Before heading to church this past Sunday, I said something to my 14-year-old son that I had never said before: “No playing Pokémon Go during the service.”
I’m not the only parent or pastor wrestling with the game that swept the nation over the weekend. It might not be Gutenberg’s printing press, but Pokémon Go is the latest technological advance to have a significant impact on church. The new augmented-reality app lays a Pokémon-inhabited layer over a map on your phone, allowing players to wander around looking for monsters to capture.
The game relies on players visiting local landmarks — including, frequently, churches. Or at least church parking lots.
When your church is a PokéStop
This could be good news for millennial-starved churches across the country. According to Pew Research, fully a third of millennials are religiously unaffiliated. And they are more likely to have a negative view of the church.
Could that change now that Pokémon Go is literally driving players out of their homes and to the very doorsteps of church?
Some players have said their first trip in years to a church building happened because of the game.
Every church I have driven past since downloading the game has been a PokéStop — a location in the game where players can stock up on the Poké Balls used to capture the creatures. Other churches serve as gyms, where players battle their best Pokémon.
Many pastors and leaders are now trying to find the best way to connect with the players sitting on their doorsteps.
Churches are using their signs — those ubiquitous homes of groan-worthy puns — to welcome local gamers inside. Others are placing markers around their property to let players know where stops and Pokémon can be found. Some churches are using the lure of virtual gifts on the game to offer real gifts and snacks too.
Church leaders have even downloaded the app themselves to place special “lure modules” at their doorsteps, which attract both Pokémon and the real-life millennials who follow.
Is this a bait-and-switch tactic? “Come for a Jigglypuff, get Jesus instead?”
These pastors and leaders don’t see it that way. They want to be a positive part of their community, and they want to get to know the people around their church building. Pokémon Go is the latest creative means to spark those connections.
No gaming during worship
Of course, pastors’ aim to give millennial gamers a different view of church does not mean they want to turn their church building into a 24/7 Pokémon tournament.
Like the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and Arlington National Cemetery, which have asked players not to use those sacred places as Pokémon stomping grounds, churches may make the same request during services.
Like every single app on a smartphone, Pokémon Go offers a tempting distraction at the fingertips of anyone sitting through a sermon. And no pastor wants his message competing against invisible Pokémon popping up on Sunday morning.
In theory, Americans are opposed to using a phone at church. Ninety-six percent told the Pew Research Center that it is generally not okay to use a cellphone during a church service. More people are against smartphone use in a church than in a movie theater, during a meeting or at a family dinner.
But that opposition is more in theory than in practice. Cellphones are often out in the open during today’s church services — and frequently, phones enhance the worship experience.
A survey from AT&T found that 25 percent of regular church attenders say they have used a mobile device to connect with faith or inspiration during a worship service. Millions of Americans pull out their phones during church services to read the Bible.
Now, pastors and teachers may struggle to know who is reading Scripture and who is trying to catch Pokémon.
Before we started our class Sunday, the young adults I teach wanted to talk Pokémon Go. We shared our best catches and embarrassing failures. Before I began the lesson, I joked, “Don’t play during class unless you see a rare Pokémon. Then you have to let me know, so I can catch it, too.”
Everyone laughed, and we started class. Most kept their phones away and engaged in the discussion. But for a few, the temptation was too great. They didn’t want to miss any Pokémon that might virtually wander in while we talked Bible.
That’s the dilemma for churches trying to “catch ’em all.” They want to encourage millennials to be at church, and Pokémon Go is a way to at least get them to the doorstep. But once gamers come in the building for a religious service, teachers and preachers want them to put away what may be the very reason they showed up.
I kept an eye on my son, and his phone stayed in his pocket, even though he was missing out on potential catches. That wasn’t the case for the 20-something man walking his dog outside our church. Toward the end of the service, I noticed him standing directly outside the window staring at his phone.
The hand movements on his phone were unmistakable — he was playing the game. Presumably, he grabbed the items from our PokéStop, caught a Pokémon and went on his way. He didn’t seem interested in what was happening on the other side of the window.
But now, thanks to the game, he knows the location of our church. Maybe that’s a first step to his coming inside, or maybe it’s just the next step to evolving his Pokémon. Time will tell.