Twenty years ago, Nintendo launched Pokémon for the original Game Boy and became the franchise of choice for kids. The Japanese-animated creatures are experiencing a come-back surge with Pokémon Go, a downloadable app that pushes people out into the real world.
You may have seen people walking around your community zombie-like in search of Pokémon. Heads down, intent on the game, you can find them walking into street signs and tripping off curbs. At first glance it may seem that the game does not foster social engagement despite being in the real world. Yet, there are heartening stories from around the country of people teaming up to go Pokémon hunting and of strangers helping each other find elusive Pokémon.
Dozens of Missouri churches have discovered that their church buildings have been designated as Pokéstops or “gyms” where players can practice their skills. Some of those churches have discovered being embedded within a popular app offers a chance to serve the community: making sure the location is actually safe for young players, providing refreshments for players who have been in the heat and sun all day, and offering genuine hospitality for strangers who wander onto church grounds while playing.
One church planter took advantage of the designation as a Pokéstop and offered free pizza to players.
“I looked at it as pretty low-risk and super current,” said Rev. Adam Mustoe, Platte County Campus Pastor at Good Shepherd.
Over the course of the lunch hour on a Tuesday, Good Shepherd’s campus saw 20 Pokémon players, none of whom had a relationship with the church. The guests included four families, a young couple and a single, 25-year old man. The families with kids were very interested in VBS starting the following week. One family asked a lot questions about worship times. One woman, Natasha, brought six boys with her, seeing the augmented reality game as a great group activity.
“It actually does bring people together and I guarantee that none of these people would have ever stepped foot in my church,” Mustoe said. “I think it shows people that the Church doesn’t take itself too seriously.”
Grace in Lee’s Summit discovered it was both Pokéstop and a gym. Gyms can become “owned” by skilled players in the game. Gyms are also where the greatest potential for social interaction can happen as players train and even compete as teams against one another.
“I cannot wait for the youth to get back home from camp,” said Rev. Jeremy Vickers, senior pastor. “They are going to be so excited to try to take back their ‘gym.’”
The game has its critics. There are some safety concerns (see sidebar on page 26) and others have suggested that playing along with the game is taking the search for relevance too far. Vickers disagrees.
“Something that is bringing the next generation in droves to our church properties cannot be a bad thing,” Vickers said. “And, we should celebrate that an entity beyond us has recognized that churches are a safe place to interact and play. What are we going to do about it?”
Mustoe thinks churches interested in connecting with new people have to strike while the iron’s hot. “Eugene Peterson talks about the ministry of small-talk. Today, right now, it includes Pokémon.”