My “church hacker” adaptation of the glider, considered by some as an emblem of the hacker community

Last week three generations of Vests vacationed together in Florida—my father, his brother, one of their first cousins, spouses, children, and grandchildren. It was a lot of fun, some of which will require at least a week of recovery. It was truly a week of feasting, in every sense of the word.

As usual, we shared lots of stories and family lore. Of the many things I took note of, I was reminded once again that I come from a family of fixers. My grandfather and his brothers were tinkerers and do-it-yourselfers. They developed ingenious ways to solve problems in their homes and on their farms. Three of the next generation became engineers and built infrastructure ranging from roads to bridges to fiber-optic networks.

I developed an early aptitude for math and science and spent most of high school dreaming of becoming a space physicist. When I made a vocational shift toward religion and Christian ministry, people joked that I simply exchanged one approach to cosmology for another. I’ve always thought that there is actually something insightful about that observation, especially now that I understand how scholastic my approach to religion was for much of my young adulthood.

If theology became my astrophysics, religious institutions became my field of engineering. I have an innate eye for systems and very little patience for dysfunction. Nothing irritates me more than poor leadership and broken systems. The church, as it turns out, is full of both.

For over a decade and a half of ministry I’ve labored to improve church systems at all levels: from programs to congregations to regional councils to my denomination. It’s a testament to my internal wiring and vocational calling that I keep returning to these pursuits, even when my work is inevitably frustrating and/or fruitless.

Lately I’ve adopted a different mental model. Several months ago I was looking for a cool location to host a visioning retreat for the leadership team of the Joyful Feast, a new worshiping community I’ve been working on. When I signed up for the coworking space we ended up using, I was asked to describe myself with prompts like freelancer, entrepreneur, nerd, and hacker. It occurred to me in that moment that church hacking is probably the best overall description of what I do.

In popular usage, a hacker is someone who breaks into computer systems for nefarious reasons. But going back to the 1960s and ’70s, the term describes a subculture of engineers and software developers who work, in often unorthodox ways, to find creative solutions to computer design. Adapting the opening line of the Wikipedia article on hacker culture, I’ve started to describe myself as a church hacker attempting to overcome the limitations of church as we know it. In other words, I’m trying to reengineer church with the playfulness and creativity of a hacker.

I realize, of course, that Rocky Supinger and others may think that this is “so 2011” of me, but church hacking is a perfect tag for what I’ve been trying to do for the past two decades. After reflecting last week on the lineage of tinkerers and engineers from which I come, I’m more convinced than ever that this is who I am.

John W. Vest

John is a "church hacker" attempting to overcome the limitations of church as we know it. To connect with him and learn more about his work, please visit johnvest.com.

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