Pokémon Goes to Church
Who says you can't have fun at church? More and more congregations are finding new faces in their parking lots, thanks to the popularity of a new game played on mobile phones.
The worldwide cultural phenomenon known as Pokémon, which originated in the late 1990's with a pair of video games and blossomed into a large franchise of licensed games, shows and toys, has returned in a big way with the release of Pokémon Go.
When you download and play this free, location-based augmented reality game on your mobile phone, you become a Pokémon trainer. The goal of the game is to walk around your neighborhood and city to catch as many Pokémon (short for pocket monsters) as you can.
Once you catch one, you can enhance its abilities with special candy and then battle other trainers (divided into three teams) at Pokémon Gyms. Trainers can get valuable (and virtual) supplies at PokéStops in the area, which they can see on the map in their mobile phones.
Many churches and area landmarks have been unexpectedly tagged by Niantic (the company that developed the game), as PokéStops and Pokémon Gyms in the game.
So if you see people walking around your church parking lot staring at their phones, it's a good bet they are playing Pokémon Go.
What can your church community do to welcome these visitors, many who may not have been to your church in the past?
Laura Heikes, senior pastor at Bee Creek United Methodist Church in Spicewood, Texas, says that churches shouldn't try to "catch" these visitors like so many Pokémon.
"Churches should see this as a chance to offer hospitality and kindness towards players instead of treating them as potential members or worship visitors," says Heikes. "Put up signs of welcome, offer refreshments or gifts in the game, and attempt to get to know the players and the game. Try downloading and playing the game yourself to generate conversation."
Read More about POKÉMON Go
Understanding the game is important in that community, as Bee Creek UMC itself is the site of four PokéStops and two Pokémon Gyms.
"We have an opportunity (like most churches in the game)," says Heikes, "to be a place that gets to show the extravagant love of Christ. Sometimes providing a glass of water, air conditioning, and actually being interested in other people and their interests is the best way to redefine what other's expectations are of Christians. Providing opportunities for the players to catch all the Pokémon they can is simply a way to attempt to get to know them."
"Churches that can provide resources in the game may then have the chance to do so outside of the game. But if nothing else, it's a chance for players to have a positive interaction with believers."
One church changed their sign to announce their designation as a PokéStop and to welcome trainers to their church.
"I added the message to our church sign so that people who might not have a church home – or have negative or indifferent feelings about organized religion – might see us as a place that is interested in them and in the things that are important in their lives, even if it is a game of Pokémon (which I play on my phone too)," says Steven Adair, 28-year-old millennial member of Glendale United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn., and volunteer communications coordinator for the church.
"The 'church' has for too long appeared – and in many cases has been – a place of exclusion and that is something we want to show we are not," Adair says.
The craze is even evident at the New Room, the chapel in Bristol, England that John Wesley built in the 18th century. A sign teaches Pokémon Go players about the founder of Methodism: "Welcome to John Wesley's statue! This is travelling preacher John Wesley who came to Bristol in 1739. As well as sharing the Christian faith with thousands of people he was also a social activist who worked for the rights of the poor, encouraged education and human rights and spoke out against the slave trade. If you would like to find out more about John Wesley then you will receive a warm welcome in the New Room. Happy Pokémon Hunting!"
Still, some churches and community landmarks may not want to be labelled as a PokéStop or a Pokémon Gym, so the developer has provide a way to make changes inside the game.
To Add or Remove your church as a PokéStop and/or Gym
- Go to https://support.pokemongo.nianticlabs.com
- Click on "Submit a request" near the top right
- Click on "Report an issue with a Gym or PokéStop
- Enter contact information and Additional info/reason for your request. Detail your objection here, as the next step doesn't help much.
- The next field is required field, so select the most appropriate reason
Many churches find advantages to being listed prominently in the game. St. Luke's United Methodist Church in Yorktown, Virginia is using their designation to reach out to the players and offer them bottles of water.
“We just want to say 'Hey, you're welcome here, you're welcome to come hang out, grab a drink, grab a snack,” Emily Howdyshell of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church says in a televised interview on WVEC-TV. (Watch the full interview here).
"We're the church and we're supposed to show love in our community and that's what we plan on doing whether it's through Pokémon Go or through people coming to worship here," says Howdyshell.
"However we can interact with people, we are called to do so in a loving way," she says.
This feature was originally published July 14, 2016.