Playing Pokémon Go at Church: Has Your Church Been Overrun by Pokémon?

Have you seen people playing Pokémon Go at church? You may notice an uptick in visitors to your sanctuary on Sundays thanks to this world-wide phenomenon.

Maybe you’ve already seen an increase in Gen Z, Millennials or Gen Xers hanging around your parking lot with their cell phones in hand. Try not to worry, they’re just trying to catch some rare and shiny Pokémon.

If you are over the age of 30 and don't know what Pokémon Go is, find someone in your youth ministry or on your staff that does. You need to be aware of how this mobile app works and how it affects your ministry.

If you do see more folks around the sanctuary this week, you can thank the global phenomenon known as Pokémon Go for that. Pokémon Go is a new mobile game app for phones running Android and iOS that uses something called Augmented Reality (AR) as part of its game play. Augmented Reality involves using a cell phone’s camera and GPS signals to capture a live image of the area in front of you. Next, the game overlays an interactive virtual world over that image which contains different objectives you can complete. Think low-tech virtual reality.

Many of you may be familiar with Nintendo’s trading card and video game series, Pokémon. If you’re not, the goal of the game is to catch as many Pokémon as possible, train them and then battle them against other players’ Pokémon to become the ultimate Pokémon champion. Pokémon Go is truly a global touchstone – in fact, the game is so popular, Nintendo’s stock rocketed up 33% shortly after its release. Just one week after its launch, it's now the most popular mobile game in U.S. history. Whether you like it or not, it's fairly likely you're going to see some folks playing Pokémon Go at church.

How Pokémon Go Affects Churches

Aside from the belief that the game celebrates the occult, how does this affect your church? First, this game will increase your liability if it draws players to your campus. That’s because many churches are strategic points of interest in the game. Let’s start with a little background on the game itself and its developers.

Pokémon Go is built on top of another, not as popular mobile phone-based game called Ingress. Pokémon Go and Ingress are both from game developer Niantic Labs (and joined for this version of the game by Nintendo and the Pokémon Company), which was at one point owned by Google but spun off when Google split into Alphabet and Google Inc.

Over the last several years players of Ingress were encouraged to submit locations of historical and religious value to the game. These locations were used as “power-up” stations where players could get resources they could use to take over other players’ bases. This same crowd-sourced location data was used as the foundation for Pokémon Go. Players can visit registered churches and historical landmarks to get extra Pokémon training materials which they can use to train their Pokémon.

Various additional locations in the real world have become Pokestops and Pokémon Gyms, where players can battle to become “king of the hill” and hold the gym until another player wrests control away from them. We have three churches across the street from the ChurchWest Insurance offices. All three are Pokestop power-up stations. There’s also a virtual gym at the end of the block.

The Risk of Playing Pokémon Go at Church

Again, aside from the belief that the game celebrates the occult, let’s start with why this game is a risk for your church. Some bad guys have started using these Pokémon stops as honey pots to commit robbery crimes. Police in Missouri reported that the game was used by four teens there to lure nearly a dozen victims into armed robberies. The thieves used something in the game called a “lure” which summons real-world players and virtual Pokémon to the area the lure was placed.

As players are attracted to the location to play the game, the bad guys are waiting to take advantage. In this case they committed armed robbery against the players that showed up. Imagine the trouble if this took place at your church. In response, police have warned players to be observant of the areas around them when playing the game.

There’s also been a problem with players having accidents while playing the game. Because they are so focused on walking with their phones (as they try to catch the Pokémon) they’re not paying attention to hazards and obstacles in front of them. It’s a bit like those people who text and walk. There have been numerous reports of trips and falls that resulted in a few bruised shins and twisted ankles. Watch out for that curb if you're playing Pokémon Go at church!

Here’s another risk: the same techniques used by those bad guys mentioned above could be used by sex offenders to open a dialog and then prey on younger kids or more vulnerable adults. I played the game the day of its release and I was approached by several roaming teens asking me about my Pokémon. Imagine what could happen were I a person with bad intentions.

The risk isn't just on campus when it comes to folks playing Pokémon Go at church. Be sure to let your van drivers know they shouldn't play and drive! Yes, it happens more often that you'd think.

And, from an insurance standpoint, one underwriting expert had this to add: “Consumers use apps in ways that one cannot always predict and thus claims are brought that insureds cannot always predict,” stated Charlie Murray, technology underwriter at CFC Technology limited in an interview with Insurance Business.

The Reward

It’s not all bad news though. There have been far more reports of people playing the game and connecting with one another in a positive way than in a bad way. Pokémon Go is starting off as a very powerful social platform that is bringing many, many people together over a common interest.

That’s great news for your church, as the game could be an excellent outreach tool. You may actually want people playing Pokémon Go at church! Pokémon, as a concept, has been around for over 20 years, and it spans the age gap – meaning churches could use it reach out to folks of all ages and from all walks of life.

Churches themselves could (and probably should) embrace their inclusion in the game by using the in-game lures and other offers to invite the community to their campus to take part in catching Pokémon and a little bit of spreading the Word. So if you’re reading this, see you Sunday as I definitely “gotta catch ‘em all”.

One more thing: maybe you'd like to keep these Pokémon players away from your church. Just download this flyer and place it on your campus – it makes it clear that your church is a "No-Pokémon Zone".

For those of you welcoming players to your churches, we also have a sign that asks players to be safe when playing on campus.

We also have a guide for those looking to play near ministries respectfully.

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