By now, you’ve heard of it. You may be an avid player. You may be tired of it, because your dog is about to have a nervous breakdown over the undue amount of foot traffic on your lawn. You know what I’m talking about — an old game’s newest iteration for the smartphone — PokemonGo. Developed by Niantic, the game combines virtual reality with geocaching, an outdoor scavenger hunt-style activity in which players use a Global Positioning System (GPS) to hide and locate caches around the world.
Organizations are jumping on the physical component of the game to get new customers into their businesses, and churches are no exception. The parade of gamers has led a few to darken the doors of a church or a synagogue they wouldn’t otherwise visit, and religious leaders are hoping to use the game’s momentum to make unexpected visitors more welcome at their venues.
The game’s stops, called Pokestops or gyms, are already sending many new people into churches, especially Millennials. Not everyone loves this idea.
“The first thing I noticed after initially booting up Pokémon Go was that 70 percent of the landmarks near me were churches. Considering that I’m not a religious person, this has proven to be kind of awkward,” writes Patricia Hernandez, a blogger for the gamer website Kotaku.
Spokane pastor Chris Snow of North Hill Christian Church hasn’t used his church as a Pokestop yet, but he’s considering it. Jan Shannon, a pastor at Westminster Congregational United Church of Christ in downtown Spokane, said she tested the idea of the church as a Pokestop in a recent Facebook ad that received many positive responses, but staff are still in the planning stages.
Pokemon Go may be a gamer’s paradise, but the community it creates is a new version of an old longing — what urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls ‘third places.’ These places, Oldenburg argues, are neither home (place one), work (place two), but that increasingly endangered ‘third place’ represented by the neighborhood bar, coffee shop, bookstore or ice cream stand. These places, Oldenburg says, are valuable for creating community, helping neighbors get to know one another and are irreplaceable as areas for discussion. As we moved to a suburban culture after World War II, he claims, we lost many of these places, preferring instead to go home to our garages and backyards. This, in turn, created a more insulated society.
Snow sees the convergence of the church and the game as a rare opportunity to welcome a group of people who might not otherwise be at a church, and says other churches have set up water and coffee stations for thirsty players stopping by. As he’s watched groups of players pass the church, he sees how the game helps start conversations, and said he believes churches like his can help be a part of building friendships.
“The barriers that often times divide us seem to fall away and this diverse group of people all have something that they can talk at ease about that may or may not lead into longer conversations later on,” he said.
“I have watched as generational gaps are bridged by this game. I have seen individuals with wildly different styles and social status sit and talk with one another. What if the churches took this opportunity to simply provide a comfortable place for these conversations to take place?”
Pokemon lures, as they are called in the game, last around a half hour, and both Snow and Shannon see this window as an easy way to strike up conversation with people wandering into or near the church. It’s not what Oldenburg was likely thinking of when he wrote his essays on third places, but where lures are gathered, they will come.
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