According to the Barna Group, the San Francisco 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. Churches are expanding, and new churches are popping up.
Recently, my wife, Jackie, and I had the opportunity to attend a service at a church I heard much about – Reality Church in San Francisco – and I was able to interview Reality’s founder and senior pastor, Dave Lomas. In just four years, Reality has grown from a start-up to a church with 1,400 to 1,500 regular attendees.
The church meets at 10:30 on Sundays in the Everett Middle School, 450 Church Street in San Francisco.
Jackie and I arrived early for the Sunday service. I noticed how friendly people were. The first person we saw – 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 de-caffeinated coffee. That gave me a clue about the congregation which soon filtered in.
I estimate that 80 to 90% of the racially diverse 1,400 attendees who packed auditorium were between the ages of 20 to 35 years old. 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 in the service, for the guest pastor who would be preaching, and for the worship service to be transformative for those attending.
To my surprise – given the age 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 of the songs. 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.
I should make two other observations. 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 done in conjunction with City Impact, a Christian ministry focused on reaching out to the poor and disadvantaged in the Tenderloin section of San Francisco.
Second, was the emphasis on 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 Pastor Lomas that 75% of the people who attend Reality are engaged in community groups. This is an astounding number. Many churches struggle to have half of their congregants engaged in small groups.
Reality Church’s vision is summed up in three words: theological, missional, and relational.
- Theological – The church’s website reads, “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. Lomas says, “We believe that the mission of God flows out of being the people of God. 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 that are healthy, loving Christians in San Francisco.”
- Relational – Lomas believes that mission flows out of relationship. That is why there is such an 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,” says Lomas. “The community groups are not just a program of our church. They’re a way our church lives the Christian life in the context of family.” People spend time with each other during the week – sharing meals, celebrating, and sharing tragedy and loss.
What Makes Reality Different?
I asked Pastor Lomas what makes Reality different. He commented that he did not really know, but did comment that it is not about the number of people who attend. It is about helping people grow deeper in their faith. “We really don’t want to grow so wide that we can’t grow deep,” says Lomas.
Authenticity, Lomas believes, may be a factor which attracts people to Reality. According to Lomas – and validated by my one experience at Reality – Reality does not over-produce its services. Instead, it desires authenticity. He comments,
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.
Interestingly, although many of the people who attend Reality work for high tech companies and all are intimately familiar with technology, the church puts little emphasis on technology during the Sunday gatherings. Lomas comments,
Yes, we like technology but we also know that technology could make us feel very unhuman. And we love being human. When we stripped everything down at our church and got rid of the hype, it struck a nerve in people.
Specific Challenges of the Bay Area
Lomas recognizes that doing church in San Francisco is a challenge. He specifically mentions the transient population, the cost of living, and the focus on individuality as his biggest challenges. But he is not deterred, “I see these challenges as opportunities for the gospel to move forward, opportunities to teach people the way of Jesus and to walk and live in the way of Christ.”
Although there may be conflicting values between the church and the secular community, Lomas puts the emphasis on love. “We want to be a church that is a Jesus community for the city. We’re not here to say that everything is fine. But we will love people rightly. We want to be in San Francisco for San Francisco.”
God working in San Francisco
Lomas sees the hand of God in San Francisco. He recalls a comment from a pastor friend who told him that he has not seen such a movement of God in the City over the past 17 years he has been pastoring as he sees now. Lomas is optimistic about the future of faith in San Francisco. He comments,
I’m very optimistic for the future in San Francisco. I see people in our church living out the call of Christ in the city. They are genuinely excited about being a part of something God is doing. I think that we haven’t even scratched the surface of what God can do here.