Joining in with PokéMission

Bramhall youth imageBramhall URC in Stockport decided to join in with the phenomenon that swept the nation this summer: Pokémon GO!

The game, played on mobile phones, involves searching for – and catching – cartoon characters (called Pokémon). The characters appear on screen in houses, public areas, parks, beaches, gardens, shops, libraries and churches. If players want to catch Pokémon characters and score points, they have no choice other than to go to the physical place where the virtual characters might appear.

Linda Rayner, Fresh Expressions Co-ordinator for the URC and a member at Bramhall, said: ‘What is important is that people in the know (frequently teenagers) can ‘attract’ additional cartoons into these buildings – and then, with very little effort, the church can invite people in to play the game. And that is what we did!

pokemon poster‘Bramhall already had banners that announced ‘Church Open Today, 10.30 to 11.30am’ displayed outside the church on weekdays. We decided to use those banners on Saturdays as well as creating an A3 colour poster offering free drinks and cake to everyone, displayed outside and in the hall or corridor areas used by the public. This was then promoted on facebook. Total cost of the promotion was less than £25, plus a couple of pounds more for the cakes.

‘Bramhall URC has been open so far for Pokémon GO! on seven Saturdays. Initially there were no takers but at least the doors were open and the posters told local people that the church was giving it a go. Then a couple of boys arrived and sat in the church. Since then there has been a little trickle of ‘customers’. They abandon their bikes on the lawn, sit in the church without talking, staring at their phones for an hour. Eventually they murmur a word of thanks and leave.’

For Bramhall URC it has been a steep learning curve. Linda highlighted some of the key learning points:

  • If you’re offering teenagers free drinks and cakes, make sure you TELL them it’s all free – otherwise they will turn it down.
  • It took a couple of weeks to realise that these ‘customers’ might come to other events…so now they leave clutching a leaflet about youth club. Any parents are handed a leaflet of other events.
  • 10.30am is too early. The teens, who were brave enough to say, complained about it.

Linda added: ‘This sort of activity won’t bring a whole lot of people into church on a Sunday, it’s about building relationship with a section of the community previously unreached. There is an underlying message that this church is not stuffy and stand-offish, in fact, they’re up for a bit of fun. Pokémon mornings are held in the main church sanctuary and if someone asks anything about church (usually parents) the church members will try to answer. There has been an unexpected spin-off too. A handful of people from the community have started to drop-in for a coffee and a chat…strengthening the church family and building new relationships.

‘Pokémon at Bramhall URC is raising questions for me as co-ordinator for fresh expressions of church. No-one can call these Saturday morning gatherings a new form of ‘church’, however, it is current church in action, acting in loving service. Is this what we mean by mission? I think it is mission - at an early stage. This is no-strings-attached hospitality to people we don’t know.

‘These are people who don’t normally go into churches - they are being welcomed on their own terms. I think it is ‘seeing what God is doing and joining in’ – although some people in the congregation think this is nothing to do with God and are quick to point out that Pokémon GO! can be a dangerous game – news reports tell of people being knocked over by cars when they’re looking at their phones, and apparently someone was robbed when playing it too. However, Bramhall URC didn’t put the Pokémon characters in the church – they just appeared! What the church did was to take advantage of something that was already happening. I can’t imagine that the gamers will ever come to traditional church. IF this builds into a community, the church will need to find a new way to encourage discipleship and worship.

‘In five years’ time someone, perhaps beginning a journey of spiritual searching, may remember Bramhall URC as ‘that friendly Church that had the Pokémon mornings...’ and ask a few questions… and that’s when the church can take up the challenge to proclaim the Good News, teach, baptise and nurture. Perhaps that is what long-term mission is about?’