Mr. DeGroat is a down-to-earth guy. He wears jeans when he preaches and sometimes swears in conversation. He talks more in philosophical, intellectual terms than religious ones. The services he leads at City Church are utterly lacking in the multimedia shows of many modern churches that try to appeal to a younger audience. There are no flashing lights here, no video clips interspersed through the sermon, no eight-piece rock band.
With such a technically talented population, Mr. DeGroat figures they better not even try. Instead he appeals to their intellect with solid reasoning. He wants to take skeptics seriously. “We don’t want to bullshit people because, particularly in San Francisco, there’s a big bullshit meter,” he says.
Taking a page from the Facebook playbook, Mr. DeGroat tries to build the relationship with his congregants around two-way conversations, rather than one-way Sunday sermons. He gets as much advice from his tech entrepreneurs as he gives. One works for Google and travels to Africa frequently. She challenges the church to think about the Christian principle of being a good neighbour to people in the developing world. Another works in social media, and thinks about how to build tools that nurture the best of human relationships, not the narcissism and self-promotion that is often fostered by such public broadcasting channels. “Technology can be used in ways that are very dehumanizing,” Mr. DeGroat says.
While these technologists talk closely with their pastor, most are reluctant to speak publicly about their faith. Several prominent Silicon Valley leaders deliberately keep their beliefs private for fear that they would influence consumers’ perception of their business, or give their bosses or investors the idea that they are not 100 per cent committed to the success of their company.
“Faith tends to be more under the surface here,” says Jon Dahl, chief executive of Zencoder, which formats television and radio content for the web and mobile devices. He says he must compartmentalize his Christian beliefs to meet the demands of the Valley. “Something feels a little bit off, spending 10 hours a day focused on profit,” he says, “and spending the rest of my life focused on what I believe is good for the world.”
Mr. Dahl grew up in a Christian household in Minnesota. He went to church regularly. At university, he studied religion and philosophy, then went on to get a graduate degree in theology. While he pored over Kierkegaard, he wrote software on the side for money. That grew into a full-fledged consulting business. “Then I got the start-up itch after that,” he said.
He came to San Francisco with his wife and two children in 2011, and they found City Church through a Google search. They go almost every week and participate in outreach projects with the homeless and prison populations. Mr. Dahl relies on his faith to keep the deal-striking, money-making ways of Silicon Valley in context. Buyers have been courting him for six months, and Mr. Dahl has just agreed to sell his company to Brightcove, an online video host. He sees the payout he’ll get as a responsibility, rather than a ticket to a lavish lifestyle. “Everyone is entrusted with money and time and resources and gifts for a reason, to steward and to use well, and not just for ourselves,” he says.
At City Church’s weekly meetings for entrepreneurs and at weekend retreats, the challenges of the working world are explored in depth, as people worry that advertising campaigns that they help create are promoting a harmful image, or that they are merely a cog in a wheel at a huge technology company.
Mr. DeGroat sees his job, in a place like Silicon Valley, as one that helps remind people that their identity is not just their work. He helps steer them away from the status updates and think about building technology that helps humanity. “That’s what worship is really about – us rediscovering our core identity as a beloved of God,” he says. “So when we go back in life and say stupid stuff on Twitter, I have good people in my life who can call me on it.”
Alongside the strict science of the computer industry, there is so much ambiguity. Nine out of 10 start-ups fail, as the local meme goes. Patent wars and talent wars plague the large technology companies. Colleagues become competitors overnight. The uncertainty is as much a part of the culture as the certainty. And people seem to revel in it as much as they struggle with it.
“They are seekers,” Mr. DeGroat says. “People here are on a faith journey, not necessarily a Christian journey, but they’re seekers trying to find ‘what is meaning for me’.”