As someone who grew up in Silicon Valley, I can sometimes forget what a peculiar place this is. There are, for example, certain coffee shops and brunch restaurants where you can overhear entrepreneurs pitching to venture capitalists any day of the week. It’s not uncommon to be approached by strangers and asked to beta-test their new apps. The median home price is well above $1 million, every fourth car on the road seems to be a Tesla, and everyone knows someone who works for a giant tech firm like Google, Apple, or Facebook.
Having spent all my life in the church, I can also forget that Silicon Valley is one of the least religious regions in the United States. The Pew Research Center has found that 35 percent of adults in the San Francisco Bay Area are religiously nonaffiliated. Only 20 percent of adults identify as Protestant, and another 25 percent are Catholic. In comparison, 71 percent of the general population in the US identifies as Christian.
Yet, argues sociologist Carolyn Chen in her fascinating new book Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley, this doesn’t mean that high-skilled workers aren’t spiritual. They are, in fact, as hungry for meaning, belonging, and personal transformation as anyone else. But their church, as it were, is the workplace. Their community is made up of coworkers. And they are being shepherded—through not only their careers but also their overall lives—by an array of supervisors, human-resource managers, executive coaches, and meditation gurus.
It’s no secret that many of the profit-rich corporations of Silicon Valley provide extraordinary perks for their employees, including gourmet meals three times a day, onsite gyms, dry-cleaning services, and free shuttles from the suburbs to the office. In recent years these perks have become increasingly spiritual in nature as corporations compete with one another to offer the best coaching, meditation classes, mindfulness workshops, multiday retreats, and talks by renowned spiritual leaders like Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh.
These are the very trends Chen is examining in Work Pray Code, and her findings should interest (and perhaps alarm) anyone who cares about the health and growth of the American church. Young, high-skilled knowledge workers, who drive not only Silicon Valley but also industries in urban centers throughout the country, are becoming less interested in traditional forms of religion and spirituality. “The decline of religious affiliations and participation, however, does not mean that religious needs have disappeared. They’ve just been displaced,” explains Chen. “Religion exists in the sacred cosmos of a work-centered world.” So strong is the pull of workplace spirituality that some of Chen’s research subjects, who had previously been very devout, drifted away from their faith after beginning to work in Silicon Valley.
All this attention to mindfulness, authenticity, and spiritual health is an outward expression of a larger ethos that has developed in the region’s dominant industries, one that promises to “unlock” your true self and true purpose—so you can be as productive as possible for your employer. The promise of discovering yourself and meeting your full potential is extremely appealing, and it’s backed up by every possible workshop, amenity, and expert that money can buy.
In places like Silicon Valley, the church’s greatest “competitor” for souls may not be other religions, atheism, or even hedonism or greed. It could very well be multinational corporations that offer the promise of changing the world, as well as their employees, through work. “Today, companies are not just economic institutions,” writes Chen. “They’ve become meaning-making institutions that offer a gospel of fulfillment and divine purpose in a capitalist cosmos.” That “God-shaped hole” in our hearts that evangelicals like to reference? It’s being filled by companies with deep-enough pockets to meet their people’s every need—mind, body, spirit.
I’ve seen this firsthand. Ask any entrepreneurs or startup employees in Silicon Valley, and they will sincerely tell you—without a hint of irony or humor—that their companies are going to change the world. The business might be built on an app that finds parking spots, delivers beer via clowns, or makes it look like you got booted off a Zoom call when you want a break (all real apps); nevertheless, it gives their lives purpose. These individuals are as devout and committed as the most zealous of Christians.
Those of us on the outside can see clearly that this promise of fulfillment is ultimately empty, especially when the end goal is utilitarian: to leech as much knowledge, leadership, and productivity out of people as possible. High-skilled professionals gain much, but only by giving much, including 70-plus-hour workweeks and their absolute commitment. Firms will gladly lavish their employees with spiritual perks, teaching, and values, but when someone leaves a job—by choice or not—all of that is terminated as well. This form of religious devotion ultimately will not end well for image bearers of God.
Throughout the book, Chen asks this question: What are the larger implications for a society that worships work, that subsumes traditional faith and spirituality under the quest for profit and productivity? She doesn’t really answer this question until the last chapter of the book—which seems insufficient in light of the great and still-growing power, influence, and wealth of the tech industry. Work Pray Code is at its best when Chen contextualizes the findings of her research within broader historical and sociological concepts, such as corporate maternalism, the constant productivity push, and reduced civic engagement.
I wish Chen had supported her claims with additional quantitative research about, for example, the psychological impact of such devotion to work, the connection between high-tech jobs and declining civic participation, or the way corporations in other geographic regions are also trying to “change the world” and help their employees pursue “wholeness.” Instead, she relies so heavily on the quotes and perspectives of a limited number of research subjects that her conclusions—repeated almost ad nauseum—can come across as anecdotal rather than widely applicable. She also misses the opportunity to discuss how the move toward permanent remote work after the pandemic could alter the workings of “Techtopia,” as she calls it. Since the most tangible way corporations attempt to meet their employees’ spiritual needs is through onsite, in-person activities, the ramifications could be very significant.
That said, what Chen communicates is still extremely salient to the American church. There may even be valuable lessons here for church leaders to better understand what millennial and Gen Z professionals are yearning for nowadays: for starters, to be seen as whole, integrated individuals whose work, play, relationships, and spirituality are all deeply intertwined and in need of purpose.
Understandably, how these trends impact the Christian church is outside the scope of Chen’s research and not addressed in the book. There are important clues, though, in her conclusion: “In Techtopia,” she writes, “people don’t belong to neighborhoods, churches, or cities. They belong to work. Instead of building friendships, trust, and goodwill within their communities, they develop the social capital of their companies.”
With the rise of the worship of work, professionals are becoming less engaged and connected with the rest of the world. They believe all their needs are already being met; they are not searching for more. How can the church draw them out of their isolated workplace “cults” (as Chen calls them) toward an eternal and far more dependable promise of fulfillment? How can we compete for souls against institutions with limitless resources?
It may be time for Christians and churches to take a page from the strategic plans of businesses, ensuring that we are clearly articulating the value proposition and competitive advantages of our faith and demonstrating those in bold, irresistible ways. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another,” Jesus declared (John 13:35). And in writing to the church in Ephesus, the apostle Paul said, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).
Unconditional love and all-encompassing grace—not mentioned a single time by any of the research subjects in Work Pray Code—could be a good place to start.
Dorcas Cheng-Tozun is a writer, communications consultant, and the editorial director of the Christian nonprofit Pax. She is a former columnist for Inc.com and has written two books on entrepreneurship: Start, Love, Repeat: How to Stay in Love with Your Entrepreneur in a Crazy Start-up Worldand Let There d.light: How One Social Enterprise Brought Solar-Powered Products to 100 Million People.