Churches embrace Pokémon Go craze


Will Medders, left, and Mason Schneider, right, both members of The Chapel in Brunswick, play Pokémon Go and appreciate how churches have opened their doors to players.

By Kara Witherow, Editor

They come on bikes, in cars, and on foot. They are young and young at heart. And they’re usually looking down at their phones as they wander onto church property.

Who are they and what, exactly, are they doing?

They’re Pokémon Go players, out trying to capture Pokémon (which means pocket monsters in English) or pitting their Pokémon against others in battles at Pokémon Gyms.

What began in the mid-1990s as a video game has generated card games, television shows, and toys and has now culminated in the worldwide Pokémon Go craze.

To play, one downloads the free, location-based augmented reality game onto his or her mobile phone and becomes a Pokémon trainer. Catching as many Pokémon as possible is the goal.

Once a Pokémon is caught, trainers can battle their Pokémon against others at Pokémon Gyms and can collect valuable supplies at PokéStops.

Several South Georgia United Methodist churches have been designated Pokémon Gyms and PokéStops, and church leaders say that they have seen foot and car traffic increase significantly in the month since the game launched.

“We found out we were a pretty heavily sought-after gym when we saw vans full of people driving up and sitting in the parking lot,” said Cameron Jones, campus pastor at Taylors United Methodist Church and communications director at The Chapel Ministries in Brunswick.

Taylors UMC is a PokéStop and The Chapel is a Pokémon Gym, and both churches have opened their doors to the public, posted their amenity wireless password so players can use it instead of their wireless data, and have welcomed their new visitors.

“We will welcome them with open arms,” Jones said. “We’re going to embrace what people are into. Whatever it takes.”

Just up the road in Savannah, Skidaway Island United Methodist Church has seen bikes, cars, and kids “everywhere” this summer, according to Rev. Devon Smyth, the church’s minister to families. Just down the street is a gated community with hundreds of homes and young families, and droves of middle-school boys have ridden their bikes into the church’s parking lot in the past few weeks, she said.

The church has two PokéStops and is using them as opportunities to offer hospitality to those playing the game. Outside, Rev. Smyth set up a table with cups, a large cooler full of ice water, and a sign that read, “Welcome to SIUMC PokéStops. Take a break and enjoy some cold water.”

She hopes players see it as a sign of kindness and welcome.

“My hope is that children who come by here who may not have a church home might think it’s cool that this church cares about kids,” she said. “It may translate into something or it may never translate into anything, but this could be the only reflection of church someone sees, and I’d like it to be one of, ‘We’re glad you’re here.’”

Rev. Smyth plays Pokémon Go with her whole family – husband David and children Katie, 18, and Ben, 11 – and says it’s a great opportunity to engage and welcome the community, but hesitates about using it as an outreach tool to try to “catch” new members like players catch Pokémon.

“I’m very much a Methodist and trust God’s prevenient grace,” she said. “We’re just showing hospitality. I think one of the first ways people learn of the grace of God is through relationships. This is just a really non-invasive relationship moment to say, ‘Hi, we’re glad you’re here. We’re grateful you’ve come by. Please feel welcome.’”

Rev. Scott Hagan, pastor of Bonaire United Methodist Church, agrees that nabbing, luring, or trying to “catch” people like Pokémon is not the right way to capitalize on the game.

“I don’t think you can catch a person like you can a Pokémon because people are real and more complex, and more and more, people are resistant to being nabbed,” he said. “That’s one of the ways the world has changed. People are really suspicious of attempts to capture them. In our Wesleyan tradition, I’m not sure that we’re doing right by our understanding of God’s grace if we try to nab or capture people. Conversion is a work of the Holy Spirit.”

Bonaire UMC has five PokéStops on and near its property, though, and has seen an enormous increase in traffic since the game’s release. Thousands of people have come through the church’s parking lot in the past month, so Rev. Hagan knew that they needed to recognize their visitors and make them feel welcome.

They hung a sign on the church doors that say, “Congrats on finding a Pokémon here. Come inside and find even greater than that: forgiveness, hope, & joy.”

The sign is just the congregation offering hospitality, Rev. Hagan says.

“As the world continues to change, one of the ways the church engages people is to meet them where they are. And in this case, they’re on our front steps playing a video game.”

St. Marys United Methodist Church’s historic chapel is a PokéStop right in the heart of downtown St. Marys. Youth pastor Jeremy Cole decided to set up a water station to offer players a way to get relief from the 100-plus-degree temperatures as they walked around searching for Pokémon.

“It doesn’t cost much to give some water and be friendly and hospitable,” he said. “We’re trying to grow and reach out, and I feel like being the church in the community is the way to go.”

While he doesn’t expect the game or the water station to translate into an increase in church attendance, several Navy sailors visited the chapel’s PokéStop on a recent Thursday and then attended worship at the church on Sunday.

“It was pretty awesome,” he said.

Mason Schneider, 16, is a member of The Chapel and a Pokémon Go player who appreciates churches being hospitable and willing to open their doors to players.

“I think it’s a great outreach,” he said. “It brings in a lot of different people, and they might just come back. I think it’s a great move.”