Alexa Andrzejewski sits in the balcony watching the pastor pace the floor below. Before the sermon gets rolling, she sneaks out her iPhone and opens her social networking app. She “checks in” at her San Francisco church, and looks to see if anyone else from her technology start-up world is in the packed pews this Sunday morning. The pastor asks them to pray and then to turn to Mark 15:21 in their Bibles. In unison, Ms. Andrzejewski, her husband and their friend all pull out their phones and swipe through their Bible app to the passage.
It is the week before Easter, and Ms. Andrzejewski is in the middle of some unsettling business hurdles around the start-up she runs, a mobile app called Foodspotting. It’s a typical lurch in the constant roller coaster that all Silicon Valley entrepreneurs ride. Some of them, like Ms. Andrzejewski, turn to the story of Jesus’s crucifixion to find solace.
“My faith helps me to separate what I do from who I am,” she says, after the service. “Recognizing that I have a value that comes from being loved by someone outside of myself, who created me for a reason, has given me a lot of strength as a founder. Because of that, I don’t have to worry about losing my identity if I fail.”
Silicon Valley, the epicentre of the global technology industry, is ruled by rationality and science. Data drives decisions, computer code solves problems. And yet there is a strong current of faith that permeates everything – an extreme idealism that motivates entrepreneurs, a staunch belief among engineers that technology can cure the world’s ills and contribute to the progress of humanity.
Sometimes that belief is drawn directly from a Christian teaching. But rarely are such values expressed in the boardroom or on the demo stage. Getting the job done is paramount in Silicon Valley, so religious believers often keep quiet about their faith in public forums, for fear of alienating co-workers or customers, says Jan English-Lueck, a professor of anthropology at San José State University. “Dogmatic faith would get in the way of good work relationships,” she says, “and that is the true sin in Silicon Valley.”
But within Christian circles, a shared faith can also turn into a powerful business alliance. Christians find each other at informal prayer groups at Google and Facebook, and at fellowship gatherings for entrepreneurs, forming social bonds that segue back to the office.
“There is a network of people who are Christian that help each other in the workplace,” Ms. English-Lueck says. “In Minnesota, you wouldn’t find people so openly and freely drawing on any domain in their lives to create a work relationship. There would be a boundary that you don’t exploit your religious network. That’s not the idea in Silicon Valley: it’s not exploiting, it’s leveraging.”
In Santa Clara County, into which most of Silicon Valley falls, 43 per cent of residents claim membership of a religious institution, the majority of them Catholic and Evangelical, according to a religious census in 2010. Though that’s less than the national 50 per cent, it is more than expected from an area perceived as godless.
Just as religion influences their business goals and decisions, technologists of faith are in turn pushing the boundaries of traditional preaching, reshaping how Christianity is taught in the region. Local churches have no choice but to adapt, in an attempt to stem the haemorrhage of young members. Nearly 60 per cent of young Christians drop out of church life after the age of 15, many of them citing their perception of the church’s antagonism to science as one of the main reasons, according to a 2011 study by the Barna Group, which tracks religious trends.
Local Christian churches are making explicit efforts to address the concerns of technologists, and talk about the role of faith in work. City Church in San Francisco, which attracts a number of Silicon Valley stars, offers weekly faith-based discussion groups for tech entrepreneurs and employees, as well as occasional weekend retreats. The pastors say they learn as much from entrepreneurs about how to shape their message as the entrepreneurs learn about how the stories of the Bible fit with their modern lives.