If that sort of talk sounds a little elevated for a product that is, as Reynolds also acknowledges, basically “a focus group on your phone,” or if you’re not used to metaphors that compare salvation to a software update, welcome to the worlds of both Christian and startup evangelism—worlds that, as recent trends in the American Midwest demonstrate, are increasingly intertwined.
Over the past decade or so, the amount of venture capital flowing into the Midwest has expanded from a trickle into a fairly substantial, multibillion-dollar tributary—enough for thousands of tech startups to sprout up in the old-line cities of the Rust Belt.
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 like AOL cofounder Steve Case and Hillbilly Elegy author J. D. Vance, who unveiled a $150 million investment fund called Rise of the Rest in 2017. And 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.
The Bay Area, which devours about 45 percent of all US venture funding, is one of the least religious parts of the country. Although this March will mark the 26th annual Silicon Valley Prayer Breakfast (recently renamed Silicon Valley Connect), Big Tech is still considered, almost axiomatically, allergic to expressions of faith. At a recent conference in Nashville, one software developer said, “I’m afraid that when people hear I’m a Christian, they’re going to start questioning my competency as a developer.” A 2018 episode of the comedy series Silicon Valley spoofed the travails of an LGBTQ dating app founder who was terrified of being outed—as a believer.
For some Christians, accordingly, the industry’s shift toward the heartland has been liberating. Jason Henrichs, the founder of several Midwestern finance and tech organizations, has worked in tech on both coasts, including a stint in Boston. “When my wife and I moved back to the Midwest, it was so much easier to be a Christian than in all those other places,” he says. In Chicago, he goes on, “if you were to casually mention you’re going to church, there’s no set of assumptions that you’re a Trump supporter, a gun toter, out protesting on weekends.” (Though in fact, he corrected himself, he and his wife would be out protesting that weekend—against gun violence, at the March for Our Lives.)
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.”
Cincinnati, which has become one of the Midwest’s leading tech cities, has also become a hub for people trying to find some relief from the loneliness at the heart of an industry that prizes unending drive and competition. That they had a place to connect was thanks in part to Chad Reynolds. Not long after returning from South Carolina, Reynolds banded together with a group of entrepreneur friends—including Tim Brunk, cofounder of a personal style app called Cladwell, and Tim Metzner, cofounder of a software startup called Differential—to start an organization that would eventually be called Ocean, named after Reynolds’ dark night of the soul. They were, in large part, responding to a hunger among their fellow entrepreneurs to redefine what it means to be successful in tech. But in an area of the country that increasingly sees tech as its salvation, that can be easier said than done.
Crossroads, the congregation that helped usher Reynolds toward his conversation with God, has in recent years become a major emblem of the fusion in sensibilities between tech and evangelical Christianity. Today it is a 52,000-member megachurch, with 13 campuses, a presence in six prisons, a streaming app called Crossroads Anywhere, and ambitions to expand nationally. Its lead pastor, Brian Tome, likes to say that Crossroads is “more like a startup than a church.” In 2017 it was named the fastest-growing congregation in the country, and also the nation’s fourth largest.
The story of Crossroads’ rise runs pretty neatly in tandem with that of Cincinnati, which 20 years ago was an urban cautionary tale. 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. Decades of white flight left central city neighborhoods like Over-the-Rhine—named for the long-departed Germans who first settled there—roughly 75 percent black and overwhelmingly poor. Businesses were boarded up, and crime reached the point that one author compared Over-the-Rhine to The Wire‘s fictional Hamsterdam, a designated area where police agreed not to interfere with nonviolent lawbreakers. A late-’90s attempt at gentrification and renewal that rebranded the neighborhood as the Digital Rhine fizzled with the dotcom bust, and after a 2001 police shooting of an unarmed black teenager sparked days of civil unrest, one conservative magazine declared the neighborhood “ground zero in inner-city decline.” Landlords abandoned the downtown’s Italianate housing stock, fleeing one of the largest historic districts in the country.