The San Francisco Bay Area is one of the most beautiful and influential metropolitan areas in the world. As home to tech titans like Facebook, Google, and Apple, the Bay Area is also an economic powerhouse. If it were a country, it would have the 19th-largest economy in the world. The Bay Area boasts three of the top 10 richest communities in America and also has one of the best-educated populations in the country.
But with a notoriously expensive cost of living and some of the largest homeless populations in America, the Bay Area is not without its challenges. Spiritually, the Bay Area is one of the nation’s most post-Christian metropolitan areas. It tops lists of the most unchurched and dechurched American cities.
What does enduring Christian faithfulness and effective discipleship look like in a setting like this? What are the unique challenges and opportunities facing pastors in the Bay Area?
In anticipation of this October’s first TGC West Coast Conference, we asked four Bay Area pastors—Joey Chen of Sunset Church (San Francisco), Paul Ortlinghaus of SOMA Church (Santa Rosa), Justin Buzzard of Garden City Church (San Jose), and Kent Dresdow of North Creek Church (Walnut Creek)—to describe their experiences of preaching the gospel and making disciples in the Bay Area context. Here’s an edited transcript of what they said.
What are some things about Christianity in the Bay Area that would surprise people?
Chen: It can feel like there are not many churches in San Francisco, but research shows that there are 282 evangelical churches here. This doesn’t note the size or health of these churches, but that number of churches might surprise some. It may also surprise people that some of the largest churches in San Francisco are theologically conservative and hold to historic tenets of faith, even on sexuality. Many of these larger and influential churches are fairly new to San Francisco, which shows there is growth among faithful gospel-centered churches.
Ortlinghaus: When I meet other Christians from other parts of the United States and tell them I pastor in the San Francisco North Bay, often I hear something like what Nathaniel said to Philip concerning Nazareth: “Can anything good (Christian) come out of the Bay Area?” I think there is an assumption that the entire Bay Area is godless and there is no love for Christ and his church. In fact, the North Bay (and the entire Bay Area) has a number of Christ-exalting churches seeking to help others begin and mature in their relationship with Jesus. We are not in the majority, but we are here. God has not abandoned his people here in the Bay Area.
Buzzard: Though Silicon Valley is a very unchurched region and a challenging place to be a Christian, it’s also a place where God is steadily advancing his kingdom through church planting, church partnerships, and Christians who’ve caught a vision for putting roots down in this expensive region, to seek the welfare of our city. I moved to the Bay Area in 2002, and I saw little church planting at the time. Almost seven years ago I planted the first Acts 29 church in the entire 8 million-person Bay Area. Now there are many Acts 29 church plants here, and more than that, a true church-planting movement is underway that involves many denominations. I think of my friends at Echo Church. We differ on some things, but we’re Team Jesus, and I love seeing God use them to advance the gospel and plant churches. And I think of organizations like City to City Bay Area—this kind of local, diverse, trans-denominational training for church planters didn’t exist when I planted.
Describe your churches.
Chen: Sunset Church was a church plant from the San Francisco Chinatown to the Outer Sunset. The Outer Sunset is what I consider quasi-suburbia, since it is primarily residential. It’s probably one of the few places in the world where the real estate and rent gets cheaper when you get closer to the water. That’s because we are constantly enveloped by fog (our fog even has its own Twitter account, @KarlTheFog).
Since it was started by Chinese Americans and because we have a Cantonese-speaking ministry, our church’s primary reach has been Chinese Americans and Chinese immigrants. Part of that also reflects the Sunset District, which is almost 50 percent Asian. While we celebrate our Chinese heritage, we want to be a church that reaches all of our city with the gospel. We’ve worked hard to emphasize our gospel-centrality and identity in Christ above all other identities. We’ve seen more and more people from our neighborhood connect to Christ and to our church, regardless of national and ethnic backgrounds. Given that Sunset is an older established church, we have the blessing of stability. One way this is a blessing is that it comes in the form of a building, which is rare for a church in San Francisco. We also face many of the challenges that churches more than 40 years old face as we engage in the generational and cultural changes around us.
Ortlinghaus: SOMA Church Community is a 10-year-old church that meets in the West End Neighborhood of Santa Rosa, one of the oldest downtown neighborhoods of the city. We meet on Sundays at Kid Street Charter Cchool, an amazing old school that is full of lots of history within our city. We are a small church (fewer than 100) with a diverse range of ages (we even have someone 101 years old!). We are committed to a missional model of ministry where we encourage our members to think of themselves as missionaries in their neighborhoods, schools, and jobs, in the spirit of John 20:21. We seek to love our city by being a community for the community. We declare the truth of the gospel and demonstrate the fruit of the gospel. As another pastor and I were recently discussing, this means ministry here in the North Bay is “slow.” We are committed to a faithful ministry of making disciples, which means we trust in our sovereign God and his timing and work in the lives of the people and city and region that we know he loves.
Buzzard: Garden City Church is a 7-year-old church in San Jose, in the heart of Silicon Valley. We moved here and planted the church in 2011, meeting initially with a core group of about 30 people. Since then the church has grown through the compelling power of the gospel, through people who were converted and discipled, through people who joined the church family as members and began contributing to the mission, through people who developed into leaders, and through much prayer. Why did we name our church Garden City? In part because this is what the early settlers of San Jose called their new home, because everything they planted grew and flourished in the city’s good soil and temperate climate. But we also like the name because the Bible starts in a Garden (Eden) and ends in a Garden City (the New Jerusalem). It’s the story of God rescuing and redeeming broken people and renewing broken cities. We believe God has called us to plant something new in the Garden City—to plant a church that will affect a city that’s affecting the rest of the world.
Dresdow: NorthCreek Church is a 60-year-old church in Walnut Creek. We are a congregation of around 1,300, with a stated mission to equip believers to worship God, walk in love, and witness to the world. We are committed to making disciples through the preaching of the Word and proclamation of the gospel, so that Christ might be adored and exalted in our city, region, and world. We’ve recently agreed as a leadership team that we want to think more purposefully about how we might “flip our ministries to be more outward-facing.” It’s been sweet to see us begin to adopt that purpose. Pray for that purpose to progress, so that Jesus might be made known among and around us, to the praise of his glory.
The Bay Area is a tech hub and a center for digital innovation. Are there unique discipleship challenges or opportunities that come with ministering in this context?
Buzzard: Silicon Valley is home to major global corporations like Google, Apple, eBay, Cisco, and Adobe. The region plays a pivotal economic and cultural role in our global world. What happens in Vegas might stay in Vegas, but what happens in Silicon Valley affects the world.
What happens in Vegas might stay in Vegas, but what happens in Silicon Valley affects the world.
Silicon Valley is a beautiful place to live and work, but it is also a broken place, teeming with overworked and under-loved people seeking meaning, hope, and glory in everything except the God who created them. Forbes has called San Jose both “the most innovative city in America” and “the most sinful city in America.” Silicon Valley needs not just one new church; it needs hundreds of new churches. Our church’s vision is to help turn Silicon Valley—a place known for its technological influence—into a region also known for its worship of Jesus and its gospel influence. Instead of Apple, Google, or Facebook, we want to see God’s name become the biggest name in Silicon Valley.
Dresdow: The vast wealth and influence of this region outstrips its footprint. Many of the richest cities in America are within a one-hour drive of our church. Much of that is because of tech and innovation. Into this matrix, Jesus’s statement explodes with significance: “You cannot serve God and money” (Matt 6:24). The discipleship challenge is immediately apparent: How can you live here without money becoming your idol? I can’t tell you how many derivations of that question we’ve had in our context from good, godly singles, couples, and families—especially among those who imported into the Bay Area. So we walk with our people through that, because there are no cookie-cutter answers—just a lot of seeking God for wisdom.
The discipleship opportunity is that we have tremendous resources here, and some are leveraging their abundance along strategic and creative lines for the gospel. There are many Christians employed in the tech industry (and other industries) who have to keep a low profile in their culture and our broader climate. We talk a lot about making incremental progress for the gospel here, and we ask them what that could mean in their environment. We may not be powerful in these sectors, but we are persistent to reach them. In that, Paul’s paradigm for gospel ministry is carried forward (1 Cor. 1:26–31).
The Bay Area has a reputation for being a bastion of cultural liberalism, especially on sexuality. What challenges and opportunities does this pose for gospel-centered churches here?
Dresdow: The Bay Area’s reputation for cultural and moral liberalism is well-grounded; gospel ministry here is not for the faint of heart. Personally, however, I find the social diversity and spiritual divergence to be invigorating, because we are a million miles away from cultural Christianity, where people proclaim and practice a veneer faith that is not gospel-born or -fueled. There isn’t much of that here, nor has there ever been. The lines of demarcation among those who are in Christ and those who need Christ seem clearer here than in vast swaths of the rest of the country. I love the Bay Area for that! The fog of cultural Christianity has never descended here; I hope it never does.
The fog of cultural Christianity has never descended here; I hope it never does.
Chen: We need wisdom, given the political nature of sex and homosexuality. When Proposition 8 was on the ballot in 2008, there was a strong emphasis among churches that held to the historic view of marriage to champion this proposition. While in agreement with the biblical position on marriage, we wrestled with this greatly. We wondered if public political participation would close the door on gospel opportunities. How can the church maintain the truth while compassionately engaging those who disagree? This is an ongoing struggle. The opportunity for evangelism and discipleship is great, however, since any identity apart from Christ will not provide what someone is chasing. The question is whether we will be ready when the opportunities arise.
Ortlinghaus: I think the primary opportunity is for gospel-centered churches to show that Jesus and his followers are not “haters.” When the national media portray Bible-following Christians as hateful and bigoted, we have an opportunity and mandate to love in the same way we see Jesus loving the woman at the well in the John 4—full of grace and truth. People want to see that our love is genuine (Rom. 12:9).
Buzzard: What God is using here is robustly orthodox, warmly loving Christians who enjoy close relationships with people wrestling through issues of sexuality—boldly, kindly pointing them to the authority of Jesus and his Scriptures over a long period of time.
Where do you see the gospel taking root in the Bay Area? Where do you see momentum and fertile soil? Where do you see the hardest soil?
Chen: I can’t speak to the larger Bay Area, since I live in the city and think that crossing either bridge is like going to another country. However, in San Francisco I see fertile soil among many millennials moving to the city. There is a heightened receptivity to the gospel and willingness to discuss spiritual matters when there are many life changes. We also see momentum among different immigrant groups and international students.
Dresdow: Over the past few years, we’ve noticed an interesting trend in our context. While numerical growth overall has been slow but steady, our church has grown younger fast. We’ve seen in influx of younger singles and young, large families as well. And while the one demographic is indicative of our area—with the rapid rise of an urban or semi-urban, professional singles demographic—the other is not. We’re encouraged in both areas and believe that this hunger could be indicative of larger gospel opportunities among the younger generations in our region.
Buzzard: The hardest soil is with wealthy Bay Area people who think they have it all, who think they don’t need God. That lie doesn’t last long. That last dot-com crash here broke that illusion. God will use something else to soon break up the hard soil here.
When you assess the current spiritual landscape of the Bay Area, what are the big things that come to mind?
Chen: I see both opportunity and danger. Since the gold rush, the Bay Area has drawn people from all over the country and the world. The Bay Area is home to one of the largest Afghan populations in the West. Close to our church, a Uyghur restaurant opened. The opportunity to reach unreached peoples has come to our neighborhood. The “new gold rush” of technology also presents real spiritual dangers. People speak about high rents with pride and treat it almost as a badge of honor. I joke with others that I see more Teslas in our neighborhood than I see children. Greed and consumerism saturate the spiritual landscape, and Christians are not exempt from its influence.
Ortlinghaus: The Bay Area is very spiritual—there is just not much Holy Spirit in most of the spirituality. It is about as pluralistic and relativistic as a city can be. The same challenges and objections to biblical Christianity that Tim Keller interacts with in The Reason for God out of his urban East Coast context are present here.
The Bay Area is very spiritual—there is just not much Holy Spirit in most of the spirituality.
Buzzard: (1) We need Christians to stay here. It is so expensive, so high-pressured, that people are always moving away. We need growth in the percentage of Christians who answer a call to stay for decades. I desire God to bring revival to the Bay Area, but I don’t think this will happen overnight. (2) We need more prayer for this region. I’m preaching Ephesians right now, so I’d say we need more Ephesians 6 prayer—recognizing that our “battle” here is not against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual forces of darkness. Satan has deceived many of us successful Bay Area people/pastors into thinking that if we can just do church better, we’ll make a great gospel impact here. Wrong. We need a humble movement of praying big prayers. We need to put on the armor of God and recognize where the real battle lies. (3) We need more church planting, more solid preaching, more training, more gospel!
Dresdow: The Bay Area, as far as anyone can tell, has never experienced any major revival or awakening. By anyone’s estimate, the spiritual ground is exceptionally hard, and always has been. The region exploded originally because of wealth and pleasure-seeking (think gold rush and its attendant pleasures), and it has continued on that trajectory ever since. This has caused some gospel-minded pastors and churches to ask God for a significant spiritual awakening—something that would truly disrupt the historical narrative of our region. We are prayerful to that end. On the other hand, by some assessments there have never been more churches planted in San Francisco than there have been recently. As far as this is true, we take encouragement in that, and trust that good gospel work will grow and continue.
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