How a Global Christian Hackathon Is Reprogramming the Church

Fellows 2015

By Catherine Woodiwiss

October 05, 2015

Also published by Sojourners

Do not be alarmed: there are no known bands of Jesus fish-sporting, vigilante hackers patrolling the cyber underworld.

But in 13 cities this weekend — including Jakarta, Bangalore, Addis Ababa, Guatemala City, London, Waterloo, Atlanta, and Raleigh-Durham — more than 800 Christian coders, developers, programmers, designers, pastors, and artists gathered together for a 48-hour simultaneous hackathon. They scripted, designed, collaborated, and competed to develop new apps and websites for global and local adherents to the faith.

Welcome to the first global Christian hackathon, where programmers speak of transformational love and pastors wield code.

“The future of the church will be built by these culture makers — technologists and entrepreneurs and communicators and artists,” said Chris Armas, director of Code for the Kingdom, a lead producer of the weekend events.

The term “Christian hackathon” is perhaps doubly off-putting. Hacker communities and evangelical churches in the U.S. tend to be suspicious of one another, and a significant proportion of Americans are wary of both.

But enthusiasts of this niche pairing have been challenging churches of all stripes to think expansively about engaging with the digital world.

“Digital crushes everything together,” said Simon Seow, director of Indigitous, a global network of Christians in digital strategy and a co-producer of the hackathon.

“I hear coders say, “‘Oh, [this job] isn’t holy at all.’ Actually, it is. It’s desperately needed. I say to them, ‘You’re thinking in ways others can’t.’”

Hackathons — weekend challenges to develop new tech tools to solve a problem or tap a potential market — have ballooned in popularity among top tech and Fortune 500 companies like IMB, PayPal, Facebook, Walmart, Yahoo, and Capitol One. And days of “civic hacking” or “hacks for change” — hackathons geared toward community and social good — are common across the U.S.

In the last three years, various religious groups have tried applying belief to local hacking meetups. Each group takes a different posture (and shares a proclivity for punny names) — last year’s Hackathonukah in New York City observed Hannukah’s festival of lights by encouraging Jewish participants to develop smart, energy-efficient lighting; in April, a Haqqathon in Abu Dhabi challenged young Muslim developers to create digital tools for peace.

And both Indigitous, an arm of international Christian campus group Cru, and Code for the Kingdom, a project of evangelical group Leadership Network, gather coders to digitize and improve on existing church practices by building interactive Bible apps, social prayer schedules, and the like.

But this weekend’s hackathon is the first attempt at mass collaboration among people of faith around the world.

By Sunday night, teams had developed concepts — and in some cases, live sites and functioning apps and games — for marital and fidelity counseling, direct disaster relief, peer-to-peer refugee housing, combatting sex trafficking, and, in one city, an “immersive mission field experience” built with virtual reality tool Google Cardboard.

"There is a huge opportunity to reach underserved populations [through these hackathons]," Code for the Kingdom organizer Nick Skytland wrote in an email.

"We exceeded our goals by far more then we could have imagined."

Bringing together religion and global mass collaboration was an idea that NASA Open Government member and lead organizer for the National Day of Civic Hacking’s Ali Llewellyn was considering when she met Armas last year.

Llewellyn and Skytland, who was then her National Day of Civic Hacking partner, were fresh off a challenge of a very different kind — running the International Space Apps Challenge for NASA, one of the largest mass collaborations to date.

“We wanted to invite everybody to participate in vision and exploration,” said Llewellyn.

“In doing it, we recognized the NASA vision commanded such energy — even more so outside the U.S. With the differences in ideas that came out of Russia, Haiti, Venezuela, versus what came out of traditional tech hubs in the U.S. — [we thought,] how much more could we try this with the global church?”

Armas, used to running single-city hackathons, admits he was initially “hesitant” to try mass collaboration. But several international Christian aid groups, including World Vision and Tearfund UK, joined in the weekend challenge to develop their own products. And by weekend’s end, Armas said, entrepreneurs in non-participating countries, including Poland, Australia, and South Africa, had reached out with interest in the concept.

The global hackathon didn’t require international collaboration — each local team developed its own challenges and identified its own interests and problems to solve. But inter-country coordination played a role — mentors from Yahoo, StumbleUpon, Google, and elsewhere were available to all participants 24/7, and a global Slack channel served as an international hotline for teams to swap coding advice, development savvy, and — when participants were short on sleep — silly videos and photos of on-site local cuisine.

Not all of the concepts developed at the conference will reach final product development. But Indigitous director Seow still sees it as an important experiment for faith communities.

“I’m okay that some projects will fall through the cracks,” Seow said.

“It’s an experience in prototyping.”

Others point to the value of open source collaboration as an important product in itself. Kyama Mugambi, lead pastor at Manuvo Downtown church in Nairobi and the judge for the competition in Kenya, sees “huge” potential for the open-invitation, horizontal structure of hackathons to rethink local models of leadership in churches.

“Leadership grows out of a number of things: need, context, skill, experience,” he said.

“What people need is just a space. Give them the space and they take on the space and they really move forward and use the opportunity to make an impact. That’s what I like about this.”

But while easy enough to attract tech types and young people to hackathons, several organizers mentioned the challenge of getting existing church leadership to be comfortable with opening participation and flattening control.

Shamichael Hallman, pastor of innovation at New Direction Christian Church in Memphis, Tenn., and a lead organizer for Code for the Kingdom, has attended every one of Code for the Kingdom’s U.S. hackathons.

“Our church is huge — thousands attend. But you have very few people who actually serve,” he said.

“Many times they’re not aware of opportunities. The church creates a bucket of opportunities — if you can’t do this or that you can’t serve. So what I was trying to do was turn it upside down and say you know, ok, what if you tell us what you’re passionate about and we’ll create something based off that.”

Where will these tools — and the concept of global religious hackathons — go next? It’s unclear, but those participating in the weekend have several new tools to apply in the answer.

This story was reported from Nairobi on a grant from the International Reporting Project, an independent journalism program based in Washington, D.C.