The gospel of Pokémon Go

July 14th, 2016

By now, you’ve probably heard about the phenomenon of Pokémon Go, the augmented reality game for smartphones that dropped on Thursday and quickly skyrocketed to the top of app store download lists. Although I was not a Pokémon Trainer in my youth, I downloaded the game on Saturday just to see what everyone was talking about. I pride myself on being in-the-know with these kinds of things, and I wanted to check it out. Soon enough, I was capturing Pokémon that appeared on my smartphone’s camera and searching out Pokestops in my neighborhood, going on a late morning walk despite the quickly rising temperature and the hot sun.

On Sunday morning, I discovered that my church was a Pokestop as are many churches, synagogues, historical markers, and other signs. Already, Christians have pounced on the opportunity to welcome players to the church grounds, providing water, charging stations (the game notoriously sucks battery life), and opening the door for restroom use, presumably with the hope that players will return for worship on Sunday. While hospitality to one’s neighbors is never a bad thing, the level of excitement over a video game literally delivering people to the front door of churches is a bit discouraging. It seems as if this is what many congregations have been waiting for, people to come to them rather than taking initiative to go out into the neighborhoods and communities themselves.

As with anything with a high level of popularity, there also has come the quick but inevitable backlash. The Holocaust Museum and Arlington Cemetery have asked players to cease catching Pokémon on their grounds out of respect for the solemn nature of these locations. Others have reported near-misses with people wandering around, eyes glued to their smartphones rather than where they are going, or rushing across the busy street to catch that rare Pokémon, not to mention trespassing in places where they might not be welcome. Memes bemoaning how people should be as single-minded in seeking Jesus or a job as they are in seeking Pokémon have surfaced on social media, and some parents would rather their children focus on summer reading or chores. There are also privacy concerns with how much information the video game developer is collecting from those who download and play the game.

Everyone is ready with their hot take about whether Pokémon Go is the best or worst thing ever, even before they have played the game. I don’t believe that Pokémon Go is the answer to the prayers for growth and millennials that issue forth from declining mainline congregations. I also don’t believe it is the devil incarnate, maliciously distracting young people and spying on our every move.

If people are leaving their houses, often with their friends, and exploring their communities in search of Pokémon, I think that is a good thing. Already I have seen heart-warming stories of encounters and new friendships formed around the game, not to mention the increase in physical activity. I found myself reading historical markers I’d bypassed hundreds of times and learning about the history of my neighborhood. Rather than waiting for players to show up at the church’s doorstep so that we can welcome them, I urge Christians to play the game themselves, meet others in the community, and even use it as a means for intergenerational bonding as younger people teach older people. In a divisive season in our national life, coming together around a game is not the worst thing that could happen. Republican or Democrat, black or white, male or female, we can all wander outside the comfort of our homes and churches to be Pokémon trainers.

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