Has God Pikachu? Popularity of Pokemon Go opens door for church evangelization

Lisa Johnston
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The messages are posted across campus at Assumption Church in south St. Louis County:

Attention Pokemon trainers: Feeling alone? God already Pikachu!

Looking for Pokemon? Maybe God is looking for you!

Playing with cheat codes? We've got a sacrament that can fix that!


Since its release in the United States July 6, Pokemon Go has quickly become a cultural phenomenon. In the first week, the mobile game attracted almost 21 million users, according to data from SurveyMonkey, making it the most popular app in U.S. history.

As a result, the nature of the game is driving swarms of players to unsuspecting churches, businesses and other landmarks. But as it grows in popularity, priests, youth groups and others are quickly finding opportunities to evangelize to young people.

Pokemon Go uses augmented reality, a real-world environment that incorporates computer-generated elements, such as GPS data, sound and video. Users move around in the real world as they collect tiny virtual creatures called Pokemon — short for pocket monsters. The app is based on the popular franchise that began with several Nintendo games in the 1990s.

Churches, businesses and other landmarks have been designated as PokeStops, where users collect resources needed to catch Pokemon; and Gyms, where competitions are held among the creatures. The app’s developer Niantic used data for the stops from Ingress, a previous augmented-reality game the company created in 2012.

Assumption Church in south St. Louis County began noticing an influx of visitors to the property July 11. "On Monday night we couldn't figure out why all these people were on our property," pastor Father Thomas Keller said. "We noticed people walking up, or in their car slowing down. By Tuesday, we figured out we had all these Pokemon stops. I talked to a nice couple pushing a baby carriage who explained everything to me."

Staffers at Assumption placed laminated signs near designated PokeStops, primarily as a caution to be safe while walking or driving on campus. The signs also include information on Mass and confession times, and a phone number to contact the parish about becoming Catholic. Signs urge visitors: "The phone is already in your hand, just call!"

The game especially has been attractive to young adults who grew up on Pokemon in the 1990s. Assumption's associate pastor Father David Miloscia, 29, was into Pokemon from the eighth grade to his sophomore year in high school. He geeked out with a group of five teenagers who visited the parish July 14 on their quest to catch more characters.

Father Miloscia sees this latest trend in mobile gaming is opportunity to connect with others. "I talked with some kids last night when they were on the parking lot," he said. "They were happy the Church was relating to them in this way. The next thing is that personal interaction. For me, I just rely on the Holy Spirit to make an opening or say the right words."

Moments like these should challenge all of us to evangelize in the culture. "Jesus said go and make disciples — He didn't limit our options," Father Miloscia said.

While the game has been fun for many, there have been safetry issues. A teenager was struck by a car in Pennsylvania; players in O'Fallon were robbed while chasing Pokemon; and two players fell from a bluff in California trying to catch characters. Arlington National Cemetery and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum have requested people to refrain from playing the game out of respect for the nature of the sites.

"Some people are really serious about this game," said Adam Salman, a senior at Mehlville High School, who visited Assumption with his friends. "There have been muggings and people getting beat up. My brother told me if you're going night hunting, go with a group, and that's why we formed this group. I don't go by myself."

At St. Joseph Parish in Cottleville, staff noticed players walking through the parish cemetery late at night. Seeing that made Associate Father Anthony Gerber apprehensive to the game at first, but he's since come around.

"So, I just went Pokemon hunting around the parish with a few of our teens," the priest posted on Facebook. "There's a few (stops) by the front doors, a big one by the rectory and another by the Mary shrine. And what is cool is that I saw something I hadn't seen in a while: a bunch of kids outside riding bikes."

The Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis has five PokeStops and a Gym around the perimeter of the church. This is high tourist season for the cathedral, so there hasn't been a noticeable difference in the number of visitors they've seen, said Nicole Heerlein, the cathedral's communications director.

Linyi Cao was walking around campus July 13 before an afternoon storm rolled in. The PhD student at Washington University lives just a few blocks from the cathedral and downloaded the app the night before. "I like visiting places, seeing people," he said. It's a great opportunity to engage with people — "especially young people," he said.

The game was all the buzz at the Steubenville STL Mid-America youth conference at Missouri State University in Springfield. Members of the REAP Team, the archdiocesan youth retreat ministry, posted images on Instagram of themselves "catching" Pokemon across campus.

REAP Team founder Paul Masek called it the latest tool for sharing the Gospel with young people.

"There are people who think (the game) is irreverent and disrespectful," he said. "And there are others who are saying, let's take advantage of this opportunity to use it for evangelization. We try to get kids to think Christianly about the culture. We affirm what is good, but of course, we challenge what is problematic. So many young people feel disenfranchised by the Church. We need to critically evaluate the pros and cons. It's always better to engage people rather than disengage them." 

Pokemon Go rules

BE SAFE! Watch where you are walking and mind your surroundings. Do not visit secluded sites by yourself. Travel in groups if possible.

BE RESPECTFUL! Do not trespass on private property. Do not be a nuisance when visiting sites.

BE REVERENT! Cemeteries and other important spaces should be treated with respect. Use prudent judgement when deciding whether to visit a site.

BE DISCIPLES! Use this as an opportunity to connect with other people. If you live or work at a PokemonGo site, talk with visitors. If you are at a church, invite them to visit. 

Christian blog "The Wardrobe Door" gives eight tips for churches to capitalize on the PokemoGo craze. Read more here: www.thewardrobedoor.com/2016/07/churches-pokemon-go.html 


Pokemon Go

The basic premise of Pokemon Go, a location-based augmented reality mobile game, is to capture Pokemon, or pocket monsters. The game encourages exploring one’s surroundings, as various real-world locations are used in the game.

• Players play as a “trainer,” a customizable avatar that other players see when in proximity to each other. The avatar moves along in the game map as the player does.

• Pokemon are digitally located throughout the world, allowing trainers to catch them by throwing PokeBalls at them. Once captured, these Pokemon are kept with the trainer, who can battle other players’ Pokemon or evolve them into higher level creatures. One game option allows players to turn on a feature that superimposes a digital Pokemon onto their real-world surroundings. Players’ phones will buzz when a Pokemon is nearby.

• Other items to assist trainers in their training, capturing and battling of Pokemon are located at PokeStops. These stops are located at real-world places, such as monuments, public places, churches and many more.

• A gym is a location that fosters training and Pokemon battles between rival teams (there are three teams players can choose from). One team controls the gym and places Pokemon there to defend it from other teams. Other teams travel to that location to try and gain control of the gym by defeating the guards using the creatures’ specific skills and attcks. The winner of the battle gains team prestige.

Other challenges including exploration and capturing specific Pokemon give achievement medals that will appear in a player’s profile.

Source: www.pokemon.com

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