As the augmented reality game Pokémon Go is increasingly gaining popularity across the world, Christians have expressed varying viewpoints across the spectrum, with some calling the game a demonic influence, and others embracing it and putting up signs at their churches welcoming Pokémon Go players.
The game has been a topic of concern and interest for Christians not only because it is one of the most significant cultural phenomena in recent weeks (the game has had more than 15 million downloads as of July 13 according to SensorTower, and has some 21 million active daily users in the U.S. as of July 11 according to SurveyMonkey), but also because many churches are actually a part of the game, either as PokéStops (locations where players can gather free items) or gyms (where players can battle against each other with their best Pokémon).
Hence, pastors, ministry leaders, parents, and lay Christians have been wondering how they are to feel about this new craze, as they find their congregants, their friends, their family members, and even themselves, joining in.
Rick Wiles of 'Trunews' was one who was vocal about his opposition to the game. In an interview with Right-Wing Watch, he said, "The enemy, Satan, is targeting churches with virtual, digital cyber-demons. I believe this thing is a magnet for demonic powers."
Indeed, some pastors and Christian parents have long been wary of Pokémon since its early days as a TV show and throughout its earlier progressions into a card game and then into a Nintendo Game Boy game. Opponents of Pokémon have pointed to its name — a shortened term signifying 'pocket monsters' — and the ghostly references in the game — such as ghost-like Pokémon (e.g. ‘Ghastly’) and attacks (e.g. ‘hypnosis’) — as reasons for their opposition.
"Everything that we do, whether it is a 'game' or not, trains us or conditions us in various ways," wrote Michael Snyder, founder and publisher of 'End of the American Dream,' on Charisma News. "Often seeing something in a movie or coming across something in a video game can spark an interest or open a door into something deeper.”
However, some have found Pokémon Go less offensive than the earlier versions of Pokémon games. The Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry (CARM), a group which originally posted a blog in 2007 saying that Pokémon has 'occult-like' themes, edited its original post to add some comments on Pokémon Go.
"Recently, Pokémon has experienced a resurgence. In fact, it is now the number one viewed article on CARM. My daughter who, I just found out, plays Pokémon Go, told me it's fun and that there are no occultic overtones associated with it," the CARM wrote. "So, downloaded the mobile phone app version of Pokémon and my daughter and I played it for 1/2 hour. So far, nothing occultic has surfaced in the new version. I'm going to continue my research."
Tony Kummer wrote on the Ministry to Children blog that concerns that Pokémon Go and similar games are demonic is "beyond the normal way [he thinks] about demons."
"I tend to associate [demons] with the serious evil acts, typically things that are defacing (or denying) the image of God in other people. Something like terrorism, child abuse, human trafficking, and related violence. So the cartoon monsters in kid games didn't really rise up to that level of danger," he said, adding, "I certainly don't encourage anyone to trespass their own God-given conscience on this issue, no child's game would be worth that."
Others who oppose the game cite safety concerns, such as Mark Kilcup, senior pastor of East Renton Community Church. The church is a PokéStop, and Kilcup expressed concerns that strangers playing the game may pose dangers to children at the church.
"We are concerned about people we don't know that are near our play set because the safety of these children is our No. 1 priority," Kilcup told the Christian Post. "We would like to opt out of this 'Pokémon Go' game."
Meanwhile, Christians on the other side of the spectrum see Pokémon Go as an opportunity to connect with more people and invite people from the community to their churches.
James Lee, the manager of visual arts for the United Methodist Church of Greater New Jersey, offered some suggestions in a Facebook video on how church leaders can use Pokémon Go to bring more people to their churches, such as placing a charging station or offering free wi-fi. If the church is a PokéStop, Lee suggested using an item called the 'lure module,' which would attract more Pokémon to the PokéStop for 30 minutes.
"Say your Sunday service is at 11 AM. Announce via social media and church sign that you'll use a lure module at 10:30 AM on Sunday right before your service. People will flock to your church for the 30 minutes, and then you can invite them to stay for service," Lee said.
Some point to the types of connections that are made through the game as a benefit, saying that it offers more possibilities to encounter strangers and easily start conversations.
"In the real world this game breaks down social barriers, we started several conversations with other players in the park," said Tony Kummer, describing his own experience playing the game with his family. But he added the disclaimer, "That was no danger while I was with my boys, but I'm not comfortable with those interactions had I not been present."
Drew Dixon, who has met various gamers while serving in a ministry called GameChurch, wrote on Christianity Today that Christians should use this connection factor of the game as an opportunity to engage with people outside of the church rather than trying to 'recruit' them to come to church.
"I firmly believe in the necessity of the local church, and we should be paying careful attention to culture in order to point people to Christ," wrote Dixon. "This doesn't mean we should leverage the PokéStop status of church buildings as a recruitment tool.”
"We don't have to use Pokémon Go as a gimmick; the game itself is designed to provide us opportunities to connect and interact with people in the real world," he continued. "Instead of using Pokémon Go to draw others inside the church walls, then, why not go outside and play?"