The New York Times reported last weekend on a surprising development out of Los Angeles: There is a pastor in that fair city who dresses not like Ward Cleaver, but like a Supreme model. His name is Chad Veach, and he is the founder and head pastor of the fast-growing Zoe Church—pronounced “zo-AY, like, be-yon-SAY,” as Veach likes to say. (Note: That is not, as far as I know, how you pronounce Beyoncé.)
To be fair, the Times piece probes beyond Veach’s on-trend streetwear and friendship with Justin Bieber, and delves into his church’s growth strategy along with where Zoe fits into the larger landscape of 21st century evangelicalism. Still, Veach and his fellow Instagram-savvy pastors have been relentlessly covered by the secular press since they emerged on the scene a few years ago. The crew also includes Judah Smith, who texts Bible verses to Bieber; Rich Wilkerson Jr., who has discussed Bieber’s faith with Entertainment Tonight; and Carl Lentz, who baptized Bieber in Tyson Chandler’s bathtub. GQ called the crew “hypepriests” last year, noting that Veach favors Fear of God hats, Vans, and long socks, with occasional pops of Bieber tour gear. Veach and his cohort seem to have converted as many style writers as they have souls. “Is church merch the next big thing in streetwear?” Fashionista asked last year.
Historians, surely, can trace the cool-pastor phenomenon back to first-century Galilee. In the 1990s, there were “new and edgy” Acquire the Fire rallies to attract teenagers to the faith. In the 1960s, there was the Jesus Movement, which combined counterculture aesthetics and conservative theology. In the 1940s and 1950s, it was organizations like Youth for Christ and Young Life, which appealed to teens through energetic rallies and campus Bible clubs.
Meanwhile, the media has been covering trendy young pastors for more than a century. “AN EQUESTRIAN PASTOR,” a headline in the Times blared back in 1896. The story was about A.W. Bertram, a bachelor pastor on Long Island who was scandalizing locals with his “daring riding, fashionable dress, and manner of conducting his church.” Staid parishioners sniffed at his flashy attire:
He began to patronize fashionable haberdashers and custom tailors in New-York, with the result of adding great artificial adornments to his naturally attractive person. He began trimming his Hamburg whiskers in Lord Dundreary style; he wore spike-toed patent-leather shoes, striped shirt fronts, a silk hat, and carried himself with a Beau Brummel air.
Behold, dear brethren, a random sampling of press from just the last decade or so:
2007, Time: “ ‘Man!’ says [pastor Rob] Bell. ‘Can I hear it? Can I hear the demo?’ The congregant, an affable young part-time musician named Joel, who dresses like a long-lost Ramone, mumbles bashfully, ‘I can burn you one.’ ‘Great!’ exclaims Bell, whose geeky-hip glasses, black pants, black shirt and polyester white belt make their own statement. ‘Hey, man,’ he adds, ‘I saw the Arctic Monkeys.’ ”
2010, New York magazine: “[Pastor Jay Bakker is] thinking about just how much RELIGION DESTROYS, as a tattoo close to his armpit reads, and how seriously, seriously fucked up that is.”
2014, Inquisitr: “Rob Popejoy doesn’t look like your ordinary priest. Instead of wearing the usual garments that you would associate with a man of the cloth, the 30-year-old rocks a long beard, has copious amount of tattoos and loves to ride his motorbike. But don’t let all of that fool you — the part-time model still takes his role very seriously.”
2015, Washington Post: “This tattooed, profanity-loving Lutheran pastor wants nothing more than to tell it like it is.”
2015, Salt Lake Tribune: “Facing a crowd of wedding-goers crammed into Park City’s Temple Har Shalom, the Chicago-born, guitar-playing, skateboarding, hipster rabbi stood on the bima (platform), dressed in a traditional yarmulke and prayer shawl.”
2017, Splinter: “Pastor Kelsey, in a sermon at the Bowery Ballroom, compared buy-in to the church to the difference between owning an apartment and being a guest at an Airbnb.”
There’s a reason the cool-dude minister is a recurring figure. Religious leaders have to appeal to people in order to do their jobs—a shepherd without a flock is just a guy with a cane—and in the expansive marketplace of American religion, there are almost infinite ways to do so. This is particularly true within Protestantism, which has no central pope-like authority, and even more true within nondenominational evangelicalism, in which each pastor is his own PR guy. It’s a phenomenon that has been exacerbated by the decline of denominational affiliation: The less people who are raised Lutheran feel obligated to attend a specifically Lutheran church, the more these people are free to pick a church based on factors like its music, its demographics, or its pastor’s charisma.
Is it news, then, when a pastor wears something other than pleated khakis in 2018? No. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to report on each successive wave of hipster pastors, particularly the successful ones. In between posting Instagram stories, Veach and his peers are attracting many thousands of young people each week to their churches. That’s not just a trend, it’s a movement.