Rich Wilkerson Jr., Kanye's Miami-Based Hipster Pastor, Preaches Controversial Brand of Christianity
Rich Wilkerson Jr.
Photo by Stian Roenning
Here was the groom: poured into a slim Givenchy tux, hair mowed short, smile big. There was the bride: in Givenchy too — a white dress that modestly sheathed her Jessica Rabbit frame like cloud cover hiding an Alp. And there between the couple, his face bright as a polished coin, was a thin figure draped in white vestments trimmed with gold.
Before Heaven, Earth, and all of the telephoto lenses straining from a nearby hillside, Rich Wilkerson Jr. pronounced Kanye West and Kim Kardashian husband and wife.
It's not often that two of the most recognizable people on the planet get hitched — he, the most significant artist to rearrange the rap game in a decade; she, a reality star. When the pair strolled the aisle in a private ceremony in Florence on May 24, eager fingers the world over double-clicked "refresh" for the latest news. But there were few new details to report about the overexposed celebs. The soil had already been raked. So, post-Kimye, entertainment writers fixed their sights on the ceremony's man of God.
"A Star Rises From the Kimye Wedding," TMZ crowed in an article about Wilkerson. "The Pastor Who Officiated the KimYe Wedding Is Almost as Stylish as Kanye West," Complex announced. Buzzfeed's take: "Wait, the Pastor That Married Kim and Kanye Is Super Hot."
Back at Trinity Church in Miami Gardens, news crews filled the parking lot looking for details about Wilkerson. "Can I just ask," TMZ founder Harvey Levin gasped on the gossip site's television show, "is he going to get a reality show?"
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The 30-year-old pastor didn't exactly wilt amid the attention, because he isn't your average fourth-generation Pentecostal. He's a camera-ready natural charmer who lives in a sunny midtown Miami loft, knows the words to the hip-hop songs on the radio, and binge-watches HBO shows. He's not averse to the occasional beer, and he hangs at the members-only Soho Beach House (where memberships start at $1,000) when he's not jetting around the world for speaking engagements. And he preaches a decidedly open-door style of Christianity. "Everyone is welcome," Wilkerson announced earlier this summer from the stage of his church, a sentiment he repeats often. "I don't care about your religious background, sexual orientation, your skin color. You are welcome."
All of this places him at the front of a new wave of pastors rebranding the Christian message. Gone are old hymns, stodgy sermons, and xeroxed church bulletins; in are rap songs, Jackass-style stunts, and high-def video messages, all led by pastors wearing AG leather jackets and Chuck Taylors. The smiley, hip take on religion is a 180 from the evangelicals stomping outside abortion clinics or telling the world that God hates fags. And it seems to be working. Each week, around 1,000 young worshipers turn up at the Vous, Wilkerson's Tuesday-night service in Miami Gardens.
This new style of worship has also attracted a considerable number of megawatt celebrities, extending a bridge between the upper echelons of pop culture — so often seen as amoral, opulent, and sex-soaked — and the church world. It's a relationship that critics say is too cozy — Wilkerson and others water down strict Evangelical precepts for the sake of mainstream acceptance and turn down the volume on the Bible's harsher messages on topics like homosexuality, morality, and the End Times.
For Wilkerson, however, the moralistic gripes coming from his right are exactly why the church is in such an isolated state in the 21st Century.
"I think a lot of people would be cool with Jesus; they've just met too many Christians," he says. "That's ruined it for them."
The sanctuary at Trinity Church doesn't look like the standard house of God. On any given Tuesday night, machine-coughed clouds, thick as river mist, slink along the ceiling's exposed girders in the hangar-like room. Rap music blares. The 20- and 30-somethings streaming through the door, about 70 percent black and 30 white, look like they've come straight from their personal stylists. The guys are gym-fit, the women runway-ready.
During each service, a ten-piece band bangs through a set list: a few rockers caboosed by a power ballad that surges into a boisterous sing-along. In recent months, the themes of Wilkerson's sermons have been based on songs from the Top 40: Drake's "Worst Behavior," DJ Snake and Lil Jon's club thumper "Turn Down for What," Beyoncé's "Drunk in Love."
Onstage, Wilkerson has the same ease and energy as a practiced standup comic. Six-foot and change, with his sandy hair slicked into a retro swoop, he ranges the space, his voice — loose and twangy — scissoring apart the solemn church vibe of the room. "Dude," "bro," and "babe" stud his talk. His messages take surprising detours on their way to the Gospel. He might roll out a story about pissing his pants as a kid, talk about marital sex, or even point out the church's proximity to Miami's strip joints.
"I believe Tootsie's is going to be our next campus," Wilkerson kidded one Tuesday in August. "I'm just saying. I can't wait. It's already got a good stage, I hear. The lighting's great. I heard they got a sound system. I might even leave the pole on the stage. Turn it into a pulpit. I'll just redeem that thing. Turn down for what."
So, not your grandmother's church service. But despite the humor and levity, the church's focus remains the headlining bout between God and Satan for the eternal salvation or damnation of souls. Wilkerson's church, however, departs from tradition.
Trinity Church operates under the umbrella of Assemblies of God (AG), a broad coalition of Pentecostal congregations that bloomed in the early 1900s, preaching a message of racial reconciliation. Today, the organization claims to have 67.5 million members in 360,000 churches worldwide. In the United States, the AG says, 54 percent of its adherents are under 35.
Salvation, according to the Assemblies' doctrine, is up to each person, who has the free will to choose God or not. According to the AG's "fundamental truths," this involves "trusting Christ, through faith and repentance, to be our personal Savior." Baptism is typically performed only on teenagers and adults who can make a conscious, informed choice.
DawnCheré and Rich Wilkerson Jr. will soon have their own reality TV show, tentatively titled The Wilkersons.
Photo by Stian Roenning
The Assemblies believe in some aspects of the faith that other corners of the Christian world tiptoe away from. The church's doctrine speaks of "divine healing for the sick" and holds that "the initial physical evidence of the baptism in the holy spirit is 'speaking in tongues'" — when a person is flooded with the Holy Spirit and utters unintelligible speech. After accepting God, churchgoers spend their lives working toward sanctification, the process of living more Christlike. Believers go to Heaven. For nonbelievers, there's "a punishing lake of fire."
"AG churches do not have a liturgy, and the structure of services may vary greatly," explains Mark Forrester, director of public relations with the Assemblies of God's general council. "But we all agree on these basic tenets of faith."
These spiritual roots translate into conservative politics. In the past two years, the Assemblies of God has come out publicly against the Boy Scouts of America for allowing gay members and against the Obama administration's mandate that health insurance plans cover contraceptives.
Wilkerson says the doctrinal fine print and the politics of the Assemblies of God don't seep into what he does on a weekly basis. "My message has been for the common person, the person who's far from God, the people here tonight who've never been to church in their life," he explains one evening after the Vous. "I'm always trying to take the complex and make it really, really simple."
He says salvation is two-pronged. It starts with simply declaring that you're ready to follow Jesus. "We believe that Jesus saves, and when you confess, you put your trust in Him, you repent of your sin, ask forgiveness, and your sins are forgiven," he says. "That's salvation for us."
This big spiritual moment happens at each service but is so subtle that you might miss it if you don't know what you're looking at. Toward the end of each Tuesday, Wilkerson or one of the other Vous preachers asks audience members to close their eyes and bow their heads. After some prayer, with keyboard tinkling in the background, the speaker, in a voice as soft as a meditation tape, asks for the people in the audience who want to confess themselves believers to raise their hands. Each night, arms flick up — that is the moment of confession, of declaring yourself.
After that, "the ball's in their court," the pastor explains. Although the church prefers members to get water baptized, it's not necessary for salvation. Members at Trinity do speak in tongues, and Wilkerson has himself, but the pastor says it's not necessary once you've accepted Jesus. "I know there are people who say you haven't really encountered God until you speak in tongues," he says. "That's dumb. Then there are people who say you should never do it. No one is exactly right."
The church offers seven-week crash courses in Christian doctrine for new believers as well as weekly Bible meetings. The network is set up to help someone slowly steer his or her behavior in a more godly way — the second, long-term part of salvation.
"Sanctification, becoming like Jesus, I think that takes time," Wilkerson says. "These things that don't line up with God's word — sex before marriage, pride in the heart, unrighteous anger, gossip — changing that behavior is a process. It's not overnight."
Sin, as Wilkerson often says in his messages, isn't a weighted point system. Sex before marriage, for example, doesn't put you any more in the spiritual hole than gossiping about your neighbor. It's all equal in God's eyes. The white liar and the serial philanderer with a private library of sex tapes are all the same at the Vous. The understanding is that everyone trying to climb up to higher moral ground is going to slip, mess up, sin again.
"We have a church where it's really, really comfortable to be on that journey," Wilkerson explains. "You're not being judged for not being Jesus the next week. There's a come-as-you-are mentality."
And although his rhetoric isn't smoking with fire and brimstone, Wilkerson believes in a hell — not necessarily an actual lake of fire but an eternal separation from God. "I don't know who's going to hell. I just know that followers of Jesus are going to Heaven — that's what the Bible says," he explains. "My message isn't ever who's going where."
The minister's kid just wanted to dance. Back in Tacoma, Washington, Rich Wilkerson Jr. grew up locked down with a lot of rules. No Nirvana CDs or other secular music. No cartoons, not even The Smurfs (because there was a wizard). And no dance parties. But for his 13th birthday party, the family's second oldest begged his mom, Robyn, to let him have a DJ. She relented. "But it had to be a Christian DJ who only played Christian music," Wilkerson says today. "So my first slow dance was to 'Our God Is an Awesome God.' It was the most embarrassing moment of my life."
Wilkersons are a long-stretching line of holy men that goes all the way back to Wilkerson's great-grandfather, a tubercular Tennesseean who used whiskey to soothe his condition until falling in with Pentecostals. His grandfather John crisscrossed the world on constant mission work. David Wilkerson, Rich Jr.'s second cousin, became one of the best-known pastors in the country during the 1960s after opening a Times Square church and ministering to NYC gang members. And Rich's dad, Rich Sr., went to Bible college in Texas and then became a pastor in Tacoma. "The Wilkersons have always been connected with the down-and-out," Rich Sr. says proudly.
Rich Sr. was constantly on the road in the '90s. He was a hot ticket in the evangelical world thanks to the "illustrated sermons" he'd put on, his live-action version of the Gospel. Instead of just preaching a well-worn message like the Good Samaritan story, Wilkerson would roar motorcycles through the sanctuary, throw in some fake gunfire, and show passersby ignoring a drive-by victim gushing fake blood on the imaginary sidewalk. The invites poured in. Today, he estimates he's put 3.5 million air miles on his odometer.
Wilkerson's onstage antics include swallowing a goldfish.
Photo by Alex Markow
The bubble wrap of a happy childhood popped in 1998, when Rich Sr. announced the family was moving across the country to take over the reins at an all-black church in Miami Gardens. Sr.'s road show was getting flak: Wilkerson was all show, people said. He blows in to struggling communities, blows out, and doesn't stick it out for the heavy spiritual lifting required of ministering in bad areas, followers whispered.
"I would burn when I heard that," Rich Sr. says. "On the inside, I wouldn't feel very Christian." Then the opportunity in Florida opened up. It wasn't an easy move. The congregation of 300 was skeptical of the new preacher.
"The natural response was 'Who are these people, and what are their true intentions?'" says Terrence Wilson, a 33-year-old pastor at the church who grew up going to Trinity. "That came to light really quick when we realized how fast and willing they were to get dirty."
Members of the church would spot Rich Sr. scooping up trash from the parking lot when he wasn't preaching. Rich Jr. was cutting the grass every week. Rich and Robyn had to open their own wallets at Publix each week for the church's food line. They had a stabbing in the line the first year. It was hard on the family.
Fourteen-year-old Rich was sandwiched between two worlds: the only white kid every week in Trinity's Bible study, then one of many wealthy white school kids at Westminster Academy in Fort Lauderdale. Jason Kennedy, now an E! News anchor and close Wilkerson friend, was two years ahead at the school. He remembers the Leonardo DiCaprio doppelganger who played water polo, hooked the eye of the girls in the class, and always seemed pointed toward preaching. "He wasn't a wild guy, just your typical high-schooler," Kennedy says, recalling that whenever Wilkerson hit a spot of trouble or messed up, he'd always brush it off, saying, "Man, I'm getting material I can preach about when I'm a pastor."
Wilkerson says he wasn't always sure about entering the family business. "In my teenage years, I strayed a little bit," he says, admitting to some drinking and partying. "I was trying to fit in." But at 17, Wilkerson was sitting in the second row of a large Bible conference in Australia when he heard God speaking to him — asking him why he was running away. Right then, he decided to preach.
The route took him to Lee University in Tennessee, where he picked up a business degree and political science minor. By then, he'd met a beautiful blond former Christian recording artist named DawnCheré Duron, who came from her own long line of pastors in Baton Rouge. As the couple tried to figure out postcollege plans, Wilkerson's family name alone was enough to put high-paying preaching gigs in his reach. Instead, he decided to return to Trinity. The aim: to start a service for 20- and 30-somethings — the juicy demographic missing from church life nationwide. He decided to call it the Rendezvous — or the Vous, for short.
Encircling himself with a team that included his now-wife DawnCheré and Wilson, Wilkerson began his Tuesday-night service in 2007. It belly-flopped.
"There were low points every week," Wilson says. "We might have had 20 people sitting there. We put up dividers to block out the rest of the room. We didn't want to look at empty chairs, because it made us feel terrible."
So Wilkerson reached for a new idea. He called it a Compel Night. If they could just get people in the door, he figured, they'd click with the Christian message. The door was the problem.
Wilkerson said if 300 people showed at the Vous, he'd eat a goldfish. They spread word on MySpace, handed out fliers at Walmart. On the night in question, Wilkerson's left hand slammed the wiggling fish into his mouth before he downed a heavy gulp off a water bottle and whooped like he'd just nailed a buzzer-beating three to win the game. The house was packed.
Wilkerson and his team began stripping all the old trappings out of their service and relentlessly adding more elements of pop culture, from video promos and contemporary music to a full Christian rock music band and eventually an offering service that lets people donate money with a smart phone app. Rich Sr., who remained the head pastor, embraced the changes.
"We are just not into religion, so anything that smacks of religion is kind of anathema to us," Rich Sr. says. "Millennials do not roll with that old religious stuff."
More guerrilla marketing followed. On another night, Rich Jr. buzzed off all his hair. In an attempt to get 2,000 people to a later event, he was zapped with a stun gun. He also led parishioners on punishing 40-day liquid-only fasts.
"The whole point about it was the heart," he explains. "We were young people, so whatever it takes to get someone to church tonight, we're willing to do it — other than blasphemy."
In the middle of the show at Seattle's Key Center, the first stop on Kanye West's Yeezus tour, a tall figure in robes walked across the stage to West.
"White Jesus, is that you?" West asked. "I been looking for you my whole life."
"But I found you," Jesus says to Yeezus. "I've been here the whole time."
It was October 2013, and this was the preamble to a performance of West's song "Jesus Walks." ("The way school need teachers/The way Kathie Lee needed Regis/that's the way I need Jesus.") Grainy cell-phone footage of the fake Jesus kudzued on the web. Debate flamed: Was West a genius or a blasphemer?
Asked whether it was blasphemous to use Jesus as a character in a rap production, West told a San Francisco radio station, "I talked to my friend Pastor Rich that has the church down in Miami and asked him about it. And my girl asked him separately too, 'Do you think that's kinda weird like that?' He said, 'Look, we have plays where people play Jesus. We have people who rep that.'"
Services feature live music, and some parishioners speak in tongues.
Photo by Alex Markow
That shock gave way to another: Kanye West — the same Louis Vuitton don who memorably spit "I am a god/Hurry up with my damn croissants" — had a friend who was a pastor? By association, was this pastor rubber-stamping a life of sins like pride, greed, and out-of-wedlock sex?
For the most part, Wilkerson keeps an omerta about his celebrity friendships — particularly this one. "[Kanye] is a very private person, and I want to honor that," he says. But he reveals a little:
Wilkerson met "Ye," as he calls him, two years back, when a Trinity regular in the rapper's circle brought him to a service. "We just became friends. I know that sounds so weird to people, but we talked in the back and started emailing." The rapper started flying into Miami on Sundays to check out services. Kim came along as well. Kim and Kanye have even hung out at Wilkerson's parents' house in Aventura. When West was readying the Yeezus tour, Wilkerson collaborated on some dialogue for the bits between songs and hung around backstage during tour stops.
Celebrities have been a part of the Vous' taking off. A quick scan of Wilkerson's Instagram feed shows just the latest to pass through the door: R&B crooner Maxwell, new Miami Heat player Luol Deng, former Real Housewife Larissa Pippen, NFL legend Clinton Portis, TV host Giuliana Rancic. His hip style is part of the draw, and Wilkerson's focus on the journey toward sanctification — the idea that everyone is trying to do better but will likely screw up along the way — comes off as open-armed and nonjudgmental.
"People feel safe with Rich," Kennedy says. "People know, celebrity or not, that if you have a conversation with Rich, he's going to keep that private. He's fiercely protective of his friendships. When he did the Kim and Kanye wedding, I knew he wasn't going to tell me anything about it, so I didn't ask him anything."
Wilkerson isn't alone in preaching a happy version of Christianity. Texas preacher Joel Osteen — a Wilkerson family friend — is known for his "prosperity gospel" based on the idea that God wants his children to be wealthy and content. Adherents have eaten up the message; Osteen's books are perennial bestsellers, and his net worth is an estimated $40 million to $60 million.
Wilkerson's peers are drawing notable crowds with an everyone's-welcome, it's-all-good message. A 35-year-old pastor named Judah Smith holds a weekly Bible study at the Beverly Hills Montage Hotel that pulls industry figures including Selena Gomez. Carl Lentz, also in his mid-30s, runs Hillsong NYC; his Manhattan branch of the Australian megachurch has been likened to a nightclub, with 6,000 attendees packing six sermons each Sunday. Celebripunk Justin Bieber and NBA baller Kevin Durant were both baptized by Lentz.
"I don't think it should be a drag going to church," says Chris Durso, pastor of Misfits NYC, a similarly attuned congregation. "What we're trying to do — and Rich is doing a phenomenal job at this — is make it a joy to come to church. A great way to do that is to talk to people in a way that they get. A mistake we make is we make it about old tradition and culture, instead of keeping up with the times."
But if you haul the church closer to the culture, there's bound to be friction. Brett McCracken, an L.A.-based journalist, looked deeply at the new wave of churches adopting edgy messages and mainstream themes to attract a younger audience in a 2010 book, Hipster Christianity. He found that the essence of what's cool — ephemeral and self-gratifying — can run counter to the Bible's messages.
"A lot of the churches accomplish the goal of removing barriers of getting people into church. Some people who might never walk into a cathedral or church might actually walk into one of these hip churches," McCracken says. "There is a good contingent of evangelical people who do see this stuff and feel like it's a slippery slope, that we're selling out for the sake of 'cool.'"
Fergusson MacRay is harsher in his criticism: "To call these men pastors and their clubs churches is misleading to the general community and an insult to Christianity," spits the blogger, who runs Hillsong Church Watch, a website devoted to calling out contemporary preachers for flabby doctrine.
In an email, MacRay points out that traditional church services follow tight scripts. They emphasize man's fall from Eden and humanity's subsequent sinful state, God's wrath, and man's need to turn away from sin and believe in Jesus. "They would ALWAYS emphasize that Christ has done the work and has saved people in his grace and mercy — not by our own works," MacRay writes.
But the "New Age purpose-driven teachings" preached by contemporaries "are all about you living your best life now," the blogger charges. The music, jokes, and positive messages make the "audience feel good throughout and not really cause people to think things through." The message isn't about God and his word but "about you and what you must do to get a better life."
These preachers self-indulgently weave personal stories into their gospel message, MacRay says, and the moments in these services when people raise their hands isn't a true declaration for God but "proof to propel the preacher to success," where "they will play sappy music to manipulate people into believing that God is speaking to their hearts" and "dim the lights to emphasize intimacy."
"It's like comparing chalk to cheese," MacRay writes. "Wilkerson shows no biblical nor Christian depth behind the pulpit."
Nowhere is the tug of war between the purists in the Christian ranks and groundbreakers more apparent than on social issues. As McCracken's book points out, young preachers doing big numbers rarely get political. When asked about a powder-keg issue like whether homosexuality is a sin or should gays marry, Wilkerson declines to answer.
"At our church, homosexuality is not a topic I like to chat about very much, but I don't talk about a whole lot of issues," he admits. "I talk about what Jesus is for, not what he's supposedly against."
Photo by Alex Markow
He goes on calmly: "We deal with those case by case with people. I think it ends up becoming a topic that really only becomes a negative instead of a real conversation. What I mean by that is, somehow a person's behavior ends up representing their identity, and then good or bad, whether you agree or disagree, you end up standing for that person's identity or against. And I just don't ever want to be in that position."
The Assemblies of God, however, makes it clear on its website that it sees the gay lifestyle as immoral and has issued statements against organizations like the Boy Scouts of America and World Vision, a Christian humanitarian aid organization, after both altered their policies in a gay-friendly way.
But Wilkerson doesn't go there. He seems, however, to recognize the fault line he's standing on. "No matter what you write," he explains, "talking about homosexuality and bringing me into it, it's going to end up creating more backlash than it is positive. That's a sad thing to me. I don't think the church at large and our country have done a very good job at holding a good conversation."
The Kimye wedding egged on a new round of haters: "Didn't Kanye do some blasphemous tour called 'Yeezus'??," a comment on the Christian website RaptureInTheAirNow.com wondered. "Why didn't this 'pastor' have any conviction about this?? Is he a wolf in sheep's clothing?"
"Kanye West does not appear to be willing or in the state of grace to make him capable of loving his wife as Christ loves the church," another conservative blogger, Robert Reynolds, wrote. "Or how about Kim. She was made famous because of a sex-tape in 2007, posed nude for Playboy the same year, and is now married for the third time... The fact remains that Mr. Wilkerson Jr. officiated (approved) the third marriage of a porn star to an incredibly perverse artist."
The idea that a man of God shouldn't be hanging with foul-mouthed rappers or decadent celebs doesn't faze Wilkerson. "People are like, 'How can a pastor [do that]?' But if I can't even be in that space, I can't even get a chance to have a voice to be heard. Ye has just given me a voice at times to talk about stuff. And Ye knows where him and I differ on things. And Ye knows my standards, and I think I know who Ye is, and I think he's on a journey.
"When we sit down and talk, we talk about Jesus, the Gospel, life, being a husband," Wilkerson explains. "Do we agree about everything? No. I don't think he agrees with me on everything. Who said we have to agree on everything to accept people?"
All these critical barbs share the same launch pad: the idea that a true believer would stay clear of secular culture, lest he dirty his white robes in the mainstream muck. Wilkerson couldn't disagree more.
"I think for a long time, the church ran from culture," he explains. "I want to run to culture, to engage culture. Do I agree with everything in culture? Absolutely not. But my whole message is you can't really change something you're not a part of."
About the only part of the whole Kimye experience that seems to have sent him for a loop is how much he was personally caught up in the ten-ton bomb of tabloid attention. "I didn't know People magazine would be doing an article," he says. "I didn't know TMZ would care about me. I got caught off-guard when Good Morning America wanted to do something. I didn't anticipate that, and we weren't ready for that."
Although Wilkerson downplays any effect his flash appearance in celebrity journalism may have had, other leaders at the Vous say there's been a slight jump in attendance over the summer.
Wilkerson's iPhone calendar is now full with more speaking engagements than ever. In July alone, his globe-hopping for speaking engagements took on Carmen Sandiego-ish proportions: London, the Florida Panhandle, Laguna Beach, the Hamptons, Arkansas, New York City, New Zealand. For the past four years, the Vous has held an annual conference at the Fillmore Miami Beach. Wilkerson is eyeing one day filling American Airlines Arena.
His first book, a meditation on the four stories from the Gospel of Luke, is set to be published late this year by Thomas Nelson. "But we have all sorts of crazy dreams," he says. "Making movies, doing clothes."
And finally, yes, he's getting that reality show: Last week, Oxygen announced it would produce a show filming Wilkerson and his wife's lives. The program, executive-produced by E!'s Jason Kennedy, has already shot some material.
All of this means Wilkerson might be on track to become a skinny-jeans Joel Osteen.
"Do I want to be Joel Osteen?" Wilkerson asks. "I can't. Only Joel can. I want to be me. But I think any real evangelist wants maximum impact. So yeah," he thinks for a beat. "But will it look like that? I don't think so."
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