Have you noticed something strange as you move through the city? More people outside than usual? An even greater than usual devotion to people’s smartphones? For the past couple of weeks, Pokemon Go has taken over the world. Images of people bumbling into traffic, walking over graves and storming central park for a Vaporeon (it must be admitted that it’s adorable) have cluttered social media. But these aren’t the only reports; in status updates and editorials, in conversations at bus stops and park benches, the word is that people… are having fun. People are enthusiastically enjoying an innovative technology while participating in a social experience.
The question that that often comes up when there is a new cultural moment is: how can the church capitalise on it? How can we use it to put posteriors in the pews and get the gospel out? This concerns can be seen in the number of articles that have popped up this week reporting entertaining church signs and Pokemon social media posts. Churches have been setting out water jugs and free charging stations (Pokemon Go is death to battery life). Don’t get me wrong; I think this is a great opportunity. As I was leaving an excellent lecture at Regent College the other night, I was delighted to find that someone had set a Pokemon lure centred on the cross at the front of the atrium. As a number of people drifted across the dark parking lot to capture the Pokemon drawn to the lure, I was struck by the giggles. The cross was backlit, a bright sign in the darkness. It couldn’t have been a clearer metaphor, but it was the Pokemon that people were coming to find.
In my city, churches can be mysterious places. The many people that have had no interaction with the church pass our buildings with either complete disinterest or a kind of trepidatious curiosity possibly born of too many clichéd movies. There is often even active discomfort, not only with the church, but even with the church buildings. If we can be hospitable as Pokestops, inviting people into our spaces with friendliness and generosity, then I think that can only be a good thing.
However, if we stop there, I think we’ve missed an opportunity. A far more interesting question than “how can we use this Pokemon Go phenomenon?” is “why are people so excited about this game?” The question is not just about capitalising on a cultural moment, but how and why should we enter into it.
The community that gaming provides is nothing new. While it’s a community that I don’t actively participate in (my computer game preferences really centre around the free word games that I can play on my phone), I know from many friends and students that there is an entire world of commonality and belonging that comes from playing games together. I think the difference with an augmented reality game like Pokemon Go is that it takes us from the privacy of our houses out into the world. When we move out into the world, our enthusiasms are on display. We can be seen.
The big question to ask ourselves is how are we living out our enthusiasm for Jesus and his work in the world in the midst of living out our other enthusiasms?
There is a dog park down by the river near my house. I like to go for a walk here occasionally; it smells like cedar and wild roses and the plethora of dog breeds and the tug boats the chug up and down the river offer some solid entertainment. It’s not, however, what anyone would call a busy hive of activity. On a normal weekday evening, if you were to take a stroll along the river, you would see the usual suspects; dog owners, joggers and the occasional meditative thinker. Last week, however, as my sister and I left our stifling apartment to have some dinner in the part and catch some Pokemon, we were shocked to see the park FULL of people. Not only that, some of them were actually making casual conversation with strangers. If you’re reading this and you’re not from Vancouver, let me tell you that that fact is shocking enough in itself that we should all be downloading the Pokemon app immediately. It might even help you find a mate, as the Pokemon Go dating app was introduced in Canada this week.
While it’s important to be thoughtful about what we fill our time and our minds with, our leisure hours can be full of so many valuable relationships. We can’t stand apart from culture, only investigating it in order to use it. It’s so important to be genuine with our interactions and to value people enough to share our enthusiasms honestly. When we only take on cultural movements as a means to an end, it’s manipulative, and we end up creating distance instead of connection.
God creates us in infinite variety. We have so many interests, peccadillos and obsessions available. Maybe you enjoy gaming; maybe you enjoy stamp collection, fencing, theatre, lacrosse, model trains, vintage comic books. Pick any of the multitudes of interests that create small communities and be an enthusiastic part of that group! If the only community we belong to is the church, we can miss out on the opportunity to share life with all kinds of people. The big question to ask ourselves is how are we living out our enthusiasm for Jesus and his work in the world in the midst of living out our other enthusiasms?
If you aren’t interested in the world of Pokemon, don’t feel compelled to jump on the bandwagon. If it doesn’t conjure up happy images from your childhood or propel you to gallivant about the neighbourhood trapping cute animated critters, then there’s no need to download the app. However, if you want to be part of a cultural moment and connect with people, it always takes a bit of incarnation. Add some minutes to your data plan, some miles on your sneakers and a little bit of flesh on the bones of personal interaction.
Now get out there and catch some Pokemon!