Religion & Liberty Online

The Midwest’s growing ‘faith-and-tech movement’

We have long heard about the incessant flow of America’s best-and-brightest workers to the country’s largest urban centers, leading many to fear the consolidated power of “coastal elites” and the continuous disruption of the American heartland. Yet this movement seems to be slowing, as more workers and businesses shift to mid-sized metropolitan areas across the Midwest. Many venture capital firms are following suit, eyeing various “comeback cities” as frontiers for new growth.

Given the many demographic and cultural differences between the coasts and middle America, what might such a development mean for our cultural imagination, particularly as it relates to our attitudes about work and business? In an article for Wired magazine, Kathryn Joyce dives into this question, focusing specifically on regional differences in religious belief.

As more economic activity shifts from “post-Christian” states like California and New York to church-going metros like Nashville and Indianapolis, how will religious communities respond to and participate in such growth? “Big Tech is still considered, almost axiomatically, allergic to expressions of faith,” Joyce writes, yet we see many tech start-ups sprouting well outside the typical secularized hubs.

“The story of this transformation, as told from the coasts, tends to be one of down-and-out heartland cities hustling to remake themselves in the image of Silicon Valley, often with the help of missionary venture capitalists,” Joyce explains. “There’s some truth to that account. But as the demographics of tech have become incrementally more Midwestern, those regional outposts have also set about remaking the industry in their own likeness — particularly where matters of faith are concerned.”

Indeed, from rural Appalachia, to the suburbs of Minneapolis, to the urban neighborhoods of Detroit, many churches and congregants are actively exploring the transcendent purpose of daily work, creativity and innovation, entrepreneurship, and capital investment. In each case, we see empowerment and discipleship in one’s daily work and creative service, but also a faith-based perspective on disrupting old systems, pursuing new ideas, and starting new enterprises.

Joyce focuses specifically on the tech industry, where there’s been particular action, not only in the form of capital and new start-ups, but also in an abundance of tech-focused church-business partnerships, conferences, and curriculum on the intersection of faith and entrepreneurship:

The heartland’s tech boom has sparked the emergence of a loose faith-and-tech movement, one that has grown in pockets around the world but is based indisputably in the American Midwest. The region has hosted an explosion of conferences and meetups, yoking together a host of different goals: evangelical techies devising projects intended to spread the faith (Bible “chat bots” and savvy Google ad campaigns to connect desperate searchers with local pastors); Christians driven by the social gospel discussing how to create technological solutions to problems like suicide and sex trafficking; religious thinkers pondering the ethical implications of rapid technological change.

But perhaps the most interesting part of the Midwestern convergence of faith and technology, the most salient for believers and nonbelievers alike, is the way people there have begun to question the culture of tech entrepreneurship—and try to make it more humane. “Being an entrepreneur, you go through some very dark moments,” says Kristi Zuhlke, the 37-year-old cofounder of KnowledgeHound, a Chicago-based data visualization startup. “Raising funding is very lonely. You’re basically convincing everyone that your idea is amazing while they constantly shoot you down.” It’s the sort of thing that can make people question their faith, she continued, “or, if you don’t have a faith, you start to clamor for hope that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

As a primary example, Joyce points to Cincinnati’s Crossroads church, a 52,000-member megachurch where faith-and-tech efforts have grown to tremendous scale. Although its story was decades in the making, growth has accelerated in recent years due to a range of forces — spiritual, cultural, economic, political, and otherwise. “The story of Crossroads’ rise runs pretty neatly in tandem with that of Cincinnati, which 20 years ago was an urban cautionary tale,” Joyce explains. “Although the city is home to the headquarters of eight Fortune 500 companies, including Procter & Gamble, Macy’s, and Kroger, by the 1990s it had also become synonymous with stereotypes of urban blight.”

It was in this context that Crossroads was first founded, led by several local business executives. By the time the city’s economic boom kicked into gear in the mid-2000s, Crossroads was already being used “as an informal workspace by a couple dozen young congregants,” many of them “twenty- or thirtysomething tech or startup workers.” From there, the church began to be more intentional about empowering its entrepreneurs. Today, the church supports an annual faith-and-tech conference, an intensive start-up competition, and various offshoot investment firms.

There’s plenty of diversity in approach and application in defining the corresponding vision of “faith and work” or “faith and tech.” This is true even within Crossroads, which encourages a mix of work-life balance, creative entrepreneurship, and active spiritual discernment. When attending the church’s “Unpolished” conference, for example, Joyce saw several competing visions on display. “The conference seemed to embody a tension in the movement,” she writes, “a choice between two dueling trajectories the faith-and-tech world could take: a frenetic, always-be-crushing-it emulation of Silicon Valley, armored with biblical justification; or the humbler embrace of more modest goals and the necessary trade-offs between business and life success.”

These tensions and differences stretch far wider, of course — across a diverse range of religious movements and regional communities. The “coasts vs. heartland” dichotomy can be helpful as a starting point of analysis, but the bigger development is that we see new manifestations of faith-work activation, all bearing witness amid new waves of economic growth and disruption.

As Charlie Self puts it in his Acton primer, Flourishing Churches and Communities, “Local churches are ‘base camps’ for launching ‘cultural entrepreneurs,’ who are connective tissue between faith and economics, charity and outreach, evangelization and improvement of the world.”

We may see many unsung and unseen regions and cities finding new paths to economic growth. As religious communities continue to respond with truth and goodness, we may also find a foundation and whole-life perspective that will bring far more than just material success.

(Photo credit: OCEAN Community. Used with permission.)

Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.