received their fair share of attention in recent years, but the sheer volume of pastors who wear hyped sneakers and the like may have gone mostly unnoticed outside of Christian circles — including on HYPEBEAST — were it not for the creation of the PreachersNSneakers Instagram account, which catalogs the hyped outfits worn by largely Evangelical pastors.
“Ultimately, pastors are people and I think streetwear/sneakers appeal to them just like anyone else into that culture,” PreachersNSneakers’ creator, who goes by the pseudonym Tyler Jones, tells HYPEBEAST.
Jones doesn’t offer explicit praise or judgement but nonetheless the discordant image he drew attention to — that of preachers teaching the word of Christ while wearing Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Off-White™ — quickly drew media attention and the account has since accumulated 162,000 followers in its two months of existence.
But is it all that shocking to see a pastor wearing Virgil Abloh-designed Nikes? Perhaps, but only in direct contrast to the image of Christianity that has dominated pop culture for the past decade or so. You know the one — Ned Flanders. The Duggars. Jesus Camp. That is to say, a sort of dorky, almost fearful rejection of contemporary culture.
That is not how many of today’s young Christians see themselves and their religion. For them, cultural relevance, creativity and style are not antithetical to faith — they are an integral part of it. They want to make a church in their own image. They want to reach as many people as possible. And streetwear is the perfect conduit to do so.
The Original “Church Clothes”
The Instagram-friendly, YEEZY-wearing pastor of today might look new, but he (and it’s almost always a he) has precedent. “This sort of style-meets-gospel question, it’s an old one. I think that it originated in a place of authenticity,” Lauren Sandler, journalist and author of the 2006 book Righteous: Dispatches From the Evangelical Youth Movement, tells HYPEBEAST.
Sandler’s book traces the early 2000s Evangelical hipster youth culture all the way back to the “Jesus freaks” of the 1960s, who merged their counter-culture style with their religious beliefs in a very earnest way. That was followed by a conservative Christian backlash in the ‘70s and ‘80s, with the church pivoting to what she describes as the “Pat Robertson, buttoned-up, 700 Club” era, when popular music and culture had no place within a house of worship.
Young Christians struggled again with questions of authentic expression in the late ‘90s, post-grunge era, questioning the premise that their faith required them to give up their music or their personal style. Subsequently, young churchgoers began showing up to service in T-shirts that showed off their tattoos. They made spaces for themselves, with RELEVANT magazine launching in 2002 to cover the intersection of culture and faith for the twentysomething Christian. “Then, like all things, the anti-institutional movement becomes the institutional movement,” Sandler explains, as the larger Evangelical church saw how effective these cultural signifiers were to connect with a young audience and began implementing them more widely. “Suddenly, every youth pastor had a tattoo. Suddenly every megachurch had electric guitars in their worship band.”
With tattoos now gone mainstream, today’s church needs a new signifier of relevance. Enter: streetwear. “These sorts of style markers, as they are for everything else, is a way to delineate between generations and to authenticate experiences as something that feels new and personal,” Sandler says.
Today that translates to the likes of Hillsong, Vous, Zoe, Transformation and many more, maintaining active Instagram accounts, selling streetwear-style merch, creating sleek video content, appropriating Supreme-style graphics and developing apps. It only follows that their pastors would dress the part, as exemplified by the likes of Chad Veach of Zoe in Los Angeles, Rich Wilkerson Jr. of Vous in Miami and Steven Furtick of Elevation in North Carolina.
“They’re reacting to the more standardized, conforming image of a pastor,” McManus says of the wave of pastors embracing streetwear — though he notes that, being a generation older than the hip millennial pastors, he’s been wearing streetwear before it became the Instagram status symbol it is today. “And they’re trying to say, ‘Hey this is not the same church that you rejected, this is not the same culture that you walked away from.’ Because most churches that you see reject such street culture.”
But is it authentic? For those inside the church, absolutely. In fact, it’s a return to Christian values.
The Rebirth of Style
For many young Christians, embracing modern culture goes back much further than the 1960s, but represents a return to a sometimes forgotten but fundamental aspect of Christianity: creativity. “I think there’s a renaissance back to things that are creative and beautiful. That used to be very central to the church,” says Josh Kelsey, lead pastor of C3 NYC. “If you go back to the times of Renaissance, the most beautiful art was coming out of church. The most beautiful music was coming out of church.”
Kelsey and his wife Georgie moved from Australia to New York to found the local chapter of C3, which hosts services in hip neighborhoods like Bushwick and Williamsburg. He’s well aware that the church’s use of trendy graphics, language or fashion might appear out of step with Christianity. “Because we’ve had so many years of church being very kind of vanilla and boring and just pretty, it almost boxes your creativity in,” Kelsey explains. “I think in this next generation it’s like we want to express the full creative heart of God through what we wear, through how we create with Instagram or with our music. It’s just an expression of the love of God and how creative he is.”
And if pastors and churches can update their looks, why should the Holy Book be off limits? Alabaster, founded by Brian Chung and Bryan Ye-Chung, makes a new kind of Bible that would look right at home on a coffee table next to a Kinfolk, or even HYPEBEAST, magazine. “We live in an increasingly visual culture,” Alabaster’s founders told HYPEBEAST. “Everyone has a smartphone with a camera, we consume lots of visual-based media, and we judge websites based on how well they’re designed. Instead of shying away from these realities, we thought — how could we bring this to a faith-based context?”
They see this melding of Christianity and art moving into the secular context as well. “We think fashion (streetwear and non-streetwear), which is often categorized with art, could also be part of this movement of creating excellent art that is informed by faith,” Chung and Ye-Chung say. It’s not just C3 and Vous bringing streetwear-style clothing to the church, after all; in the case of Fear of God, Jerry Lorenzo has managed to imbue his faith into one of the most influential streetwear brands of the moment. “My faith informs everything I do. For the brand, it gives us reason. Reason to speak, purpose in how and why we communicate. The ultimate message is that we believe you need faith in your life more than our physical pieces,” he tells HYPEBEAST.
As Lorenzo notes too, luxury clothing has long since had a place at church — it’s just that today’s version of luxury looks different. “Pastors have been in thousand dollar suits for years. In the hood, we grew up wearing our ‘Sunday Best.’ Our best clothes were our church clothes. They were almost sacred,” he says. “Pastors reflect what the church is wearing. People are in church in streetwear today, not suits, blazers and slacks.”
Pastors are on stage to be leaders, however, not followers. “My hope is that pastors will actually be so aware of culture and so aware of creativity that they’ll be changing ahead of the culture,” McManus says. And creating the best fashion, the best art, the best design, is merely part of following the teachings of Christ. “When Jesus turned water into wine, he turned it into the best wine in the world,” he adds.
As aesthetically-mindful Christians themselves, Chung and Ye-Chung are appreciative of pastors who connect with young audiences through their fashions. But they understand why the image of a pastor in expensive clothing on Instagram may induce skepticism, as it begs a bigger question. “How do we feel about how people in power are using their money?” they ask. “What we know about the story of Jesus was that he was good news to the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized.”
PreachersNSneakers does not merely showcase what pastors wear, but how much those items cost. “I think this is partly why this account has blown up because people had no idea what some of these items were worth,” Jones says, noting that posts featuring designer brands like Gucci or Balenciaga incite the most passionate reactions. In that context, the images call to mind the likes Joel Osteen or Creflo Dollar, Evangelical megachurch leaders who not only don’t apologize for their Rolls-Royces or McMansions, but point to them as symbols of God’s love — symbols that you too could obtain, if you follow their lead. Known as the prosperity gospel, that philosophy has been critiqued by many Christians.
However, Kelsey believes there’s a fine line in how much to criticize a pastor’s fashion choices. “Should we set a price limit? What is that?” he asks. “I think we get to really, I don’t know, interesting territory when we start to police and feel like leaders can’t just be themselves and express themselves.” Both he and McManus emphasize as well that critiquing one luxury item doesn’t take into account the bigger picture. “It’s not how much you have, it’s about how much you give,” McManus says.
And some streetwear-loving pastors would maintain they aren’t necessarily participating in lavish spending when they wear designer sneakers. Chad Veach claimed in an Instagram comment that he was gifted the high-end items he wore in a PreachersNSneakers post. “A lot of the shoes are just gifts,” confirms Kelsey, describing it as simply a byproduct of preaching to a young, urban and stylish crowd. “They know people in Nike, or they have a friend that has a connection, and they give them things.”
But that symbolizes a new kind of prosperity. It’s not about money, but coolness — a proximity to celebrity, to fashion, to the insider crowd. Jones notes that many pastors have been wearing shoes from Virgil Abloh’s “The Ten” collection, which are status symbols not merely for their price, but their scarcity.
“Off-White™ is the abundance of now,” Sandler says. “Yes, it’s about signifying knowledge and wealth, but I also think it’s about signifying an in our an out.”
For some of these pastors, these connections to the “in-crowd” goes beyond merely having a friend at Nike; Wilkerson officiated Kanye West and Kim Kardashian’s 2014 wedding and, along with Veach and Carl Lentz of Hillsong New York, forms part of Justin Bieber’s inner spiritual circle. Hillsong’s services also include reserved seats for celebrities.
“I think that there’s something about the church which is deeply exclusive even with its goals of inclusivity,” Sandler says. “You are in or you are out. You are saved or you are not.” Certainly fashion, and streetwear, know that tune all too well. And that access to the “inside” is perhaps more valuable to a generation conditioned to chase followers and likes than any amount of money could be.
You can keep your Supreme. Your Instagram. Your tattoos. Even your Dolce & Gabbana. You can wear them loud and proud, in fact. But at what point does a trendy new pair of sneakers simply serve to make “traditional” views more palatable? Does cultural relevance only apply so long as it doesn’t push back against patriarchal or homophobic teachings?
Church Clarity, an online database dedicated to cataloging churches’ stances on LGBTQ issues and the role of women in leadership, has found many of what it calls “celebrity churches” to be unclear on those topics. It’s simple enough to champion love and sisterhood on the surface, but the specifics are more conflicting. Veach, for example, has declined to speak on “lifestyle issues,” calling it “distracting,” while also quietly acting as executive producer for a movie that disavows same-sex attraction. Hillsong New York’s lead pastor Carl Lentz has spoken out against legislation advancing reproductive rights, and the church itself has encouraged its congregants to vote against legalizing same-sex marriage in Australia and maintains an eldership comprised exclusively of men.
The “cool” churches of today that peddle heteronormative ideals under a veneer of modernity are following the lead of their early 2000s counterparts. “You can be free to have tattoos, but you can’t be free to be equal in a relationship, or you can’t be free to be gay of course. You can’t even be free to consider in many cases birth control, much less abortion,” Sandler says of the Evangelical churches she reported on in Righteous.
That is not to say all modern megachurches are equally opaque on matters of equality. McManus maintains that Mosaic’s mission to be inclusive really does mean just that, noting that the church has women in leadership at every level and that its services welcome not only Christians, but atheists, Muslims and Buddhists. “I don’t have data on this, but I’m going to guess that we probably have more people who identify themselves in the gay community at Mosaic than probably any church in LA, just by the sheer virtue and the size of Mosaic,” he adds. “And so our posture has always been we’re for everybody.”
For Chung and Ye-Chung, the scrutiny on male pastors’ wardrobes does pave the way for a new sort of parity. “We’d also be interested in how women view this issue,” they say. “So much of church culture and history have been men commenting on what women should or shouldn’t wear. This feels like an interesting turn of events.”
When done correctly, the use of the right design, the right fashion, the right language, to speak your relevant audience can be deeply persuasive — whatever message lies underneath. Streetwear may be the aesthetic code that appeals most to today’s generation, but using style to advance an agenda is a strategy that both the right and the left have employed for decades. “In the ’60s, the left figured out that if you can connect meaning, and purpose, and identity to culture and community, you can do anything,” Sandler says. “The Christian right has just figured this out and they are doing it better than the left ever did. I think that that’s a lot of what’s happening here, is connecting identity, purpose, and meaning to culture and community.”
The Church of Streetwear is Now in Session
If your goal is to reach as many people as possible, why wouldn’t you pick up every tool available to do so? Celebrity, followers, influence, style — these are all natural allies to Evangelical Christianity, and allies that can be easily harnessed in the Instagram era. And streetwear is not simply the trendy packaging of the moment, it’s a fashion movement particularly well-suited to the goals of Christianity; it centers authenticity, relevance, community, and, yes, men, all crucial elements throughout the church’s history. “The goal of the Evangelist is to be the ultimate influencer, and this is how we influence now,” Sandler says.
However it’s no longer simply a matter of the church embracing streetwear, but streetwear embracing the church.
“What’s interesting is that I was asked to do this interview with a huge Christian magazine and I prefer doing it with HYPEBEAST, because I think HYPEBEAST is more relevant to the culture that I care about,” McManus says.
No one makes a better argument for the marriage of church and streetwear than one of today’s most important influencers: Kanye West. West has made allusions to Christianity throughout his whole career, but his Sunday Services take elements that may have once been confined to a song or an album and dials them up to a fully immersive, spiritual, and exclusive, experience. (But the masses who weren’t invited will still absorb the message on Instagram, YouTube and Twitter.)
Whether West is merely playing with symbolism, the way any artist does, or truly positioning himself as a spiritual leader is less clear. Are the hordes of mauve-clad Coachella followers a winking nod at cult-like attire, or the beginning of an actual, well, cult?
Actual pastors like Kelsey and McManus for now watch with hope and a grain of salt. “I think the search and the seeking of God is genuine for him, and he’s trying to figure out how to express what he’s beginning to discover,” Kelsey says. “But I’m praying that he gets a wise counsel to actually shepherd people the right way.”
Sartorially speaking at least, West is already leading his people down the path of “normcore holiness.” At his inaugural Something in the Water festival this April, Pharrell Williams not only wore a coveted “Church Merch” sweatshirt from Kanye’s Coachella Sunday Service, but installed his own pop-up church service. Kid Cudi’s collaboration with Cactus Plant Flea Market for Rolling Loud music festival features T-shirts with slogans like “Cudi Saves” and “Baptized in Fire.” If Kanye West says faith has a place in streetwear, who are we to argue?
“Streetwear felt like it had to go against the church, because the church was against the streets. Now it’s almost like they found each other again. I think it’s a beautiful convergence,” McManus says.