Rich Wilkerson Jr., Kanye's Miami-Based Hipster Pastor, Preaches Controversial Brand of Christianity

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.

"The Pastor That Married Kim and Kanye Is Super Hot."

"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?"

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.

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Kyle Swenson

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