Churches, Don’t ‘Capitalize’ on “Pokémon Go”; Play It

Samuel Zeller / Unsplash
Samuel Zeller / Unsplash
What we miss by turning the gaming phenomenon into a recruitment tool.

Since its release on July 6, Pokémon Go—an augmented reality game that requires players to physically travel to real-world locations with their smart phones in order to collect supplies and catch mythical creatures called “pokémon”—has sent millions of people to church.

The game’s popularity is unprecedented. After only a few weeks, it already has more downloads than the popular dating app Tinder and is on track to surpass Twitter in total users. If you’ve spent much time outside lately, you can tell: PokéStops, where players gather supplies and can lure pokémon, and PokéGyms, where players battle and train their pokémon, are associated with public buildings and landmarks of historic or architectural significance, and they’re attracting players in droves. These sites include sculptures, murals, libraries, post offices, memorials—but many more, it seems, are church buildings.

When Pokémon Go launched a couple weeks ago, then, many people found themselves on the front steps of local churches in their communities for the first time in years. Evangelicals have rightly seen this as an opportunity to connect with and reach out to Pokémon Go players. They’ve challenged churches to think of creative and loving ways to welcome Pokémon players into their buildings, announced their stops and gyms on social media, and even changed their signs to acknowledge their role in the massive gaming phenomenon.

I share these churches’ enthusiasm as they come to terms with their sudden central place within the poké-verse. But amidst the conversation about capitalizing on Pokémon Go’s incredible popularity, I’ve grown wary. Specifically, I’m beginning to suspect that by plotting ways to leverage Pokémon Go to get more people in their pews, many churches are missing out on the exploratory, community-building spirit that makes the game such a powerful cultural force—the same spirit, in fact, that represents its greatest opportunity for churches nationwide.

In some ways, Pokémon Go presents a challenge to the church’s public presence. Sadly enough, if there is one kind of physical space that many people no longer consider significant, welcome, or beneficial to their communities, it might just be our church buildings. Case in point: not long after Pokémon Go launched, thousands of gamers took to Twitter to bemoan the fact that the nearest PokéStops and PokéGyms were located in church buildings. And their frustration isn’t unique. Over the last four years, as I’ve worked part-time for a ministry called GameChurch that travels to gaming conventions, it’s become clear to me that many gamers simply don’t trust the church.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today
Drew Dixon