With a fresh approach to both dress and doctrine, and famous friends like Justin Bieber and Kanye West, these ministers are making the Bible thump.
Miami’s Jackie Gleason Theater is packed. Not just with thousands of people, but with the din of excitement and anticipation. “Make some noise!” cries Rich Wilkerson Jr. clutching not one, but two microphones. The crowd answers his request with a swell of applause and cheers. From his perch on a balcony above the crowd, Wilkerson makes his way down to the main floor to stand before an eagerly awaiting public. He takes the stage sporting suede boots, skinny drawstring Fear Of God pants, a reverse-layered faded black T-shirt and sweater, and a thin silver chain. With help from a world tour-ready sound system, Wilkerson commands the crowd like a charismatic conductor, motivating them to both thunderous cheers and introspective silence. But it’s not a rock concert, and Wilkerson Jr. isn’t a world-renowned musician. “Who’s happy to be in church?” Wilkerson half asks, half proclaims. It’s the first night of the 2015 Vous Conference (short for “rendezvous”), a 6-year-old “half ratchet, half righteous” three-day Christian meet-up that brings in guests from around the world to the iconic South Beach stage, and Wilkerson Jr. is just getting warmed up.
Wilkerson Jr., 31, comes out of Miami’s Trinity Church, helmed by his father and lead-pastor Rich Wilkerson Sr. One of the city’s most well known places of worship, the 55-year-old Christian church is where Wilkerson Jr. got his start, initially leading the “Rendezvous”—a gathering geared towards young adults in the Trinity congregation. Since its inception in 2007, the Rendezvous has grown from hosting 60 attendees to over 1,300 visitors weekly. Currently, Wilkerson Jr. leads his own ministry with Vous Church in Miami, under the Trinity Church banner. That reach, on top of his over 171,000 Instagram followers, his book, Sandcastle Kings: Meeting Jesus in a Spiritually Bankrupt World (which features cover art designed by Kanye West and the Donda Creative Team), and his upcoming Oxygen network reality show Rich in Faith (premiering on Dec. 9 at 10 p.m.) have made Wilkerson Jr. a key figure in a group of pastors who are shaking up Christianity today.
By at least some measures, the Christian faith could use a shake-up. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in May, the percentage of American adults who call themselves Christians has sunk from 78.4 percent in 2007 to 70.6 percent in 2014. Conversely, the number of adults who are religiously unaffiliated (atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular”) has risen from 16.1 percent to 22.8 percent over the same period. Even as older millennials (born between 1981 to 1989) age, they’re less likely to adopt religion.
Wilkerson Jr., Judah Smith of Seattle’s The City Church, and Carl Lentz of Hillsong NYC, are appealing to a younger demographic by talking, and yes, dressing, like their flock. Judging by their famous parishioners, the appeal is working. Justin Bieber, who was originally introduced to Pastor Smith through his mother via sermons on tape, was coming off a tumultuous past couple years in his life that saw the pop star experience everything from a breakup with longtime girlfriend Selena Gomez, to two-year’s probation after egging his neighbor’s house.
While Bieber didn’t originally reach for the counsel of these spiritual leaders, he credits the support of Smith and Lentz while he was finding his way back into the fold. “Through [my] hard stage, they kind of stuck around,” Bieber told Complex about his time with Smith and Lentz. “They were basically loving me from a distance, not judging me…I always respect that. When I got back to figuring some stuff out, I immediately gave them a call, like, ‘Yo guys, sorry for being a dick.’ They were kind of like, ‘No bro,’ and invited me to come hang with them. My life hasn’t been the same since.”
Stepping out to packed auditoriums wearing brands like Saint Laurent and Dries Van Noten, this new guard of swaggy preachers don’t just look different than the stereotypically buttoned-up men of God, they’re also reaching younger audiences in a way that their predecessors simply aren’t. The major cities where they speak—Miami, New York, and Seattle—host multiple Sunday services with packed houses full of attentive listeners. With a natural and genuine interest in popular style and culture, along with a more contemporary perspective, they’re changing how the current youth generation relates to Christianity.
Jerry Lorenzo, designer of Fear Of God, one of the most recognizable brands of the year, counts these pastors as both friends and advisors; Wilkerson Jr. officiated Lorenzo’s recent wedding, along with the wedding of their mutual friend, Kanye West. For him, their clear recognition of popular culture and fashion is a window into what they teach every Sunday.
“It’s important to be able to relate to your pastor on many levels; whether it’s style or whether it’s things happening in culture, [including] religion and your beliefs,” says Lorenzo. “Having this relatable, approachable appearance is a way to immediately tear down a lot of walls between you and the people you’re trying to reach.”
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