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Digital Seekers: Spiritual leaders see growth opportunity among tech's stressed workforce
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Three years ago, Adam Smallcombe moved his wife and young children from their home just north of Sydney, Australia, 7,400 miles across the Pacific Ocean to a place they'd never been into a culture they didn't know.

Smallcombe, 31, sold everything the family had to lead a startup in Sunnyvale, California, the hub of America's high-tech industry known as Silicon Valley. It's thriving now, even though his venture doesn't create or market computer chips, smartphones or Internet services.

It's a nondenominational church called C3 Church Silicon Valley, or C3SV, and it draws techies by the hundreds each Sunday enough to fill four services at two locations.

Head southeast from Sunnyvale to Austin, Texas, and you'll find another nascent startup proffering spirituality, not software. There, the orthodox Jewish group Chabad Lubavitch, a presence at the University of Texas for 30 years, is branching out to reach young Jewish professionals with a weekly get-together for friendship and a religious discussion.

The rise of parishes that are as entrepreneurial as the businesses their congregants work at is at once a new phenomenon and almost as old as religion itself. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul writes of assemblies where business people became spiritual leaders. Today, evangelical Christian pastors and Chabad emissaries, as the group's outreach workers are called, are moving into tech citadels to bring fellowship and meaning to people searching for spiritual community in areas where jobs are often high-demand, stressful occupations.

Even in Huntsville, Alabama, a city situated squarely in the Bible Belt, there are those in the city's aerospace industry who feel disconnected from community, and a new congregation calling itself Essential Church is poised to meet that need, lead pastor Tim Milner said.

Fresh off of five years of helping to pastor a church serving millennials in San Francisco, Milner said the disconnection many tech industry transplants felt being hundreds or thousands of miles away from their traditional support systems was at times a catalyst for spiritual searching.

"I would receive prayer requests that did revolve around business," Milner recalled. "I rarely remember receiving that (anyplace) other than in San Francisco. People's career was a bigger piece of their life."

Cultural links, too

According to Randi J. Walker, a professor of church history at the Graduate Theological Union's Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California, technology denizens searching for a Christian faith connection might be looking for cultural connections as in the case of transplanted South Korean and Chinese engineers who have "one foot in their home (cultures) and one foot here" in America.

But neither "the Valley," as the area is popularly known, nor its neighbor to the north, San Francisco, is a hotbed of traditional religious activity. According to the Barna Research Group, 37 percent of San Franciscans identify as "non-Christian," as opposed to 18 percent nationally. Only 24 percent of residents, Barna reported, attended a church service in the past week versus 42 percent of Americans overall.

The kind of attendance figures Barna reported don't surprise historian Walker. Younger adults, including those in technology, are seeking a "spiritual framework of cosmology, a metaphysics that helps people articulate the meaning of life," she said. "But I don't think people are as attracted to the large institutional forms of (church) as they were in the early 20th century."

America's current tech boom continues unabated Silicon Valley added 58,000 jobs last year with an average annual salary of $116,000, according to the Silicon Valley Index, a 20-year-old tracking report. The area gained 42,000 new residents last year as well, the survey reported.

An impressive number of tech workers can be found in Austin, Texas, where Forbes magazine in April reported the city has 53,118 tech industry jobs in a city of 912,000 people. In the past 10 years, the magazine said, the number of technology-related jobs rose 73.9 percent.

Spiritual needs, supply

But human needs, including spiritual ones, apparently haven't changed despite the job growth and high salaries in tech corridors. Nearly 350 years ago, mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal after whom a pioneering computer programming language was named said there was a "God-shaped hole in the heart of every man." While Pascal, a Christian, believed only God and Jesus could fill that vacuum, today's world has no shortage of options for seekers.

In June, the SFWeekly, an alternative newspaper, said growing numbers of tech industry denizens were turning to astrologers, numerologists and psychics for spiritual insight and relief from the industry's pressures.

"I have many clients from Salesforce, Facebook, Apple, Twitter, Zynga, Microsoft and Cisco," psychic Nicki Bonfilio told the weekly, rattling off a Who's Who of tech industry leaders.

Sometimes, technology itself becomes a substitute for faith, said Dan Lyons, the former Newsweek technology editor who writes for the HBO comedy "Silicon Valley." "I think for many people in Silicon Valley, technology itself has become a kind of religion. They really believe they are spreading the good word, doing good work. It feels very much like religion to me, a kind of missionary work where you also might get very wealthy," he said.

Vincent "Skip" Vaccarello, whose 36 years in Silicon Valley included stops at networking firm 3Com and spreadsheet pioneer VisiCalc, said the tech environment can be a lot for newcomers and seasoned veterans to handle. He's now a consultant with Korora Partners, working with executives at newer tech firms, and is an organizer of the annual Silicon Valley Prayer Breakfast, an evangelical outreach.

"I would say they're overwhelmed by the expense of living here, and it is culturally different," said Vaccarello, whose forthcoming book is titled "Finding God in Silicon Valley." "I think Silicon Valley does attract people who are 'Type A' personalities, who are accomplishment-oriented, seeking success and money."

But along with those gazing toward an astral plane, there's also a hunger for more traditional connections, including social ones, religious leaders say.

Every month, a conference room in Google's San Francisco office is taken over by a group of Jews working at the tech giant, said Rabbi Shmulik Friedman of Chabad Lubavitch's local office. These "Jewglers," as they call themselves, "have a Kosher lunch and a discussion about an upcoming holiday or the Torah portion of the week."

In the city itself, Chabad concentrates on reaching the "young Jewish professional" demographic, 90 percent of which "are in tech," the rabbi said.

"We do events that fit the crowd and fit the demographic, along with the Shabbat experience and spiritual experience, give people an opportunity to network and connect with others," Rabbi Friedman added.

Those social opportunities not only provide the spiritual and networking components but also can lead to a little matchmaking. Though not advertised as a "speed dating" opportunity because it isn't there's no denying that Chabad social events create a space for Jewish people to meet peers.

Often, it's one-to-one relationships that lead people into a faith community. Anthony Youdim, a 31-year-old computer software salesman who relocated to Austin from Dallas, Texas, came to Chabad's local branch through a friend's invitation. Now, he's organized a new group of the area's young Jewish professionals who meet weekly.

Youdim, who said he was not raised in an Orthodox Jewish household, said, "What I found great about working with Chabad is they are so open to engaging people from across the (theological) spectrum. That speaks to a lot of young professionals like myself."

Introducing faith

For engineers and others from China, Japan and India who are in California on special work permits known as "H1-B" visas, hearing the Bible's stories is something fresh and different, said Micaiah Irmler, pastor of Southridge Baptist Church in San Jose.

"When I get up and talk about Noah and the Ark, it's the first time they're hearing this," Irmler said. His church, which draws as many as 160 people on a Sunday, rents space in a shopping mall's movie theatre. The preacher said he worked briefly for a technology firm in part to learn about the industry. He's up on ComicCon's attraction for techies and is taking a CrossFit class, a demanding fitness regime growing in popularity.

"I want to know enough about the technology industry so I can speak to a tech person," Irmler said. "Understanding the language and getting immersed in the culture all of a sudden there's this kinship," he added, saying a visitor to the church can say the pastor knows where they're coming from.

Eugene Wu, who was born in Silicon Valley and works in the testing laboratory of entertainment streaming firm Netflix, said Irmler's approach won his attention. Wu and his wife, who works for a pediatrician, had attended a congregation of 2,000 where it was "hard to find community."

Southridge Baptist, being much smaller, was "easier to get to know people on a first-name basis," Wu said. The couple had lunch with Irmler and his family and joined a Bible study group. "At least for the foreseeable future," he said, the church "is going to be our (spiritual) home now."

Finding a personal connection was important, said Wu, who grew up in the area.

"Being in this area, in Silicon Valley, it's hard to get to know each other," he explained. "Everyone tends to mind their own business, they have an hour or two-hour commute, and we're often secluded from our neighbors. This (church) is our way of connecting with our own spiritual community."

Not far from the cinema where Irmler rents meeting space, Australian transplant Smallcombe holds services for the C3 church. He said initial conversations with people showed their perception of "religion" centered on good works and lifestyle changes, as opposed to a gospel message of grace and unconditional love.

"We took a (page) from the startup book," Smallcombe said. "We went public and put a message on billboards: 'Not religious? Neither are we.'"

The advertising "resounded with that 'hipster' tech, AirBnB employees, looking for a church that's real. We're not just talking about ancient promises, but real life, real hope and a real future," Smallcombe said.

Luke Stewart, a former resident of the Baltimore, Maryland, area who stayed in Silicon Valley after earning a degree at Stanford University, is a product management director for a data analytics company and a veteran of networking firm Cisco Systems. He said Smallcombe's approach drew him and his wife to the spiritual startup.

While he's invited some friends who already have a faith background, Stewart said he will invite some non-believing friends as well. "I feel very comfortable inviting non-Christian friends there," he said. "You can belong before you believe."

How they connect

Smallcombe, Irmler and Chabad leaders such as Rabbi Friedman in San Francisco and Rabbi Mendy Levertov in Austin take a nonjudgmental approach to dealing with newcomers. It's not crucial to fit someone into a particular spiritual template, they each said, but rather to create a community where people feel welcome. The spiritual development can come later, Smallcombe said.

When a tech firm is staring down a deadline, Rabbi Levertov said, "maybe they won't show up during a crunch, or if there's a huge deadline, possibly," but they'll return afterward. Chabad's traditions of Shabbat, or Sabbath-eve dinners and get-togethers, offer the stressed-out techie a respite.

"One of the things that we really enjoy to offer, and to allow these younger professionals to get involved, is the Shabbat dinner. It works so well because at Shabbat dinner, you're meant to be unplugged," he said. The Sabbath, he added, "really gives me a breather from the entire week; you're not on call."

Scott Scruggs, an executive pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, where 5,000 people attend worship each week, said the 142-year-old church relies largely on its membership to reach out to the tech community that surrounds it.

The church works to reach "an audience beyond our audience," Scruggs said. "We have to help our members, our congregation think about their neighbors in the workplace."

Although Menlo Park Presbyterian offers programs for interested members of the public, Scruggs said they believe "the church has to find its way into the workplace, and that doesn't happen through programs, but through people."

But those people-to-people connections may not include formal church settings of decades past, historian Walker noted.

"We have a lot of young students interested in religion and Christianity, but not necessarily committed to the mainline forms of Christianity; (they're) turned off by bureaucracies and paying for buildings," she said.

Rob Hall, a pastor at one of Central Peninsula Church's three area campuses, said there are "a lot of hopeful signs" for evangelism in a tech-rich area.

"This is a super well-educated group of people, and very busy," Hall said. "As these wealthy, successful families are raising kids, they're realizing they want their children to have some type of morality and foundation" and are turning to churches such as his as a resource.

Moreover, Hall said, a regional effort called Transforming the Bay with Christ is working with churches and believers across the area to gather in prayer each month, seeking a religious revival. He said the effort is "really unifying" and is starting to show results.

"In all the time I have lived here, I have not seen something like this happen, and it's slowly starting to happen," Hall said.
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