It’s hard to believe that someone other than the bride and groom could garner any attention—it was Kim and Kanye, after all—but it didn’t take long after their May 24th wedding for word to spread about their hot pastor. Rich Wilkerson met the Kardashian Wests two years ago when Kanye just sort of wandered into the church. On Sunday, Kardashian posted a picture to Instagram of herself, her sister Kourtney, Wilkerson, and his wife Dawnchere, among others. The caption read: “The family that prays together stays together. Such a great night @richwilkersonjr #Church.”
Wilkerson looks like a combination of Eric Dane and Leonardo DiCaprio, and you get the feeling he’s keenly aware of that. His 47,000 Instagram followers see a stream full of Wilkerson’s celebrity friends, encouragements to make his ministry’s worship CD hit #1 on iTunes, and stylized renderings of sermon topics (including his profile picture, a photo of Leo in The Great Gatsby with Wilkerson’s face photoshopped in). He’s the associate pastor of Trinity Church Miami (his parents, Rich Sr. and Robyn, are the church’s senior pastors.) Wilkerson and DawnChere (who is also a worship pastor), lead the church’s young adult ministry, The Rendezvous.
In an interview with CBS Miami, Wilkerson said that Trinity Church was for everyone, “from the nameless to the famous.” Wilkerson has done an especially good job with the latter by all accounts, keeping tabs on his encounters with Giuliana Rancic, model Lauren Scruggs and her fiancé Jason Kennedy, and Kimye. The nameless? Not so easy to find on Wilkerson’s social media outlets.
This is one of the trickiest parts of talking about public figures in faith. Wilkerson is clearly enamored of his church community, and his care and boldness can be inspiring. I want to figure out a way to talk about that while also talking about what seems to be a preoccupation with image that can lead to a kind of tribalism within the church (wherein whether you wear skinny jeans determines what church you attend) and, on a deeper level, can turn people away from God by obscuring God’s mystery in favor of something a little too slick to hold onto.
Wilkerson certainly isn’t the only pastor to find himself embracing his contemporary cultural aesthetic and values. The Jesus People never could have happened without the political sentiments of the 1970s; Billy Graham was swayed by Cold War rhetoric; even Mister Rogers (a Presbyterian minister) donned ‘80s-appropriate cardigans. But seeing a pastor like Wilkerson, in our day and age, so carefully cultivating his image via Twitter and Instagram makes me wonder what people see first when they see him. Do they see a humble, modest, gracious servant of God? Or do they see someone whose need to document celebrity encounters and jet-set vacations gets in the way of the God who told his followers “I do not give as the world gives?”
This topic is particularly interesting to me because I am someone who feels the pull of a lovely image. I am not and never will be one of those people who can truly claim not to care what other people think of me, and I think it gets in the way of my authentic relationship with God. Christians are people who, in our way, are a little bit foolish. So I know when I feel the tendency to project a smooth, elegant image to the world, I am probably not living most as the person I want to be. I don’t know Rich Wilkerson, but I do know that I would have a hard time bringing a problem or fear or imperfection to someone with an image so radically polished as his.
It’s not that it’s a bad thing to be friends with or pastor to celebrities. I think it’s great that Kim and Kanye and Giuliana and Jason and all the rest attend church. It’s making church a place to be cool that does serious damage.