Celeb pastor, savvy social media, chill vibe: How this Miami church keeps growing

The charismatic pastor — celebrity-adjacent since officiating the A-list marriage of Kim and Kanye a decade ago — mingles with church volunteers, looking every bit the cool Miami bro in T-shirt, shorts and sunglasses.

Stylish young families stroll through a courtyard set up like a farmers market with tents, but instead of fresh produce one offers free coffee and another peddles church merch. A branded hoodie goes for $70.

Inside the auditorium of the Little Haiti charter school the church leases for services, a casually dressed female preacher delivers a sermon reminiscent of a TedTalk, pacing the stage in front of large video screens displaying rotating Bible verses. A multicultural group of singers then performs a bouncy call-and-response: “He’s coming back! One day!” The congregation joins in, some worshiping with arms outstretched, as staff photographers capture images that may soon feed the church’s social media streams.

It’s another Sunday morning at VOUS — one of the fastest-growing churches in South Florida — and the spiritual vibe is chill.

VOUS isn’t your grandmother’s church and some internet critics turn up their digital noses at its breezy form of Christianity and prolific social media promotion, one summing it up on Reddit as a “church started for the Tik Tokers.”

But there is no dismissing its success. Earlier this year, VOUS opened a fourth church in Miami Gardens, pulling in new and mostly young people in an era where many traditional legacy churches are shrinking and struggling to recruit new members.

A congregant hold her hand up while worshiping at a VOUS service on Palm Sunday in Miami Gardens.
A congregant hold her hand up while worshiping at a VOUS service on Palm Sunday in Miami Gardens.

College students Jeraldine and Jeraltine Saint Gilles enjoy the sermons and the music, but it’s the people that draw the 21-year-old twins back each week.

“You can feel guilt, shame, you can feel anxiety… But once you enter VOUS church, it kind of goes away, because it’s kind of a community, a family,” Jeraldine said. “People will pray for you. People will guide you, people will look at you and smile.”

Pastor to the stars

The senior pastor and face of VOUS is Rich Wilkerson Jr., 40, who sets the laid-back tone of VOUS and has a relaxed telegenic presence that has put him in the spotlight outside of South Florida.

Ordaining the 2014 wedding of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West was the gig that raised his profile outside of religious circles and he’s since cultivated a number of other famous followers and friends. He once appeared on a short-lived reality TV show called “Rich in Faith,” has name-dropped stars like Leonardo DiCaprio in his sermons and even went ‘live’ on Instagram with buddy Justin Beiber during the pandemic.

He and other church leaders declined weeks of requests for interviews with the Miami Herald. But politely.

“At this time, we will not be participating in any interviews. We appreciate your understanding,” replied Chris Lopez, VOUS’ general manager, in an email. “Have a blessed week!”

Wilkerson comes from a family of Evangelical preachers. His father, Rich Wilkerson Sr., a Pentecostal minister and Christian author, led Trinity Church in Miami for over 25 years. Three out of four Wilkerson sons are preachers. There’s Pastor Rich Wilkerson in Miami, Taylor Wilkerson who leads Trinity church in New York City, and Jonfulton who leads Pacific Coast Church in Washington.

The vision for VOUS was born out of a young adult gathering called “The Rendezvous,” according to a mission statement on VOUS’ website, a program that Wilkerson Jr. led out of his father’s church for several years.

Wilkerson Jr. established VOUS along with his wife and co-lead pastor DawnCheré Wilkerson in 2015 — back when the services were held in Jose De Diego Middle School in Wynwood. Since then, VOUS has expanded to permanent locations in South Miami, Little Haiti, the Design District and most recently, Miami Gardens.

Late last year VOUS purchased Trinity Church’s nine-acre lot in Miami Gardens for $12 million, according to Miami-Dade property records. It became the fourth VOUS church in January 2024 after Rich Wilkerson Sr. stepped down to take what he called a “medical sabbatical” to manage a severe health condition, according to a video announcement posted on VOUS’ website. Trinity Church plans to relocate to its original location in North Miami after renovating the original building.

‘New paradigm’ church

VOUS falls somewhere under the umbrella of Evangelical Christianity, a movement that focuses on personal conversion guided by the Bible or “giving your life to Christ,” said David Kling, professor of religious studies at the University of Miami. In other words, at VOUS, Jesus is the star of the show.

VOUS fits into a growing category some religious scholars call a ‘new paradigm’ church — ones that aim to be more culturally relevant and aware of social trends, rather than tied to traditional doctrines.

New paradigm churches also tend to be non-denominational — built on Christian beliefs but without the strict rules, or oversight, dictated by a larger religious organization, such as Assemblies of God, the denomination associated with Wilkerson Sr’s church.

“With the new paradigm churches, the only accountability is within that local church itself,” said Kling.

The appeal and success of a new paradigm church often hinges on a charismatic leader, usually an entrepreneur with a gift for attracting people, said Kling. At VOUS, that’s Pastor Rich.

“If you’ve looked at Rich Wilkerson, certainly he has a gift for communicating. I think that’s one of the pulls of him,” said Kling. “Should Rich Wilkerson leave, my guess is VOUS would look very different, and the church would struggle to maintain its current attraction.”

That could prove to be true, but on a series of visits, the churches seem to be just as packed on days when Wilkerson Jr. was not preaching, and he often appears in videos. Plus, the total VOUS experience is designed to extend beyond Sunday visits.

What makes VOUS different?

The VOUS calendar is full.

There are small group gatherings, called VOUS crews, as well as separate college and youth ministries. There are community events, including an epic Easter event involving a helicopter dropping 50,000 plastic eggs and an outreach project called “I Love My City,” where the church partners with local nonprofits to give back to the community. Another project called “VOUS Friends + Family,” provides a library of training resources for church leaders outside of VOUS.

Then, next week, there’s an annual two-day conference called VOUSCon. It drew 5,000 people last year and the church has rented out the Watsco Center on the campus of the University of Miami to host it this time. Tickets are $200 for general admission.

VOUS Pastors DawnCheré Wilkerson and Dakota Duron preach during Palm Sunday service in Miami Gardens.
VOUS Pastors DawnCheré Wilkerson and Dakota Duron preach during Palm Sunday service in Miami Gardens.

At one service in late May, Wilkerson Jr. was not on preaching duty but touted a conference that, according to the event website, aims to “lead transformative conversations in faith, culture and leadership.” It also feature a range of guest speakers including the hosts of a podcast called Girls Gone Bible as well as a host of praise music performers.

One congregant sitting near the front of the stage said he had been to the conference last year.

“It was life-changing,” he whispered.

Masters of branding

What really sets the VOUS approach apart from traditional churches is branding and that is most evident in its expansive online profile. People can connect with the church’s messaging anytime through the VOUS podcast, social media accounts that have gained hundreds of thousands of followers and a YouTube channel with a robust online library of live-streamed sermons.

Even the musicians who play in the band during Sunday service have their own artist page on Spotify, titled “VOUS worship.”

It all adds up to an approach that seems to have cracked the code of making church life more appealing, even hip. At a time when organized religion is on the decline in most places, VOUS appears to be thriving in South Florida.

In 2023, for example, VOUS brought in over $15 million in income from general tithes and other ministry gifts, and donated more than $1.3 million according to financial records found on VOUS’ website. These numbers compared to 2020, where VOUS made $9 million and donated over $827,000, show steady financial growth over the past four years.

The church is also continuously attracting new members — they boast over 20,600 “salvations,” a spiritual act VOUS describes as turning “away from sin” and declaring that “Jesus is Lord,” since their launch nine years ago.

Miami Gardens is the newest location of VOUS church, one of Miami’s fastest growing Christian churches.
Miami Gardens is the newest location of VOUS church, one of Miami’s fastest growing Christian churches.

Attendee and volunteer, Arlhin Arias, originally from Venezuela, showed up to a VOUS service in 2018 and kept coming back.

“The message they preach is like ‘come as you are, Jesus wants to meet you here,” Arias said in an interview with the Herald.

Arias, 49, said she’s stuck with VOUS over other churches in the area because the philosophy teaches Christianity as a personal relationship with Jesus, instead of a strict set of rules and practices. She also likes the laid-back feel.

“You don’t even have to worry how you’re dressed up — you can go in shorts, you can go in workout clothes. That is the freedom that I like.”

Media shy

Despite Pastor Rich’s relationship with celebrities, VOUS hasn’t generated much media coverage over the years, and church leaders are fine with that. There have been write-ups in Christian publications and a few from the Miami New Times, including a 2016 article about a lawsuit brought against the church by local artists for unlawful use of their artwork.

Forbes did a piece when Kanye West teamed up with Pastor Rich in 2020 to host a Super Bowl Sunday service that doubled as a worship concert featuring West’s music and other guests. But the most in-depth profile was not a positive one. A few years after hitching Kim and Kanye, Esquire magazine ran a long, unflattering profile that characterized Wilkerson and his church — at that time still in its infancy— as superficial and spiritually empty.

You won’t find such cynicism among congregants that spoke with the Herald over a series of visits to churches and sermons.

But social media critics aren’t always kind, noting the young, pretty people in VOUS web posts. One Reddit user described Wilkerson Jr. as “One of (those) pastors who’s very wealthy and wears super expensive designer clothes and wants to make Jesus hip.” Another put it this way: “Marketing meets religion basically.”

Like Wilkerson, VOUS pastors do share a casually upscale and conversational style. They are often dressed in casual yet trendy clothing — T-shirts with jean jackets, designer sneakers, collared button downs or matching linen sets paired with heels for the women. They’re skilled at engaging audiences and breaking down Bible verses in a way that feels relevant to today’s issues.

In a Sunday service in May, Pastor Manouchka Charles used a story about her evolving food preferences (well-done steak in her youth, medium as an adult) and ordering Chipotle as a broke college student to deliver in a message about how Christians should be living different, more evolved lives

VOUS Pastor Manouchka Charles preaches during Palm Sunday service as congregants worship and give praise in Miami Gardens.
VOUS Pastor Manouchka Charles preaches during Palm Sunday service as congregants worship and give praise in Miami Gardens.

Charles’ tone went from lighthearted to somber in a matter of seconds as she discussed the scientific properties of light (quipping about getting her physics degree from “YouTube University”) then just moments later, preached about how an encounter with God can help those struggling with things like anxiety and drug addiction.

“One encounter with light can accelerate you to your destiny,” she said. “One encounter with light can change everything.”

Welcome to VOUS

Multiple attendees interviewed by the Herald used the term “welcoming” to describe VOUS. Arias, who spends hours on the weekends volunteering for VOUS behind the scenes, said she loves going to a place where she feels like a part of a community.

“You feel safe. There’s nothing that you have to worry about,” said Arias. “In the world where we live, there’s so many things that make you sad, and there’s so many environments that are not healthy.”

This isn’t uncommon for a new paradigm church, according to UM professor Kling. They’re often described as welcoming, warm and have a strong focus on using small groups to build community. At VOUS, they’re called “crews,” bi-weekly gatherings where members pray, connect and support one another.

“A Crew turns a crowd into a community,” according to VOUS’ website.

Arlhin leads a crew in Spanish with her husband, one of the musicians at VOUS. The group meets online, but many crews meet in person.

“We talk about our struggles we talk about our victories .... We share pictures, we share everything. It is nice to have that community and celebrate,” Arlhin said.

There are dozens of crews. Some meet while roller skating, others meet at coffee shops in Brickell. Some crews are designed to support people in life’s tougher areas such as marriage, finance, addiction and even assistance with foster care.

“We serve free coffee. We like really good conversations,” the VOUS website says. “Hugging is optional.”

Meeting spiritual needs

VOUS seems particularly adept at creating messages that resonate, at least for some, in an age where everyone is vying for attention. This is common for Evangelical churches, said Kling.

Going as far back as 100 years ago, Evangelicals have taken the gospel directly to the public, rather than just expecting people to show up in the pews. From traveling tent revivals to the Jesus-centered billboards on I-95 (“After you die, you will meet God,” “Anxious? Jesus offers rest,”) Evangelicals are likely behind the message.

New paradigm churches often have a strong emphasis on therapeutic messaging, offering balms for the daily challenges of life — “recognizing that people are broken,” said Kling. The titles of sermons on VOUS’ Youtube page include, for example, “Happy Healthy Holy,” “Christ in Crisis” and “Daddy Issues.”

“What’s clear is that they have succeeded in meeting the spiritual needs of many, many people,” said Kling. “I think people find a sense of acceptance, a sense of whatever you want to call it, self-transcendence, which is really part of the core of all religions.”

A VOUS volunteer welcomes congregants in Miami Gardens during Palm Sunday service. VOUS opened their fourth location in January 2024 and continues to thrive in a era when many legacy churches are struggling to attract members.
A VOUS volunteer welcomes congregants in Miami Gardens during Palm Sunday service. VOUS opened their fourth location in January 2024 and continues to thrive in a era when many legacy churches are struggling to attract members.

For the Saint Gilles twins, the students at Nova Southeastern University, a major appeal is communing with like-minded people.

“It’s a church, people are looking for a community, right? People are looking for people who align with them, people who have the same morals as them,” said Jeraldine.

The sisters have been attending the Miami Gardens VOUS church since January. They were members of Wilkerson Sr.’s Trinity Church for years before it was purchased by his son.

Their only real complaint is that Pastor Rich can’t be in four churches at once. They appreciated how their old pastor, Wilkerson Sr., was always there to preach in person at Trinity. But Pastor Rich is at least on video. They like his sermons, not so much for the pop cultural references but for what they say is his honesty about real-world challenges.

The sisters also like how every Sunday service ends with an invitation. After the prayers, songs and sermons are over, the congregants shout in chorus a signature VOUS phrase:

“Just keep coming back!”

This story was produced with financial support from Trish and Dan Bell and from donors comprising the South Florida Jewish and Muslim Communities, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners. The Miami Herald maintains full editorial control of this work.