Dear Pastor: Pokémon Go brought more visitors to the church door than your sermon.
As of early last week, iOS and Android users within the United States are able to download an app that is taking the country by storm. From the mid-‘90s to late 2000s, Pokémon games allowed children, teenagers, college students, or simply the young at heart an opportunity to be “the very best.” Growing up in the ‘90s, it was hard to find anyone who didn’t know the fun of trying to “catch ‘em all,” the challenges associated with “battling,” and the joy of discovering new creatures.
Unfortunately, even this virtual gaming reality provided relatively minimal interaction between player and gameplay. What I mean is, yes, you could play as a character within the game, but you could never actually be a character within the game. That changed last week.
As technology continues to evolve, game makers have transformed this childhood fantasy into an actual, real-life scenario. Pokémon Go provides its users with a virtual map that has strategically placed “gyms” and other hotspot locations all across the United States (and several other countries) to which people can go in order to catch Pokémon, engage other players in “battle,” and perform various other activities. For those who cannot conceive the fun this game brings, just imagine an incredibly addictive game of competitive geocaching.
So why is it important for God’s people to know about this game? Due to how the game has been designed and initially deployed, many of these “gym” and “hotspot” locations are marked within local churches that you are currently attending. All across the country, churches have been marked on the phones of Pokémon Go users as areas to frequently visit. Thus, if you ever wonder why there’s been an influx of random traffic flow within your church’s parking lot, it’s because of Pokémon Go. Already on social media, numerous pastors are describing random groups of adults with smartphones visiting their church facilities. We’ve experienced the same social phenomenon here at Southwestern Seminary (gamer hint: we have three “gyms” and about three dozen Pokéstops on campus). The lost are voluntarily stepping foot on church and seminary property. Somebody should write a thank you letter to the creators of this game!
My brothers and sisters, it should not come as a surprise to most of you that, statistically, our churches are hurting. According to the most recent annual report for the Southern Baptist Convention, average attendance, baptisms, and giving declined in 2014. Numbers continue to dwindle each year at an alarming rate. The report further indicates the following:
Reports show that our now 51,094 churches and congregations documented their evangelism so low in the 2013-2014 associational year, that it took us back to the level of our baptisms which existed 67 years ago, in the year 1947 when we had only 144 million people in America, while today we have 321 million Americans.
But now there is a ray of hope, because instead of the church having to spend a large portion of its budget on missions to go reach people we would not typically encounter, now the people are coming to us. In fact, they are coming to the front doors of our churches.
Many of these people have never visited (and had no intention of visiting) your church. But because of this new game, they are coming, and I firmly believe the Lord can use this as a ministry opportunity that we, as the body of Christ, cannot pass up. We have the chance to engage in meaningful Gospel conversations with individuals who normally do not cross our paths. Our church members need opportunities to share the Gospel, and this game has just afforded them that avenue.
Please understand that I am not saying our evangelism/missions model of “going to the people” should stop; I am not advocating usage of the game; and I am not condemning those who play Pokémon Go. Rather, I am attempting to communicate to my brothers and sisters in Christ that unbelievers of a different sociodemographic, age and ethnicity are coming to your church. Whether you want them to or not, they will come. Ironically enough, unlike many of those already within your church, they will also come consistently. Many of these people have never had the Gospel clearly presented to them.
Thanks to Pokémon Go, Millennials all across your neighborhood will know your church exists and its exact location. The real question then becomes, will those within the neighborhood know your building as “The Pokémon Stop”? Or will you seize this golden opportunity, allow God to challenge the comfort zone of your church members, and make your church known throughout the neighborhood as “the place where God used someone to introduce me to Christ”?
I pray for our churches across the country, that we will be good stewards of this unique opportunity and minister to the broken souls that darken the doors of our churches. Let us be preparing our people to transition conversations with Pokemon players from virtual fantasy to the reality of heaven, hell, and what Christ did for us at Calvary.