Is Pikachu Hiding Under a Pew Near You?

What your ministry should know about Pokémon Go

Within a week of its release, Pokémon Go became the most popular mobile app of all time, surpassing Facebook in daily use. Overnight and without warning, churches had become “PokéStops,” places where players could acquire items needed for the virtual reality game. 

Some ministries started calling police about the influx of trespassers. Others saw the phenomenon as a ministry opportunity and began inviting players inside to capture Pokémon.

While the popularity of Pokémon Go has waned since late July, when it drew about 40 million weekly users, the September 16 release of a portable device called Pokémon Go Plus may renew interest in it. Pokémon Go Plus allows players to enjoy the game without looking at their smartphones. It connects to a smartphone via Bluetooth and vibrates or lights up to let players a Pokémon is nearby, so they can capture it.

Regardless of whether you see the game as an annoyance or an outreach, Pokémon Go poses some real risks, including the opportunities it creates for criminals and child predators. Learn about both the risks and rewards, so your ministry can protect people from harm. Here’s what you need to know about Pokémon Go:

Q: What is Pokémon Go?

It’s a popular video game that makes characters appear on mobile device screens in real-life locations. A free app allows you to capture, battle, and train Pokémon. The goal is to “capture them all.” Different characters appear, depending on your location and the time of day.

Q: How did my church become a PokéStop?

Game developers turned landmarks from a previous map-based game into PokéStops and gyms—destinations where players can capture, train, and battle Pokémon. Churches, museums, parks, and historic landmarks are just some of the places affected. The game also allows people to request that their location be designated a PokéStop or gym.

Q: How does Pokémon Go affect churches?

If your church becomes a PokéStop—either by accident or intentionally—players will be drawn to your campus. This can create liability issues for your church. Police report that people transfixed by the game have walked into traffic, fallen from heights, and been lured into dangerous situations by criminals. Safety advocates warn that the game poses a serious risk for children, particularly because of how it can be used by child predators. Game players can set “lures” at any PokéStop they like. These lures, which attract the game’s digital creatures, also attract players to that location. 

Q: What can I do about Pokémon Go?

You have three basic options: Ban it, embrace it, or manage it.

  • Ban it. You may choose to go the route of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Arlington National Cemetery, and a number of other locations. They announced that Pokémon Go play wasn’t welcome there, posted signs, and insisted that their locations be removed from the game. You could also enforce a partial ban: restricting play to certain dates, times, or locations.
  • Embrace it. Some ministries quickly embraced the game, posting signs inviting Pokémon Go players to come inside and stay a while. If you choose this route, talk to your insurance agent about the increased liability risk and pay careful attention to safety and security. You may wish to ask a risk management expert about the best way to safeguard your ministry’s people and property while offering gamers a warm welcome.
  • Manage it. Your ministry may want to ignore Pokémon Go altogether. Even so, you will need to manage its risks of being used as a lure by criminals and child predators. If your ministry operates a school, preschool, or daycare center, you may wish to take additional precautions to protect the children in your care.

Q: Can I remove a PokéStop or gym?

You may submit a request asking to be excluded from the game, but the change won’t happen immediately. Game developer Niantic Labs had removed several locations by late July and was working to remove others.

Q: Where else can I turn for help?

The internet abounds with news article on the topic, but another place to turn is Brotherhood Mutual’s online Safety Library, where you’ll find articles on everything from doing a safety assessment to starting a safety and security program at your church. If you’re not finding the answers you seek there, take advantage of Legal Assist, a free resource Brotherhood Mutual offers to ministries with tough questions.

1. Lancaster, Luke. “Mobile users spent more time on Pokemon Go than Facebook.” CNET. Retrieved July 15, 2016.

2. Annear, Steve. “Churches using Pokemon Go to get millennials in pews.” Boston Globe. Retrieved July 15, 2016.

3. Manning, Allee. "Does Anyone Still Care About Pokemon Anymore?" Vocative. Retrieved September 15, 2016.

4. Earls, Aaron. “Come for Jigglypuff, stay for Jesus: Church in the age of Pokemon Go.” Washington Post. Retrieved July 15, 2016.

5. Tribune Media Wire. “Sex offender caught playing Pokemon Go with boy outside courthouse.” Fox 8 News, Cleveland, Ohio. Retrieved July 15, 2016.

6. Peterson, Andrea. “Holocaust Museum to visitors: Please stop catching Pokemon here.” Washington Post. Retrieved July 15, 2016.

7. Earls, Aaron. “8 Ways Churches Can Capitalize on Pokemon Go.” The Wardrobe Door. Retrieved July 15, 2016.

8. Associated Press. “‘Pokemon Go’ creators are working on a way to let real-world locations opt out as Pokestops.” Los Angeles Times. Retrieved August 4, 2016.