Spiritual Opportunity in Silicon Valley
We spoke with pastor and author Skip Vaccerello about his latest book, Finding God in Silicon Valley: Spiritual Journeys in a High Tech World. He shared about the issues and challenges of doing ministry in a place that considers itself "spiritual" but not very interested in Christ.
What was it in your own personal journey that caused you to stop and explore the claims of Christ?
I grew up attending church, but grew away from faith for around 20 years. While I would have said I believed in God during those 20 years, and probably would have identified as a Christian, I was in truth far from God. Quite frankly, I was too busy pursuing my career and building a family to think much at all about God.
After achieving some success, I found it wasn’t as satisfying as I expected. I began to think there must be something more to life than business, financial success, and even family. My wife was invited to church by a neighbor. Seeing what it meant to her, I followed. The messages I heard resonated with me. I started attending every Sunday, started reading the Bible, and investigated the evidence for faith. It all made sense to me, and I committed my life to Christ in the mid-1980s.
Over the next decade, God put on my heart the desire to help others know the joy that comes from knowing Christ. That is why I engage in activities to reach people who are like I was – “spiritual” but not knowing Christ. And that is why I lead the Silicon Valley Prayer Breakfast as an outreach activity.
People might consider Silicon Valley to be the hub of “spirituality” like the kind you find in the life of Steve Jobs or others, but not necessarily a place where you’d find many expressions of the Christian faith. Is that a wrong stereotype?
Your stereotype is not entirely wrong, except I don’t believe that people think of Silicon Valley the “hub” of spirituality. I think most people consider Silicon Valley as the hub of technology, entrepreneurship, self-reliance, and wealth. “Spirituality” is not often included in that stereotype. Most think of the area as a pretty secular place.
Your statement, however, is correct in that most people in Silicon Valley would call themselves “spiritual.” That is my observation anyway. Silicon Valley attracts people from all over the country and the world. They come from many faith traditions, and some have no faith background. The spiritual beliefs of many people are sort of an amalgamation of various religious views, with the sense either that there are many paths to God, or that spirituality is simply the effort to find inner peace and purpose. John Ortberg, author and pastor of a large Silicon Valley Church, uses the term “smart skeptics” to describe the large number of highly educated technology workers in Silicon Valley.
What makes ministry in Silicon Valley different than in other areas of the country? What makes it more challenging and what brings opportunity?
The challenge is that many people are indifferent to Christian faith. Faith is just not on their radar screens. And several factors make ministry different in Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley is home to people who come from different cultures. Community does not happen naturally in neighborhoods. Churches offer community, but people do not attend churches as a way of life. Silicon Valley also has many people in need—people living below the poverty level; suffering from homelessness, and with drug and alcohol abuse problems; and coming from broken families.
There is an opportunity both to provide community and to help people meet the needs of others. There is a movement afoot to coordinate service opportunities among churches. Several churches close worship services one weekend a year to serve community needs in homeless shelters, non-profits serving the disadvantaged, and at schools and parks. Such efforts provide opportunities to include those people who are not yet of faith. They find community and satisfy their need to make a difference. Most service opportunities extend beyond a single weekend.
I know of several churches that are growing and looking to expand with a multi-campus approach. Some have already done so successfully. While this effort is laudable, land prices are so high that such endeavors are self-limiting. Churches do not have the resources to continue to buy land and construct buildings. Churches are forced to think creatively on how to accommodate the growing need. Personally, I think that small group meetings in homes and places of business could contribute significantly to the future of the church in Silicon Valley. Such groups satisfy the need for community and can multiply with minimal expense.
Is there something inherent in the pursuit of technological advancement that helps or hinders a person’s quest to know God?
A characteristic of people in Silicon Valley is that they want to make a difference in the world. Technology is the primary vehicle for doing so. Technological development is inherently an intensive, individual effort, even when one is working as part of a team. Once successful with a breakthrough technology, financial rewards typically follow. There is a tendency to take personal or organizational credit when this happens. Work becomes their identity. Pride, as we know, gets in the way of a relationship with God.
But it works in both ways. Work in technology can also bring large setbacks—failed start-ups, work and financial stress. These challenges provide opportunities to reach out to people. With their source of identity disrupted, people may be open to friends coming alongside them to care for them and to help them find a different source of identity, meaning, and purpose, which we know only can come satisfactorily from Christ.
If you could give a piece of advice to pastors, church leaders, and others who minister to the tech community, what would that be?
First, I would say to encourage business and tech leaders in your churches and ministries to look at their work as a ministry. Colossians 3:23 is, of course, instructive: “Whatever you do, work at it heartily as for the Lord, not for men.” Believers in business – whether in technology or not – are missionaries. In one of the stories in my book, Pat Gelsinger, CEO of VMware, a $6 billion public company refers VMware as his church and its 18,000 employees as his congregation. It doesn’t mean that he preaches to them, but he goes about his job with integrity, reflecting Christ’s love in all he does.
Second, I would encourage church and ministry leaders to take the church to the community. Don’t expect people to come to church. By that I mean, personally engage in the community and encourage people in your church to develop relationships with people outside the church. Serve needs in your community. Unfortunately, non-believers often know us for what we are against, not what we are for. Let them see what we are for. Show them love.
Third, do not compromise the truth by watering down sermons and other messages. People are looking for meaning, purpose, and truth. But do so in a way that is culturally relevant to the lives of people.
Daniel Darling is vice-president of communications for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Activist Faith.