According to the market research firm the Barna Group, the Bay Area ranks near the bottom of U.S. metropolitan areas in the percentage of people who attend church on a regular basis. But that is changing, with churches expanding and new ones popping up.
Recently, my wife, Jackie, and I had the opportunity to attend a service at a church I had heard much about – Reality SF in San Francisco – and I interviewed Reality’s founder and Senior Pastor Dave Lomas. In just four years, Reality has grown from a startup to a church with 1,400-1,500 regular attendees.
The church meets at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays at Everett Middle School, 450 Church St.
Jackie and I arrived early for the service. I noticed how friendly people were. The first person we encountered – a young woman – welcomed us with a smile and asked if we needed any help. Several others did the same as we browsed the library and visited the courtyard where coffee was served. I was surprised to notice that with several large containers of coffee available, none contained decaffeinated. That gave me a clue about the congregation that soon filtered in.
I estimate that 80-90 percent of the racially diverse 1,400 attendees who packed the auditorium were between the ages of 20 and 35. My wife and I were clearly identified as visitors by age, if nothing else. But we very much felt welcomed.
Prior to the start of service, several people gathered near the stage to pray for God’s presence, for the guest pastor who would be preaching and for the worship to be transformative for those attending.
To my surprise – given the ages of the congregation – the first worship song was a hymn. A mix of music followed, including some upbeat praise songs. I was interested to note that during the music, there were no lights on the vocalists or musicians. The only light was on the screen showing the words. This kept the focus on worship, not on the performance of the players.
The message was rooted in biblical truth, with a focus on discipleship. The service lasted approximately 90 minutes.
During the announcement phase of the service, in the sermon and in my conversations with attendees, there was an emphasis on serving the city. Of particular note was an Adopt a Building program conducted in conjunction with City Impact, a Christian ministry focused on reaching out to the poor and disadvantaged in the Tenderloin.
The congregation also highlighted community groups, in which congregants gather during the week to help each other become disciples of Christ. Later, I was surprised to discover in my conversation with Lomas that 75 percent of the people who attend Reality are engaged in community groups. That is an astounding number.
Reality SF’s vision can be summed up in three words: theological, missional and relational.
• Theological. The church’s website states, “We seek to be a God-centered/Christ-centered community in all we think, say and do.” Scripture, worship and prayer are important components of what it means to be theological.
• Missional. Redemption through Jesus Christ is at the center of what it means to be missional.
“We believe that the mission of God flows out of being the people of God,” Lomas said. “We offer San Francisco whole people who are secure in their identity in Christ. That means we go about work differently, we go about the way we interact with our neighbors differently. We’re just whole people who are healthy, loving Christians in San Francisco.”
• Relational. Lomas believes that mission flows out of relationship, hence the emphasis on community groups.
“These groups go beyond the typical small group getting together once a week for a couple hours to talk about the sermon,” he said. “The community groups are not just programs of our church – they’re a way our church lives the Christian life in the context of family.”
Lomas said Reality is not about the number of people who attend, but helping people grow deeper in their faith.
“We really don’t want to grow so wide that we can’t grow deep,” he said.
Authenticity, Lomas said, may be a factor that attracts people to Reality. According to Lomas – and validated by my one experience at Reality SF – the church does not overproduce its services. Instead, it seeks authenticity.
Lomas commented, “We’re really just ourselves. When we started the church we realized that San Franciscans were pretty savvy. People knew when they were being sold something. They knew all about hype because they work in the industries that were all about hype.”
Skip Vaccarello is a longtime Los Altos resident. For more information, visit findinggodinsiliconvalley.com.