At the new Epic Church in SoMa, a typical service starts with rock music.
The idea of missionary-minded southerners setting up shop in SoMa sounds like an unfortunate business decision (didn’t they read the guidebooks?). But a year after coming to town, the evangelical Epic Church is thriving in ways that say a lot about religion Bay Area–style, and about how SoMa itself has changed.
On a typical Sunday morning, the vibe in this sanctuary, located in the basement of an office building, is more dance club than country church. Exposed piping crawls across the ceiling, and flat-screen monitors hang from concrete pillars. After a band warms up the crowd with anthemic, KFOG-esque soft rock, lead pastor Ben Pilgreen, a plaid-shirted, shaven-headed 34-year-old Missouri transplant, takes the stage. He discusses Epic’s sponsorship of Ugandan children, then delivers a sermon notably lacking in righteous wrath. “We do not have a distant God,” he says.
The 200-some congregants wouldn’t look out of place at a Marina bar. Indeed, Pilgreen says that many of his flock are tech professionals, drawn to the neighborhood not by its famously liberal ethos (this was Chris Daly’s district for 10 years) but by its proximity to companies like Twitter, Yelp, and Sega and its scads of new condos (SoMa is where the building growth has been in the last five years). They tend to be young, new to the city, and more conventional than the Burning Man types who used to dominate the area, so their attraction to Epic makes sense, especially considering the nondenominational, nonpolitical nature of its message. While its leaders don’t contradict the views of their more traditional brethren on culture-war issues such as gay marriage, they don’t promote them, either. “We really don’t care to get into those debates,” says Tim Milner, the church’s artfully stubbled 27-year-old executive pastor. “Everyone’s invited.”
This “big tent”–style community building is exactly what attracted Uche Adegbite, a 28-year-old Nigerian American who works on voice recognition technology for Microsoft and who now volunteers at Epic. “I had been in churches my whole life,” he says. “But I had rarely felt as connected as I do here.”