To be clear, I have two biases when it comes to Pokémon Go. First, I haven’t downloaded the app. Second, I’m incredibly wary of dropping everything to create a communications plan around something that’s been popular for only a week.
That said, I understand why the game is surging. It’s using phones, geolocation and gaming in an innovative way. Vox has a good introduction to the game saying:
In simple terms, Pokémon Go uses your phone’s GPS and clock to detect where and when you are in the game and make Pokémon "appear" around you (on your phone screen) so you can go and catch them. As you move around, different and more types of Pokémon will appear depending on where you are and what time it is. The idea is to encourage you to travel around the real world to catch Pokémon in the game. (This combination of a game and the real world interacting is known as “augmented reality.”)
Physical locations that appear on Google Maps, like your church, are default locations in the game. And yes, that means folks might be wandering around your church lawn looking to catch Pokémon. But I’m not sure that means someone from your church has to go running outside every time a gamer comes by to invite them to a Sunday service.
During the past few days, I’ve read nearly a half dozen articles about how churches can take advantage of reaching out to the people roaming around their church steps in hopes of getting these (often times young) people into church on Sunday.
While I do think it’s good to be aware of the game and its impact on your church, I also think it’s smart to keep the bigger picture in mind when deciding how to respond to Pokémon Go. Here are a few suggestions.
Don’t ruin the long-term strategy for a short-term gain. A co-worker likened this to Brexit and your 401(k) retirement savings. Investors who sold off funds in a panic the days after the United Kingdom’s exit of the European Union would have been better off sticking to a long-term plan as U.S. stock markets hit new highs a couple of weeks later. Likewise, stay committed to the long-term communications plan at your church. Have a good website, so if people stopping by your church while playing a virtual reality game take the time to Google you, you’re putting forward your best first impression. Commit to having intentional ways to welcome and communicate with visitors on Sunday. Having a strong long-term plan makes it easier to respond to trends, like smartphone games, when they arise.
Find the right way to be welcoming. Some churches have offered water bottles and snacks to Pokémon hunters. Others have put up signs that welcome folks and list weekend service times. If your church has the resources to let a staff member dig deep into the game, post on social media and stand outside to welcome players, do it. Otherwise find a smart, achievable strategy that works for you. If all else fails, default to Kevin Hendricks’ friendly advice of “just being nice” when you see Pokémon Go players around your church.
Remember that everything you do communicates something. The best aspect of Pokémon Go is you will see groups of kids and families walking the street and being social with one another. This is your chance to create an impression, or change perceived views, of who you are as a church. A church staffer who rolls their eyes at a group of Pokémon Go enthusiasts communicates just as strong of a message as a friendly member walking by and asking how’s the game going. Being overly evangelistic at first breath with teenagers sitting on your steps makes a very different impression than sitting down to have a casual conversation. Pokémon Go might be your chance to humbly welcome people who might not love church, so think of how you want to be remembered.
Monitor Pokémon Go’s future. This app is hot right now and since Nintendo is behind it, there’s a good chance it will have some level of staying power. As the game evolves and user habits change, you’ll have to adjust your strategy. Changes in the game may have impacts on your church being a location. A large, longer sustained usage of the app might signal that it is time for you to take a more active approach with the game (or others like it).
(Photo Credit: Matthew Corley / Shutterstock.com)