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How Fashion Is Helping Megachurch Pastors Reach A New Demographic

At a time when millennials are ditching religious gatherings, these men of the (very good) cloth are winning them back.

Hailey Baldwin considers "church wife" to be an aspirational look, according to her Twitter and her stylist's Instagram.

If you mostly know Baldwin through social media, which features myriad images of the model wearing scanty lingerie or revealing dresses, that may seem incongruous. But if you know the churches she's referencing — and the ministers that lead them — it's less surprising.

Megachurch pastors Carl Lentz, Chad Veach, Rich Wilkerson Jr. and Judah Smith may not be household names outside Christendom, but you can bet that Hailey Baldwin knows who they are. She, along with stars like Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Luka Sabbat and Khloe Kardashian, has attended their churches, been photographed with them repeatedly and shouted them out on social media.

With millennials leaving the American church "in droves," how do these pastors continue to draw thousands of young, culturally aware people to their Sunday worship services? The answer is complex, of course, but there's no doubt that fashion plays at least a supporting role.

Justin Bieber with Carl Lentz, shown wearing the buzzy Louis Vuitton x Supreme collaboration. Photo: Screenshot/YouTube

Justin Bieber with Carl Lentz, shown wearing the buzzy Louis Vuitton x Supreme collaboration. Photo: Screenshot/YouTube

"I remember hearing about this church called Hillsong from a coworker of mine," says celebrity tattoo artist Jonboy, who has inked the likes of Kendall Jenner, Sofia Richie, Bella Hadid and Zayn Malik. "And my first question was, 'Can I wear a hat?'"

For Jonboy, finding out that he could wear what he wanted to church — and seeing that Lentz, the lead pastor, had tattoos of his own — was enough to get him in the door. The sense of God's presence that he says he felt there is what made him stay. Jonboy, who "rededicated his life to Christ" after landing in a New York jail cell, has now been attending Hillsong for five or six years.

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It's not just that pastors like Lentz have tattoos, though. They also wear capital-F fashion. And while they may not talk much about the brands they wear or tag them on Instagram, those in the know can easily recognize Supreme, Common Projects, Gucci and more as their wardrobe staples. Fear of God is one brand that seems to inspire particular devotion from the four, perhaps in part due to the fact that the designer is an outspoken Christian who celebrates family birthdays with Veach and got to know Wilkerson through their mutual friend Kanye West. Saint Laurent is another all-around favorite, which may or may not have something to do with the fact that the CEO of Saint Laurent North America vacations with Lentz and his family.

Not all church attendees can afford to cop designer pieces like the ones they see worn behind the pulpit. But that doesn't stop their followers from emulating their pastors' looks.

"They're influencers for their own churches. It's really funny," says Clayton Chambers, a former buyer at Barneys New York and co-founder of a popular menswear blog. "People literally look just like how their leadership dresses." 

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That becomes a lot easier to pull off when their churches put out accessibly priced merch that the pastors themselves take to wearing, as has been the case with Wilkerson's Vous church (which partnered with Fear of God for merch designs a few years back) and Veach's Zoe church (which uses the same guy for its pop-ups that Kylie Jenner does to market her Lip Kits). Zoe's merch, in particular, inspired almost Supreme-like devotion from some fans, with proxies showing up to buy pieces for out-of-towners like Jonboy, who copped some even though he didn't attend the conference they were being sold at.

Judah Smith, left, with Justin Bieber in 2015. Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Judah Smith, left, with Justin Bieber in 2015. Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images

In short: these pastors are cool. So much so that the men in their congregations want to dress like them and the women in their congregations, à la Hailey Baldwin, want to dress like the women they marry. Interestingly enough, they're not quick to acknowledge their potential as fashion influencers and seem to have some ambivalence about how their style might affect their ministry.

"I don't see myself as an influencer in fashion at all," says Veach. "I've been just really blessed to have guys that are close friends in the industry." Still, he acknowledges that dressing a certain way can provide a quick "in" with people who might otherwise write him off. "If I walk into a place and I'm wearing something that makes people go, 'that's a cool outfit,' I am working with an advantage, rather than a disadvantage of like, 'man, those are really whack sneakers.'" 

Fear of God designer Jerry Lorenzo is similarly hesitant to call his famous pastor pals fashion influencers, but he acknowledges that there is something about their approach to getting dressed that communicates to people differently than their buttoned-up predecessors did.

"I don't know how much they influence their congregation or how much their congregation influences them, or if we're all just kind of in this thing together," he says. "But I think they're helping to make followers of Christ appear a little bit more comfortable and approachable."

That attitude isn't limited to pastors with celebrity congregants. Levi Lusko, Robert Madu, Micah Berteau and Chris Durso are representative of another group of pastors, who may not visibly hobnob with celebrities as much but who also preach to large congregations and love fashion. They are all adamant, as is Veach, that they participate in fashion because they genuinely enjoy it, not because they're trying to impress onlookers.

And it's a good thing, because the very things that seem to impress some people are a distinct turnoff to others. Every megachurch pastor has his share of detractors who see his affinity for expensive clothing and high-profile friendships as contrary to the way of Jesus of Nazareth, who often gravitated toward the poor and oppressed. Still, for those who experience fashion (or even fame) as inextricable from their careers and social circles but still want to be involved in a church, the leadership of these pastors may seem like proof that they don't need to leave the faith.

But ultimately, a compelling church service has to be about more than the brands that are worn onstage. Even Jonboy, who acknowledges that fashion provided an entry point for him when it came to re-engaging with church, argues that the message preached by someone like Lentz is strong enough to stand on its own, even sans the cool shoes and ripped jeans.

"Ultimately, what is our brand?" asks Veach. "Our brand is the gospel. Our brand is Jesus. We're trying to sell the good news of who Jesus is." If a hypebeast-worthy look is what makes you open to hearing about that, these guys are all for it.

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