What In the World Is a Hatch-a-thon?

1 · 03 · 16

ftOkay… so I might have made that word up. But it seemed apt. You’ve probably heard about business incubators and student entrepreneur clubs that sponsor “hackathons”—those super-intense 24 hour periods where tech-savvy young entrepreneurs gather, and with “their powers combined,” they spend 24 hours developing a bunch of apps aimed at solving a community problem.

Dr. Brian Foreman, who teaches Christian education at Campbell University (and no stranger to technology—see his book How To Be #SocialMediaParents: Aware Online, Present Offline), was the first person I met who agreed that hackathons might have a purpose outside of the tech world, and might be specifically useful to foster innovation in youth ministry. Thanks to Brian, I still use “hackathons” in my social innovation classes as a substitute for midterm exams.

And then Mark DeVries and I had breakfast one day. If you know Mark, you know that getting Mark in on an idea is pretty much like adding hydrogen to anything, so… the idea blew up. What if we adapted the form that business incubators use for the sake of entrepreneurs in ministry, and not just in technology? What if early-stage missional innovators had a place to “hatch” and “pitch” the ideas they’ve been sitting on for months? What if church people gathered to support each other’s most hare-brained “big ideas” for self-funded ministries–and what if they went home with a toolkit that would help them launch those ideas into reality?

So that’s what happened.

groupWe’ve been doing hatch-a-thons, in various ways, for three years now. No two are alike because context matters a lot. But each one results in new ideas for the church, new ideas for ministry. Most people leave excited to take the next step. A few leave with their worlds turned upside down, because they recognize that God has given them a vision for ministry that has ignited them—and that changes the way they think about ministry from here on out.

In a nutshell, a hatch-a-thon is where folks who have been noodling over an idea for ministry get together with others in the same boat, and we all spend a couple days in overdrive together, hammering out these ideas to get them in a workable form. Hatch-a-thons work best when you come as a team (that’s why most venues give you such steep discounts if you bring a partner)—they are fundamentally collaborative.

For those of you who remember the “fast forward” feature on DVDs…hatch-a-thons are like that. You dive into a super-accelerated process that helps you sketch out your business and ministry plan, with feedback from others along the way. You won’t have a finished missional enterprise when you leave—but with 48 hours of uninterrupted attention to your idea, you’ll be a whole lot closer.

The “entrepreneurial” part of all this assumes that your Big Idea will be self-funded in some way. In other words, you’re going to have to figure out how to pay for this apart from the offering plate. (We have all sorts of justifications for this, which we’ll share when we see you!) The good news is that you don’t need a line item in the church budget for your ministry idea to happen. The bad news is that you do need funds from somewhere—so how your ministry earns money is part of the conversation.

meetHere’s why I’m sold: I have never been in a room with as much hope for the church, with as much excitement over the possibility of resurrection, as I have when “hatchletes” go around the room and share their wild ideas for ministry–and everybody can see what this could mean for the church’s dry bones.

Excitement about resurrection. Sounds pretty close to how churches got started in the first place…which means it might not be a bad place for us to be right now.

They’ll change your vision of the church, these people—individuals and congregations who want to change the world for Christ by baking pies with teenagers, by starting a food truck for campus ministry, by transforming youth ministry into a venture that employs young people (see here and here), by putting a Subway franchise in the church for job training, by counseling young people with disabilities, by starting a community garden or a dinner church or a new church plant that doubles as a coffee shop or as a co-working space or an events venue. (And there are some quirkier ones, too… ask us what beard wax is doing for youth ministry in Chicago!)

And—unlike business incubators—your idea doesn’t need to be fully “cooked” before you come. In fact, you’re probably going to want to change a bunch of things during the process itself, so it’s good if the cookie dough is still soft. A lot of people come to hatch-a-thons just to test whether their idea “has legs.” And some come just to learn a process for innovation, so they’re ready when a Big Idea strikes.

Because… it will, if you let it. And heaven knows, the church needs you to bring it on.

(For registration for the upcoming Princeton Theological Seminary hatch-a-thon on March 29-31, click here.)

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