Church Congregations Grow Alongside Population

in by

Some churches in the View’s readership area have reported recent growth in attendance and membership despite the City’s reputation for having a high percentage of religiously unaffiliated individuals.

According to 2014 data from the Pew Research Center, 35 percent of San Franciscans are unaffiliated, compared to 23 percent nationally; 48 percent classify themselves as Christian, compared to 71 percent for the U.S. Fifteen percent of City residents belong to a non-Christian faith, while only six percent in the nation has similar beliefs. Sperling’s Best Places, a web-based data service that analyzes trends in American living, indicates that two percent of San Franciscans practice Judaism, one percent is Islamic, and three percent adhere to an Eastern religious tradition.

St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church has about 200 member families, a small subset of the quarter of the City’s population who are reportedly Catholic. The Church was established in the 1880s, expanding from a Third Street boarding house. A permanent church was built on Tennessee Street, but as the population migrated the structure was disassembled and rebuilt at its current 19th and Connecticut streets location. A school associated with the parish closed in the 1970s due to a lack of enrollment.

“It’s a small close-knit parish,” said Stephani Sheehan, Church secretary. “The majority of families live in the area. Our numbers have been growing as the population has increased in the past three years or so.”

St. Teresa’s is active in the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a national charity with 160,000 volunteers. Once a week volunteers distribute groceries to those in need; they make sandwiches for homeless individuals monthly. Faith formation classes are offered to children on Sundays.

Rhode Island Street, near Southern Heights Avenue, is home to City View Church, a Christian flock that began about 30 years ago.  According to Augustine Garcia, the senior pastor, the congregation focuses on working with the homeless, especially in the Mission. The community is small, with roughly 15 people regularly in attendance for Wednesday services and about 10 on Sundays. Garcia emphasized that the Church is open to everyone, and encouraged new visitors.

Though less than one percent of San Franciscans identify as Episcopalian, St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church on De Haro Street draws a large congregation from around the San Francisco Bay Area to its unique form of Sunday worship. Only about 20 percent of regular attendees live in the neighborhood. “It’s a Church that’s internationally renowned for highly participatory services,” explained Church pastor, Reverend Paul Fromberg. “We have a huge number of visitors every Sunday. Unlike a lot of churches, we don’t use organs or bands for worship. We use acapella, which is distinct for churches. We’re committed to not just using our minds and hearts but our bodies in prayer as well. Movement is a big thing for us.”

St. Gregory’s has been in Potrero Hill since the early 1990s.  As it’s located across the street from Anchor Brewing Company, churchgoers have smelled the yeasty aroma of beer being brewed for decades. The Church has gotten along well with the brewery, and recently reached an equitable agreement with a local developer, whose proposed plans for a 40 foot, 41,772 square foot residential building at 540 De Haro Street would’ve resulted in blockage of the natural light that pours through the Church’s clear-glass windows.  “We had a robust hearing on June 2. Eighty-two members of the Church were at the hearing. We happily came up with an agreement with the developer. We’re grateful to the Planning Commission and developer for being flexible to our needs,” said Fromberg.

The Church tries to keep its doors open as much as possible to community members.  Neighborhood groups are welcome to use building spaces for meetings and events. Recovery groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, have regular gatherings at St. Gregory’s. A food pantry that’s operated since 2001 in conjunction with the Marin County Food Bank distributes free groceries to hundreds of families. In a shaded area next to the building’s main entrance a bench and chalkboard were recently added so that people can write prayer requests and express what they’re thankful for.

On Sixth Street, City Life Church, launched in 2012, has recently noticed an increase in attendance. It’s a Christian non-denomination church that’s part of a group called Ministry Fellowship International, based in Portland, Oregon. City Life has a weekly attendance of about 200 for services, though up to 300 people consider themselves a part of the congregation.

Brandon Spitzack, City Life Church’s director of multi-media, who participated in its founding, said that there’s talk of increasing services to two per week, but that it’s unlikely to happen soon as there’s plenty of space to accommodate demands from the existing congregation. If attendance continues to swell additional services will be added.

“Harvest Church of Concord had sent us to start a new church in San Francisco and we picked the name City Life Church, but it turned out that another group starting a church had chosen the same name. We ended up merging with the other church,” explained Spitzack.

Sunday worship services are held from 10 to 11:15 a.m., and are known as the “weekend experience.” The service has a theatrical aspect, with media and lighting effects. During summer months, smaller events are held at people’s South-of-Market and East Bay homes; mostly casual BBQs. Once monthly a community project, Bags of Love, is scheduled, during which bags of clothing and food are collected for homeless people. Bag recipients aren’t required to attend services. “A passion of our Church is to go out and have an impact in the community. There’s a lot of people in SoMa and the Tenderloin that are in need,” said Spitzack.

The SoMa Shul, at Natoma and Sixth streets, is a project of Chabad Center for the Jewish Community in San Francisco, and offers traditional Torah observance and a space for people to gather socially and celebrate Judaism. The Shul offers a variety of events, such as weekly religious classes and a Shabbat happy hour on the fourth Friday of every month for young Jewish professionals to schmooze, sing and pray. Regular morning prayers, or Shacharit, are held at 7 a.m. weekdays.

Other places of worship in the area include St. Stephen Baptist Church, First Russian Christian Molokan, RGT Christian Church and Russian Church, and Saint Michael Ukrainian Orthodox Church.