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September 2016


“Come for Jigglypuff, Stay for Jesus; Church in the Age of Pokémon Go


If you read The Washington Post you will recognize that I “borrowed” the title of this newsletter article from an article they had on July 13, written by Aaron Earls.


Why on earth am I writing about Pokémon Go?


Background first: John Hanke is an entrepreneur who has been innovating in the digital world for decades.  He is the founder n CEO of Niantic Labs, the gaming company behind “Pokémon Go”.


Mr. Hanke learned to program in middle school, graduated with a Berkley MBA, starts 3 gaming startups between 1995-98, starts a geospatial data visualization company called Keyhole; Google acquires Keyhole in 2004;  2010 Hanke starts Niantic inside Google; 2012 creates a hit game called Ingress.  In 2015, Hanke separates from Google.  Along with Pokémon CEO, Google and Nintendo give Hanke $30 million in 2015.  Pokémon Go launches in the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand July 6, 2016. And the rest is history….all be it a short history.


I got interested in this game while riding the trolley downtown to get my daughter from her theater class at the CLO.  She and I kept seeing young-ish adult men on the trolley messing with their phones in a strange way.  My daughter informs me they are playing Pokémon Go.  I get to laughing at these men trying to capture Pokémon animals, (remember Pikachu?).  Thank goodness these young men had a sense of humor with me laughing like crazy.  They, along with my 9-year-old (go figure), showed me what Pokémon Go is and what it does.


It’s an “augmented reality” game that uses real-world aspects and overlays the magical, slightly deranged world of Pokémon in a thinly-veiled ploy to get people to get out of their houses and exercising for once.

A Pokémon (short for pocket monster) is a little animalian creature.  There are many, many types.  It’s best to think of them like different species and breeds of animals.  When someone is catching Pokémon in Pokémon GO, the general aim is to get as many different kinds as possible.


Anyway, the app, which is free to download and play, uses GPS to make a cartoony map of your neighborhood and basically anywhere you go.  In this colorful, slightly Big-Brother-y version of reality, Pokémon are interspersed throughout, and when you come within range of a Pokémon you can “approach” them and they will show up on your phone.

The game uses your phone’s camera, so you will get the very disconcerting impression that there is a ghost Pokémon flapping or undulating directly over your desk, your bath water, your local place of worship, etc. and only you can see it.  It’s very “6th Sense.”

The game gives you a limited amount of Poké Balls so you can trap wild Pokémon by throwing balls at them using a flicking motion with your finger.  It’s extremely frustrating.  Sometimes they try to resist, other times they go quietly into that good night and you are rewarded points and other goodies.

While the Poké hoarding aspect is certainly enough to keep you in the game for hours like a Kawaii Fit Bit, you can actually use your Pokémon to fight other people’s Pokémon and earn all sorts of other items and bragging rights.

Points and Poké Balls.  You are losing me, friend.             

Okay so you have an avatar, which is basically you if you were a sexy animated Pokémon trainer.  Your little guy or gal gets experience points when you do stuff, which makes them a more powerful Pokémon trainer and allows them to “level up.”

Here’s the important part: To get more Poké Balls, you walk to different “Pokéstops.”

Pokéstops are usually at interesting places around your city or community.  Let’s say you were walking down Main Street, Whereverville.  You might find a Poké Stop at a popular store, landmark, work of art or other point of interest.

The ideal game play strategy is to walk around, trying to cover a lot of ground to get to different Pokéstops and come across different Pokémon who might be hiding in your path.

As mentioned before, Pokémon Go is clearly nothing more than a ploy by Big Video Game to get you up and moving around.  There are several incentives in the game that prove this, and the most blatant are “eggs,” which are unhatched Pokémon you can acquire at Pokéstops.  In order to hatch the eggs, you have to walk to “incubate” them; 3 miles, 6 miles, etc.  How transparent is that?  It works, though.

I want to give a shout out to Niantic (which, btw, is a ship buried underneath San Francisco’s downtown.  It carried the first gold seekers) because in creating this game, they have placed the “gyms” inside most of our churches.  Pokémon gyms have real-world locations that a player must travel to in order to battle against the gym’s defending Pokémon.  One of our churches have had people ask to come in to get to the gym!


So, as progressive thinking members of PLUM, how do we use this for outreach – to think “outside” the box?  I’m about to tell you.


Again, using a post by Aaron Earls, there are a number of ways to “play” along with the Pokémon Go fans.


Here’s why churches should care.  Part of the game features going to Poké Stops, which are real life buildings and landmarks that allow players to obtain needed items.  Churches are often used this way.


This has lead to some interesting situations for many un-churched gamers.  Some exclaimed how this would be the first time in years they have been to a church.  How do you get six 20-something guys to sit on the steps of your church?  Your church is a gym in Pokémon Go.


These are the missing Millennials churches have been worried about.  Now, a Smartphone game has them literally coming to your door step.


So, what can a church do to capitalize on this?  Here are some practical steps to hopefully move the gamers from your steps to your pews.

1)   Check your church on the game.  Download Pokémon Go on your phone.  Even if you never play it, you can see if your church is a Poké Stop or a gym.

2)   Staff the area with a greeter.  Find the exact location of the Poké Stop at your church and have someone around that area to talk to those who stop by.  Ideally, this person will play the game themselves so they could have a knowledgeable conversation.  But even if no one knows much about the game, anyone can be there to say hello.

3)   Place welcome signs on your door.  Put up a sign to let players know they can come inside.  If it is hot, people will be thankful to step inside and hang out while they pick up some items in the game, see what Pokémon are around or battle a gym leader.

4)   Offer drinks and snacks.  Perhaps offering some free pizza and a soft drink or even a glass of water.  Put signs near the Poké Stop or gym location and advertise a Pokémon day.  Players can come and hangout in the church, get free food and talk about their latest catches.  Remember, these may be individuals who haven’t been to church since they were kids or maybe never at all.  This is about hopefully correcting some misconceptions they have about Christians and the church.

5)   Post about it on social media.  Pokémon Go has been trending on Twitter since the game was released.  Get in on the social media action by tweeting from your church’s account about the Pokémon in your building.

6)   Attract Pokémon to your church.  If you can get the Pokémon there, maybe you can bring the people in too.  The game actually has a way to do just that. Players can purchase “Lure Modules” that draw in Pokémon to Poké Stops for 30 minutes.  Invite those players hanging around to come back at a certain time when you will use one of the modules.  Put it on signs at the Poké Stop or gym, so those driving by will know.  You could also use it as part of the draw for a big event.  Buy a Lure Module for your Rally Day.  Announce that you’re doing it on promotional flyers.

7)   Have drawings for free Pokémon gifts.  As you have players become more comfortable hanging around, have them enter drawings for Pokémon themed gifts – like packs of trading cards or even a Pokémon Go Plus (a watch-like device that alerts players to events in the game and new creatures to catch).   Don’t spam them with every material your church sends out, but let them know about upcoming Pokémon events or age relevant activities.

8)   Keep up with the game updates.  At some point, trading will be part of the game.  Once that aspect of the game is released, announce you will have a Pokémon Trading Night at your church.  Provide refreshments for the players gathered to swap stories and Pokémon.  The more you do these type of events the more these individuals will feel at home with you and your church.

Pokémon Go is providing churches with an opportunity to meet new, un-churched people from their neighborhood.  You can form relationships with non-Christians just by walking outside your church.


Don’t miss out on this because it’s not something you are interested in.  Paul said he became all things to all people so that some might come to Christ.


Trevin Wax explains well the spiritual and philosophical reasons a game like this has caught on.

"Pokémon Go taps into our longing for unity in a fractured world.   For a moment, we are  together, sharing the same physical space and playing the same game.  Pokémon Go also taps into our longing for something beyond the flattened rationalist society of our age.  For a moment, we feel the magic of the old mythologies and long for something beyond this present world."

We should keep our eyes wide open to the pressures people feel in this fractured and flattened world, so that we can better tell the better story, which, in the words of C. S. Lewis, is “the myth that became fact”.


WOW!  Look, I need to go.  I can catch a Nidoran, 3 Pidgeys, a Kakuna and an Oddish.  YES!  I’m now on level 5 and can go to the gyms.  See ya later!


Pastor Melba




Pittsburgh Lutheran United Ministries (PLUM), 405 Kennedy Avenue, Duquesne, PA 15110        412-466-7773