Episcopal churches go for Pokémon Go

Congregations welcome gamers and see evangelism opportunities

Parishioners at Christ Church, Coronado, in the Diocese of San Diego play Pokemon at the church’s front gate. Photo: Christ Church

Parishioners at Christ Church, Coronado, in the Diocese of San Diego play Pokemon at the church’s front gate. Photo: Christ Church

[Episcopal News Service] Pokémon Go is a game, but Christie Tugend is ready to nominate it for a Nobel Peace Prize.

“In the middle of these contentious times, people are coming out of their houses,” said Tugend, parish administrator for Christ Church, Coronado, in the Diocese of San Diego. “They’re walking their neighborhoods and public places, gathering together at all times of the day, and interacting with one another with kind and friendly words and smiles on their faces. Barriers seem to disappear. Okay, so they’re walking around with their noses in their cell phones but still…”

Tugend is among the millions of people playing Pokémon Go, an augmented reality game where folks use their phones to find and capture animated creatures. The game, released in early July, has experienced record-breaking growth, with an estimated 30 million downloads in just a few weeks. Tugend and others are not only playing the game themselves but also taking advantage of its wild popularity by extending Christian hospitality.

Gamers are showing up at churches – in their yards and inside – to play the game; many church buildings are “Pokestops” and “Gyms,” places where gamers can collect creatures. Some churches are offering free water and places to sit, play, and talk. Others are hosting events or creating space for recharging stations.

“When is the last time we have had a literal flood of people onto our parish grounds?” asked the Rev. Mark A. Spaulding, rector of Holy Cross Episcopal Church, Castro Valley, in the Diocese of California. “How shall we respond? ‘Keep them out. Don’t step on the daisies?’ Or, ‘Welcome, we are glad you are here! Here is a chair to make it more comfortable for you.’ The game’s draw has provided a golden opportunity to tell our story, the story of how God loves us and draws us toward peace, justice, and love for all of creation.”

After the first day of the game’s launch, Spaulding asked a parishioner to make a sign to post outdoors. Using the game vernacular, the sign welcomes trainers and Ingress teams. A photo of the sign found its way on Reddit, a social networking site, which sparked hundreds of comments about Christianity and the faithful witness of churches like Holy Cross.

Said Spaulding, “If this silly little game is the tool that invites the profound and deeper work of making spiritual connections, then yeah, we are all in!”

St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Dallas

St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Dallas invites gamers to hang out and recharge their phones. Photo: St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church

At St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Sherman, Texas, a pastoral-size congregation in the Diocese of Dallas, the Rev. J. Wesley Evans invited a local Pokémon Go group to come inside and recharge their phones.

“Our next step is to make ourselves more hospitable for players by placing a cell phone charging station in our parish hall, which also happens to be in range of our two Pokestops. We’ll also start providing water because Texas gets really hot!” said Evans.

This type of “hospitality is an opportunity for the church, particularly in an era when so few people consciously come to us anymore. People are getting outside, meeting strangers, and contributing to the growth of downtown. Our role in this, I think, is to give people a positive experience of church.”

Some Christians have derided the game, calling it either “of the devil,” said Evans, or dismissing it as a waste of time.

“With Pokémon Go, the opportunity is more of a what not to do rather than anything specific,” he said. “People are coming to the building, and we can either do what should be the norm, show hospitality like Jesus, or we can build a wall because we don’t want ‘those kind of people.’”

To help churches respond to the Pokémon Go phenomenon, Forward Movement produced some free resources available for download. A poster welcomes gamers — and, if they’re still searching for something, invites them to learn more about the church, to come to worship, to talk, and to explore. A free bulletin insert is designed for parishioners who may or may not know a lot about the game. It explains Pokémon Go and offers some suggestions for engagement.

“As Episcopalians, we love our slogan, ‘The Episcopal Church welcomes you!’ but how often do we get to trot out our warm welcome?” asked the Rev. Scott Gunn, executive director of Forward Movement, a ministry of the Episcopal Church and publisher of Forward Day by Day and other discipleship resources. “Thanks to the Pokémon Go game that is sweeping the country, lots of people are showing up at our churches – sometimes to play on our lawns and sometimes to go inside to catch Pokémon. What can we, as a church, do to welcome these people who may not have ever been to a church before?”

Gunn encouraged people to enjoy the opportunity — and to be creative.

“If evangelism isn’t fun, we’re not doing it right,” he said. “So have fun offering Christ’s welcome to all who come.”

St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Ladue (a suburb of St. Louis) is a Pokémon Go gym. The church has set up Pokémon Go Gym Parking signs on the street to let visitors know they’re welcome. Photo: St. Peter’s Episcopal Church

St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Ladue (a suburb of St. Louis) is a Pokémon Go gym. The church has set up Pokémon Go Gym Parking signs on the street to let visitors know they’re welcome. Photo: St. Peter’s Episcopal Church

Pokémon Go isn’t “some magic solution to all of the church’s issues around demographics and attendance,” said the Rev. Ian Lasch, associate rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in St. Louis, Missouri. “But I’m fond of saying that after decades of wondering how to get young people to come to church, Pokémon Go is quite literally bringing them to our doorstep,” he said.

“At the very least, we have the opportunity to show how welcoming and loving we can be to our neighbors with no strings attached. Even if that’s the most that we can make of this phenomenon, I call that a win.”

READ MORE ABOUT IT
Provided by Forward Movement

What is Pokémon Go?
The video game of Pokémon isn’t new. It started in the late 1990s in Japan. The goal is to collect virtual creatures through battles, adventures and trainings. In addition to the Pokémon video game, there are trading cards and a slew of tchotchkes. What’s new is the release of Pokémon Go. Run on an Android or iOS system, the game uses a phone’s GPS and clock to detect your location and then make Pokémons “appear” on the screen. You then capture the Pokémons and continue on the quest to “Catch ‘em all.”

It’s anyone’s guess why Pokémon Go has become wildly popular in such a short time — an estimated 30 million downloads in the first weeks! But the impact is that people of all ages are exploring new places as part of the game. And our churches are frequent hangouts for virtual Pokémons and real-life players.

Why should the church care?
Sure, this is a video game, not the heady and vital concerns of our fragile state. But thisgame offers us an opportunity to witness to the type of community and hospitality that Jesus calls us to in the gospels. And our grand Episcopal Church welcome must be extended over and over again—not only to those dressed in Sunday best and perched on pews but also to those who are wandering by on a Tuesday morning, perhaps to find something they didn’t know they were looking for.

This app is a game changer for all organizations, not only those that are faith-based, said Sarah Hartwig, communications director for Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati, Ohio. "The initial adoption rate of this virtual scavenger hunt has never been seen before in the tech world, and that translates very quickly to encouraging folks who wouldn’t normally converse with one another to engage, at least initially, about Pokemon Go. Churches have a real opportunity to leverage this willingness for people to connect about the app to take that discussion further and to get to know their neighbors better." Photo: Christ Church Cathedral

This app is a game changer for all organizations, not only those that are faith-based, said Sarah Hartwig, communications director for Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati, Ohio. “The initial adoption rate of this virtual scavenger hunt has never been seen before in the tech world, and that translates very quickly to encouraging folks who wouldn’t normally converse with one another to engage, at least initially, about Pokemon Go. Churches have a real opportunity to leverage this willingness for people to connect about the app to take that discussion further and to get to know their neighbors better.” Photo: Christ Church Cathedral

How can my church engage?

  • Find out if your church is a Pokestop. Download the free game to figure that out — or, if you have people hanging around with their phones, then it’s a good guess that your location is part of the game.
  • Welcome folks to your church. If you’re able, have greeters outside to engage visitors. Hang a poster (Forward Movement has one that you can download) to welcome gamers. Put out some welcome brochures along with disposable glasses and a cooler with ice water. Open the doors to the church and invite folks to come and explore—and maybe provide a cool place to rest and recharge their phones.
  • Encourage folks to share their Pokémon Go experiences on your congregation and personal social media feeds. Set up a personal hashtag or use #pokevangelism for it to flow into the larger Episcopal Church Pokémon feed. Share your church’s experiences at #parishpokemon.
  • Engage Pokémon Go users in your congregation. Brainstorm] together about how to encourage and support visitors. Maybe the congregation could host a Pokémon gathering or offer a raffle of Pokémon accessories (and get visitor information at the same time!). Work within your local community to figure out the best offerings.
  • Be joyful, not fearful. Be willing and ready to see Christ in all people—strangers, gamers, neighbors, and friends.

Richelle Thompson is deputy director and managing editor for Forward Movement.

Comments

  1. Our church is a Pokegym. So we put a sign on the church door with a large Pokeball on it and the words:
    POKEMON TRAINERS
    Welcome.

    This church/Pokegym is open each day till 6:30 pm
    After battling, why not stop in for a few minutes to rest
    Maybe you might even say a Poke-prayer.

    Have fun.
    Stay safe.
    Respect Everyone You Meet.
    Play Nice.

    It’s been fun to greet players and chat with them. This is a real opportunity for hospitality.

  2. WOW . . .What an evangelism opportunity, and from Pokemon Go. People armed with their celPhones wandering the streets playing a game, meeting new folks, etc.. I know nothing about
    the game, but the article has been a wake up call regarding outreach, or in this case, in-reach,
    they come to us. The parishes mentioned are on to something good. Have alerted people in
    our parish, Church of the Atonement, Chicago, suggesting we participate. Christ Church Cathedral,
    Cincinnati is involved, and they’re in the heart of downtown. Wouldn’t you think perhaps the Lord
    has tossed an interesting ball into our court ? Opportunity knocks but once.

  3. Dr. Erna Lund says:

    This is totally ridiculous — and that our faith efforts have been dumb-downed to the commercial establishment–yes, a sign of the times in so many ways that even our faith institutions are not strong enough to withstand these — obviously we are in desperate times for outreach to peoples… no matter what the mode…

    • Thanks – but is this anything new? The new definition of “Good News”. SAD!

    • Michelle Heitman says:

      Dr. Lund, where did Jesus go to find his followers? Did he exclusively go to the houses of the “respectable and the learned”? Or did he go everywhere and anywhere that the souls who would receive his message might be?

      People are coming to the churches, because that’s where the stops are. This gives us an opportunity to show that we really DO welcome them.

  4. Vicki Gray says:

    How sad. Are we so desperate to fill our buildings that we encourage people to waste their time walking around like so many mindless zombies?

    • Michelle Heitman says:

      Is there really something so horrible about innocent FUN? I have friends who have been clocking 25-50K walking, who haven’t been anything but a couch potato for years. I have friends who are out, having fun with their children. I have seen, and been with, groups of strangers who connect, who laugh, who smile, who treat each other with kindness, just because of this game. Waste their time? I rather think not.

  5. Last week, the Canon to the Ordinary for the Diocese of Arizona wrote a well-received article about the advantages of engaging with players in an article entitled “Pokémon Go: Look for Pikachu and Find Jesus.” Read it here: http://www.azdiocese.org/dfc/newsdetail_2/3180108

  6. So, sad, there was a time when the church lead people. Whatever the “TREND” is THERE WE ARE, no
    wonder we cannot hold any serious minded people. Who makes these decisions in the church?
    Don’t we have enough with the CRAZE of i phones with the “Way of St. Paul” ? Why go to church
    at all? NEXT UP, COMMUNION VIA PHONES, Do not laugh I am sure that someone, somewhere
    is already working on a “SMELL” that can be transmitted via phone and I am sure that the church
    with be RIGHT IN THE LINE TO FIND A WAY TO “SMELL” THE HOST!

  7. Chris carey says:

    Thanks for the article. Wonderful opportunity to met and invite people in. No different than music. Once they are there they can learn and participate in all manner of words. Then thru works they may believe. It’s all a process of faith.

  8. Thank you Dr. Lund at least there are a few dedicated Christians left who can actually FUNCTION without an “i phone in their hand and head! Would like to hear more from you. Noreen Lundeen.

  9. John Fitzgerald says:

    It seems to me Christ went to where people WERE, rather than sit around in a nice building, convinced his superiority would make them come to him. I’m not a fan of the nose-buried-in-a-screen trend either, and I don’t know if it’s the right fit for my parish, but is there really a benefit to insisting that everyone first follow our social preferences before we reach out to them where they are?

  10. Dave Eff says:

    I’m an Episcopalian, and understand the opportunities for invitation and hospitality, and affirm that., especially on church grounds.
    What about within a sanctuary? My current thinking is that that’s where I would draw the line, but have I become an old fogey and didn’t get the memo? 🙂
    What do people think?

  11. Abby Murphy says:

    My church is also a pokegym. I knew that from the beginning because one of my teens plays. I haven’t had time to make signs to welcome players yet, and I don’t have the personnel to leave part of the building open. But I have been greeting the youngsters whenever I can. And here’s an interesting result: We had a blood drive last Wed that had free rides all day at an amusement park as an incentive gift for anyone who gave blood. On Tuesday I saw some young teen players so I asked if they liked going to Adventureland. They said sure, so I told them about the incentive. Can’t say if it was connected, but we had the same incentive last year, and this year we nearly doubled the number of units that were donated. Several older teens came to give, which hasn’t happened before, and several adults were also inquiring about the incentive gift because their kids knew about it. So I’m a believer (in both senses) and I’m with the folks who want to go talk with the tax collectors and prostitutes to see if they can hear all or part of the Good News.

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