Innovative Hackathons Mobilize Techies for God’s Kingdom
By Warren Bird
“Twelve years ago, I was an atheist who adamantly denied God, and I would have never seen myself use computer programming to facilitate the study and understanding of God’s Word,” said one of the participating programmers at the first Leadership Network Code for the Kingdom hackathon. “I feel so blessed that God has redeemed this skill.”
The term hackathon, created from “hacking marathon” and sometimes known as a hackfest or codefest, refers to an event in which computer programmers—and others involved in software development, graphic design, interface design and project management—collaborate intensively on software projects. Around 150 technologists, church, nonprofit leaders, and businesspeople put their valuable skills together to tackle Kingdom challenges at the event in San Francisco, which was a collaboration between Leadership Network, Menlo Park Presbyterian Church and Carpenters, a community of Christ-following engineers, designers, funders, and entrepreneurs.
Most participants were local, but some came from across the country and around the world. “There is nothing like this in Hong Kong,” said one participant. “As a Christian I felt it my duty to come make a contribution to this.”
Two more programmers stumbled upon the event in the middle of the night when a Social Good hackathon down the street bogged down, and they heard God might be up to something at the “Kingdom” event. “I searched for other hackathons and saw this was a Christian one,” one of the men said. “The guy sitting next to me asked, ‘Are you a Christian?’ When I said yes, he said, ‘Let’s go over there!’ ”
During the event, in which prizes were awarded for five categories, the participants formed teams to develop real-world technology solutions for some of the today’s biggest problems in churches. Participants left with a sense of wonder at how God moved—and at the potential world-changing work that could take place at future events.
Beyond Websites and PowerPoints
Left: The spirit of collaboration was so great that many of the sponsors and developers helped several teams to advance their projects.
Accelerating the mission of the Kingdom through the development of effective digital tools, and creating opportunities for churches to engage in digital initiatives through the removal of obstacles related to cost and human resources were some of the goals that prompted Leadership Network to develop the Beyond Digital Initiative—an effort that will sponsor future hackathons across the U.S., and gather a learning community of American churches that are leading the way in using technology to innovate.
“In order for the church to be successful in a digitally-centered world, its leaders must actively seek ways to leverage the untapped potential in their pews and outside their walls,” says Tim Nations, Leadership Network’s director for the emerging Beyond Digital Leadership Community. “Leaders need to think beyond website management and sermon slides, allowing those with this critical skill set to be released in an environment of freedom and support.”
48 Hours of Focus and Collaboration
Right: Many of the technologists expressed their appreciation to be able to use their talents and skills to further God's Kingdom.
In preparation for the event, Leadership Network conducted a poll of church leaders to determine major Kingdom challenges that well-designed and well-deployed technology could help solve.
Participants came from Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Yahoo, dozens of smaller companies, churches, and nonprofits to take on a list of 11 challenges curated from the results of the poll, along with 20 or so ideas pitched by the participants. Teams framed problems, brainstormed solutions and worked to develop tools such as prayer apps, Kingdom crowdsourcing platforms, Bible engagement and sharing tools, and resources to combat human trafficking.
Below: Some of the hackers took advantage of the comfortable surroundings during the marathon hacking sessions to grab a quick nap.
Once the hackathon started, teams worked around the clock until the event ended—often engaging in all-night coding and conversations fueled by coffee, fruit juice and an occasional cat nap. About 18 projects were initiated, improved upon, or attempted during the Hackathon. Thirteen were presented for judging by a panel of four.
“The participants felt a spirit of collaboration and potential explosiveness,” says Leadership Network President Dave Travis, who devised the event after hearing about similar initiatives in the business and civic world for the past couple of years.
New Apps to Solve Kingdom Problems
The participants were encouraged to create solutions that would either impact an individual’s spiritual formation, tackle a social justice malady, or help foment stronger and healthier ministries.
Participants were able to network with mentors, including entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, church and nonprofit leaders, and businesspeople, who helped them fine tune their ideas.
The winner of best overall award was an app called “Likewise,” created from scratch by a team from San Jose, most of whom were members of South Bay Church. Likewise is a peer to peer mentorship application that connects people who either want to mentor someone, or be mentored in spiritual areas such as fasting and prayer, or in everyday areas such as finances, carpentry or car repair.
The other team winners were:
Best New Code: I'll Join You - The original idea for this app came from a pastor from Memphis, TN. Using the Code for the Kingdom Google+ online community, he found a Los Angeles coder and businessman from Menlo Park Church to form a small team. The app helps church members identify their passions and skills to serve others and form ad hoc project teams for occasional or regular projects.
Best Social Justice: Free As Me – An app that helps people send tips to appropriate authorities about human trafficking inspired by the work of the International Justice Mission to inform and support police raids around the world. The app would use GPS data, photos, and audio recording to send reports directly to people who could respond.
Best Spiritual Formation: Abide – You open the app on your smartphone and it asks, “Who do you want to pray for?” You can select any individual or group from your contacts, including twitter, facebook, email, or text message list. Once you select it, it says “begin to pray now.” You speak your prayer to God for this person into your phone. It records your prayer. Once you are done, you hit send. It sends a copy of your prayer to the person in an audio file. They open the message which says “you have received the gift of prayer” and then they can hear you praying for them.
Healthier Stronger Ministries: Plus Bible - A social reader for the Bible. This is an app which allows users to create custom “notebooks” where they can read and comment on a Bible passage together regardless of where they are. You can set it for private, or share with your social network.
“The hackathon was an environment and platform that truly released people,” says Chris Armas, a former chief information officer who is now the Leadership Network director of emerging initiatives. “It really freed up the creative process. The level of cooperation was powerful. A great sense of community developed as people helped each other. The hackathon gave participants a stage to showcase their talents and ideas, and encouraged marketplace-like entrepreneurship in the development of Kingdom solutions. It was not just about ideation, but about bringing those ideas to life. By the end of the event, we had over a dozen tangible solutions, some of which could have transformational Kingdom impact.”
Above: Judges Dave Travis, CEO of Leadership Network (left), and Jim Straatman of Logos Bible Software (right), present the winning check for the best overall idea.
An Eye on the Future
Organizers were ecstatic to see potential begin to take shape—with an eye on what could be if future hackathons and learning communities unleash the often-untapped skills revealed at Code for the Kingdom.
“The mission of Code for the Kingdom is to help create a repeatable model by which churches, Christian nonprofits, Kingdom entrepreneurs and Kingdom investors can effectively engage and release the innovative forces within the information technology sector with the intent to make a Kingdom impact,” Chris Armas says. “Yet, we believe a similar approach could help release the creativity of unengaged individuals in many disciplines whether it might be music, graphic arts, entrepreneurship, engineering, writing, and others.”
“If we unleashed a generation of highly creative and motivated individuals to work on apps that could build social good, extend the Kingdom and solve practical problems, we would do two things,” Dave Travis says. “First, we would activate a group to greater impact. Second, we might end up with something useful for other churches and ministries to use.”
The hackathon produced an idea-rich event where prayer and technology merged to help the oppressed, teach God’s Word, and support the church and the body of Christ—all while promoting gifts that often may be under-utilized in churches.
“For many Christian technologists, the path for connecting their talents and passions to something of eternal significance seldom runs through the local church,” Tim Nations says. “Instead, they are left to try and launch out on their own or are forced to use their gifts only for marketplace purposes. That shouldn’t be, and we want to change that.”
Leadership Network graciously thanks the following sponsors for making the hackathon possible.
To learn more about the Code for the Kingdom Hackathon series click Code for the Kingdom website.
To learn about a Leadership Network peer group of several innovative churches seeking to explore “what’s next” in the digital landscape to more effectively achieve their Kingdom mission, check out the Beyond Digital Leadership Community webpage (Tim Nations, Director).
Warren Bird, Ph.D., research director at Leadership Network, with background as pastor and seminary professor, is author or co-author of 24 books for ministry leaders including Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work with Jim Tomberlin. His most recent title is Wisdom from Lyle E. Schaller. Some of Warren’s recent online reports include “The Heartbeat of Rising Influence Churches,” “Pastors Who Are Shaping the Future” and “A New Decade of Megachurches.” Follow him on Twitter @warrenbird