Can Pokémon Go really help bring people to the pews?

Pugilistic politics notwithstanding, it was a magical summer for millions of Americans, a season of rapt engagement with unseen forces throughout seemingly endless pilgrimages toward the ultimate. I am writing here, of course, about the summer’s hottest digital gaming phenomenon, the augmented reality extravaganza that is Pokémon Go.

In case you were happily unplugged on a tropical island as the game rolled out in July, Pokémon Go is a smartphone and tablet application that combines the thrill of finding an alternative reality hidden in plain sight with the nostalgic bliss of encountering a bevy of Pokémon characters that were popular in the 1990s and early 2000s. The game requires that players explore neighborhoods, towns and cities by following a GPS-generated map to locations—often parks, historical landmarks or cultural sites—where players use the smartphone app to “catch” cute little Pokémon monsters.

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The more Pokémon monsters you capture, the more power you have in the game and the more opportunities there are for interaction with others. Throughout, players post screenshots of their various captures and accomplishments on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and other social networking platforms. All of this makes the game multidimensional and digitally integrated as few before: virtual and real, local and global, socially networked and adventurously mobile.

The game quickly drew players around the world—to the tune of 45 million per day at its peak. That number dropped somewhat through the dog days of August, but tech and business analysts predict that the leveling off no more presages the end of the craze than did the normalization of Facebook as a central mode of communication and social connection. The introduction of Pokémon Go has highlighted the potential for more augmented reality games and other apps for sports, education, commerce and, almost certainly, spiritual and religious life. Imagine, for instance, an augmented reality Stations of the Cross mobilizing pilgrims of diverse denominations with and without congregational affiliations moving throughout a city in search of the digital overlay of Jesus meeting his mother or Veronica wiping his face—the Via Dolorosa digitally manifest across the globe. All of this suggests that the integration of things seen and unseen in the digital world—and the technologies and practices that draw them enticingly together—promise to be more and more a part of our lives in the future.

At perhaps the most basic level, this promises to change how people encounter religious sites in local communities. Indeed, as Pokémon Go skyrocketed in popularity, many churches found themselves swirling with Pokémon creatures because they had been designated PokéStops, locations where the Pokémon can be found. Blogs and Wikis for the game have reported, for instance, that a Wild Jinx Pokémon has been hovering around St. Augustine Catholic Church in Barberton, Ohio. The statue of Mary at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Lakeland, Fla., is a PokéGym, where players can train their Pokémon. Even Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris hosts the Pokémon fairy, Mega-Gardevoir. And so on. If your church is in a reasonably populated area, odds are that there is some sort of unseen Pokémon action in your midst.

No few church leaders have seen the uncommon influx of Pokémon Go players—especially young adults and kids—as an opportunity to connect with digital pilgrims who would otherwise be unlikely to darken their doors. Churches across the United States and around the world have welcomed Pokémon players on church signs, set out water and other refreshments, stationed human greeters at stops and shared the Good News in old-school printed form. Some congregations have been less enthusiastic, of course, complaining of profane interlopers on sacred space, insisting that the game brings people to churches for “the wrong reasons” and even arguing that Pokémon critters are demonic. But in an age when religious affiliation is declining, most religious leaders and communities see that random encounters with Pokémon players are spiritual opportunities.

More digitally sophisticated churches have used a paid Pokémon feature—the Lure—to draw players to their churches. The more people who show up at a Lure site, the more Pokémon become available for potential capture. For example, while Pokémon pilgrims wait for other players and Pokémon to arrive, St. Mary’s Church in Haverhill, England, invites visitors to join in common prayer, share refreshments and enjoy fellowship. Christianity Today reports that more than a hundred people have taken the bait at St. Mary’s since August.

One would be hard pressed to argue that it is a bad idea to offer hospitality to anyone who ambles onto the church lawn or meanders through the narthex, for whatever reason. According to a report from the Pew Forum released in August, nearly 80 percent of Americans who find their way to a new church (for reasons other than augmented reality conquests) settle in precisely because they “feel welcomed by leaders.” So, of course, it is a good idea to share the love when someone new comes along, even if they are looking for the Poliwag, the Poliwhirl and the Poliwrath rather than the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But the same Pew data also reminds us that the majority of the unaffiliated—the nones—are not seeking a religious community. Churches’ Pokémon outreach seems no more likely than the summer carnival to draw in new members or fortify connections among current parishioners.

Still, the app does remind us of the growth in new modes of spiritual gathering—in yoga classes, local pubs and coffee shops, loosely organized hiking collectives, dinner and discussion groups, environmental and other social justice mobilizations—that are extensively mediated through digital social networks. My research with nones across the United States shows that coming together with others in ways that are often seen by participants as “spiritual” or “religious” is mostly driven by the desire to share experiences with many different others of compatible, if not entirely common, values rather than an insistence on shared beliefs and similar religious backgrounds. The idea of the church as a force for spiritual and social cohesion grounded in sustained, durable commitments to a particular community, affirmation of its professed beliefs, reasonably regular participation in its rituals and general adherence to its moral and behavioral norms has largely fallen away.

In its place we often find practices of coming together that are more networked and provisional, oriented toward a valuing of difference over sameness and thus more cosmopolitan than communitarian or tribal. The arrival of so many Pokémon pilgrims at a local church or other landmark participates in this new way of organizing what is arguably a primordial, human desire for connection with others, but not one that builds community in ways we believed in the past were essential to human thriving—spiritual or otherwise.

The game may also offer insight into another recent Pew finding that shows an increasing number of Americans experience “wonder about the universe” and feelings of “spiritual well-being and peace.” Joshua Landy and Michael Saler, editors of Re-Enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age (Stanford 2009), see shifts in what counts as spiritual in the creative use of imagination; expressions of awe at “miraculous” new technologies; experiences of self-transcendence that do not necessarily engage a supernatural other; and gathering with others around such activities and experiences. They argue that popular entertainment is a key venue for this re-enchantment, with movies, television shows, books and video games chock full of fairies, zombies, ghosts, werewolves, vampires, elves, hobbits and so on. Pokémon Go extends this secularized enchantment beyond fantasy into the material world and everyday life. It offers active, imaginative, embodied mystery, adventure and delight to players, drawing them into at least temporary relationship with others, including more traditionally religious others they might encounter in the course of their digital pilgrimages.

There is much more, it seems, to the Pokémon Go phenomenon, and augmented reality technologies in general, for churches to consider than the opportunity to scratch an often unrelenting itch to fill pews. What does the app teach us about the desire for everyday enchantment and engagement with a reality beyond ordinary sight? How, if at all, might that connect to more traditional religious understandings of the transcendent, of the numinous and of the spiritual wonders of everyday life all around us? While most modern people understand “the secular” as being devoid of religion, church people know that the deep history of the word is inherently ecclesial. The “secular clergy” were (and are) those outside of enclosed, monastic life, whose ministry is focused on “this time” and life “in the world” rather than solely on eternity and the world to come. It is the role of the secular minister (clergy or otherwise) to help people to recognize and experience the divine, the mysterious, the transcendent or the holy in everyday life.

We do this not so much by evoking ghosts and gremlins as by inviting people to see ordinary spaces, relationships and practices in new ways that open us to the spiritual. Gardens, for instance, as the Stanford professor Robert Pogue Harrison has shown, help us to enact a “vocation of care” for landscapes we might otherwise ignore. Cemeteries and other memorials evoke the continuing presence of the dead in our ordinary lives. Social and political action—as in the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements—insist on the embodied practice of literally standing with and for others, risking individual bodies to redeem a collective body. Banal though it surely is, Pokémon Go can remind us of the potential for the unexpected, the enchanted, in our everyday life; it can remind us that these other, deeply spiritual dimensions of everyday reality and experience always exist and have the potential to intermingle with what we think of as “ordinary” lives.

It should be said that plenty of commentators have noted the religious fervor with which Pokémon Go aficionados take up the game, pointing to religion as a matter of mindless, ritualized obsession and belief in imaginary otherworlds and supernatural beings. Critics have referred to the game as cult-like in its ability to override players’ wills by leading them in directions they had not intended to travel for durations well beyond what they had planned. Many have complained of the annoyance—and sometimes danger—of players’ attention to their smartphone screens as they walk through neighborhoods in search of a Pikachu or Charmander. Players are painted as mindless zealots of the worst sort of religious caricature.

But perhaps the game allows us to see religion and spirituality otherwise, pressing against Max Weber’s cold, modern insistence on “the progressive disenchantment of the world” by calling on modes of digitally integrated imagination that embrace mystery and wonder all around us, elevating ordinary landscapes from their profane existences and gathering diverse strangers into periodic experiences of shared discovery and delight. People of faith know such experiences deeply—however different the embodied technologies of contemplation, prayer, worship, service and the like may be. As Pokémon Go players turn up at local churches, secular ministers have the opportunity to share experiences of spiritually rather than digitally mediated awe and wonder that are woven through the Christian tradition with people who are perhaps a bit more primed to understand that there is much to be gained by looking at the everyday world with new eyes.

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