Churches across the United States have seen more packs of youths, young adults and families visiting their properties in the last few weeks, and it means only one thing: The New Pokévangelization is here.

The Lord works in mysterious ways, but few could have guessed that Nintendo’s Pokémon game, smartphones and “Google Maps” would have been one of his choices.

Since July 6, millions of youth, young adults and older adults have embraced “Pokémon Go,” the latest evolution of Nintendo’s highly popular Pokémon game. Players catch mythical cartoon beasts known as Pokémon, train them and then “battle” each other’s Pokémon at special areas on the map for training Pokémon known as gyms — all using their smartphones, while venturing outside in the real world. Players can join one of three teams — “Team Valor,” “Team Mystic” and “Team Instinct” — and then “battle” other teams for control of a gym site.

“Pokémon Go” is technically called a geo-location-based game, but it is a leap forward for a type of gaming called “augmented reality,” where the virtual world is integrated into real-world experiences. The game uses Google Maps, which guide players to where they can find Pokémon, nearby gyms or locations to get supplies for their Pokémon, known as “Poké stops.”

But this new game also ropes churches into the experience by automatically designating them as Poké stops or gym locations. As millions of gamers take to walking their neighborhoods playing the game, youth and young-adult ministers are realizing they are on the threshold of something new for the Church: “Augmented reality” has met the New Evangelization — courtesy of Nintendo and the Google-spin-off company Niantec.

“I have seen more teens and kids on our parish grounds during the summer than any year before,” Chris Anderson, youth minister at St. Rose of Lima Church in North Wales, Pa., told the Register. The suburban parish has two Poké gyms on site, in addition to the Poké stop. With so many youth around, the parish has begun to do street ministry, talking to them, offering them water on hot days and encouraging them to stay safe and visit the youth center. The parish is looking at “Pokémon Go” as a means to build community within the parish, with parish-wide “Pokémon Go” days, “where we can meet as a group and walk around town.”

But the idea is that the game can build community within the neighborhood itself and help residents and parishioners connect with other North Wales parishes and churches.

“It really has been a blessing to us in ministry, especially when it can be hard in today's world to stay connected with busy families,” Anderson said.


Prime Evangelization Opportunity

Colleen O’Dowd, youth-ministry director at Holy Spirit parish in Stevens Point, Wis., told the Register she has been amazed to see how many people of all ages had been wandering around the neighborhood “hunting” Pokémon.

“Even a grandpa was outside walking his dog and Pokémon-hunting,” she said.

“Pokémon Go” provides churches and ministries a “prime evangelization opportunity,” O’Dowd explained, because it creates the groundwork for churches to build friendship and community with people who otherwise might not go to church or encounter other Christians.

For evangelists who want to form intentional disciples, this necessary groundwork is called pre-evangelization. A parish can open that door by practicing the ancient Christian virtue of hospitality to “Pokémon Go” players, and sustained hospitality can provide the occasion to build the relationship that can draw a person to encounter Jesus Christ.

“Jesus will be looking for these people,” O’Dowd said. “We can help make the connection happen.”


Becoming Master ‘Pokévangelists’

Throughout its 20-year history, Pokémon games have always involved socialization, in order to achieve the game’s tagline goal of “Gotta catch ’em all!” As a card game or video game, players need to trade with each other in order to complete their collections, or have battles to “level-up” (increase the skill of) their Pokemon.

Tony Vasinda, pastoral assistant for children’s faith formation and adult formation at St. Luke’s parish in Shoreline, Wash., told the Register that the latest incarnation of Pokémon kicks up the socialization level exponentially, by making it an outdoor group activity that is bringing together different youths, adults and families. The game takes them to parks, museums, churches and other local landmarks.

“This is a new type of geo-location game,” he said.

The game has built-in alerts while the app is running. The phone will vibrate near Pokémon while in “battery-saving” mode, so players do not need to have their smartphones in front of their faces as they go from place to place.

Local businesses are capitalizing on Pokémon Go as a real economic boon. Vasinda, who authored an article called “How to Become a Master Pokévangelist,” told the Register that parishes can apply some of the same insights. The game allows players to buy and set “lures” that attract Pokémon in that area — for example, casting a lure down near the waterfront would likely bring out water-based Pokémon, such as a Magikarp or Squirtle. Players detect the lure on their smartphones and head to that area to catch Pokémon until the lure expires. Vasinda said a parish could use its digital media to let people know that lures are being set after Mass on Sunday, or at a set time during the day, and that the parish will provide food and drink to gamers.

For example, Vasinda explained that St. Luke’s parish has a Poké gym on site. So the staff may decide to do an event where they set lures for a couple of hours on Friday night and send out invitations for people to battle Team Instinct — Vasinda’s team — for control of the gym.

For evangelists who do not know anything about Pokémon, they can still build relationship with players on site.

“Let them talk about what they love,” Vasinda said.

Another idea for parishes is to become “charging stations,” by setting up surge protectors in parish offices so that players can come charge their phones and talk for 10 minutes.

“It’s a great way to start,” Vasinda said. “These games can suck a battery dry on a cellphone pretty quickly.”


Going Forth, Not Waiting

However, this gaming craze has others recommending that Catholics put the game into perspective.

Father Peter Mottola, parochial vicar for St. Louis Church in Pittsford, N.Y., and himself a Millennial with an information-technology degree, told the Register that the game provides Catholics an opportunity to “spread the faith by the usual means,” as any shared secular interest does. After all, people coming to church for entirely secular purposes is not exactly new. He pointed to his parish’s ongoing yard sale that brings in hundreds of people.

“Now, do I walk around in my cassock and have polite conversations with people as they shop for used knickknacks? Yes. Did I talk to someone on Team Instinct about the fact that our church is a Poké stop? Yes. Is there a meaningful difference between those two experiences? No,” he said, quipping, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

But “Pokémon Go” has provided the priest an opportunity to remind his parishioners that they can’t sit back and wait for people to cross the threshold of their church. They have to do their very best to go out and evangelize people where they are, if they are going to catch them with the message of the Gospel.

Diocese Provides Poké Primer

Another reason to keep an eye on the Pokémon phenomenon and to guide parishes through it: The game may herald a social transformation that affects the Church’s own evangelization approaches. At the very minimum, “Pokémon Go” has turned video gaming from a relatively isolated indoor experience to an outdoor social activity that interacts with nature and the neighborhood.

Julianne Stanz, director of New Evangelization for the Diocese of Green Bay, Wis., told the Register that the diocesan team developed a “Pokémon Go” primer for parishes, after seeing the engagement on social media with Bishop David Ricken tweeting and posting on Facebook, “You might never find a Pikachu, but I promise you this — Search for Jesus, and you'll find Him every time. Let #PokémonGO. Go #FindGOD.”

They saw the bishop’s message had 600,000 engagements on Facebook and 30,000 on Twitter. What they realized was that the Church’s real-world evangelization and its virtual evangelization were converging, with the move toward “augmented-reality” experiences.

Stanz pointed out that, last weekend, the diocesan team was down by the town’s shore with 200 other families, who were also playing the game. The families were meeting each other, and they learned about their town’s role in the Christmas tree trade along Lake Michigan.

So while not endorsing the game, Stanz said the primer will help parishes that want to “take a little bit of a chance on this.”

“I think it is changing and shaping community in ways that we didn’t think possible 10 years ago, or five years ago,” she said. “As long as we maintain an approach that is vigilant and prudent, I think we can see this as a healthy opportunity for us.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.