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Guest post by Canon Don Shepson, Associate Professor of Youth & Family, Montreat College
My first experience with the game Pokémon Go! came over the past summer, about a week after the game was launched. I found myself reading a news article about it on vacation at a state park while my family swam in the lake. As I downloaded and opened the application on my phone a large group of high school students walked up to the picnic tables next to me. They saw me trying to figure the game out and one of them commented, “Hey, are you playing Pokémon Go too?” In an instant I found myself surrounded by 5 students explaining and demonstrating how to play. I didn’t know them at all before hand and all of a sudden we had a common language and conversation going – every youth pastor’s dream! We joked, laughed, and talked together until they had to get going. I ended my day amazed that a game could initiate conversations so easily.
That experience has replicated itself many times, and in so doing, created new opportunities for relationships in which the Gospel will make its way eventually.
The Game that Has Gripped the World
It’s been several months since the virtual reality game Pokémon Go has hit smart phones worldwide, and there has been virtually no limit to the Christian concern over whether or not this is something that’s ok for adolescents to play. Many concerns are that students are catching little Gnome-like monsters/animals (called Pokémon) that have special powers, and then using those powers to fight (battle) one another toward greater power (evolving Pokémon), to ultimately defeat other teams at battle locations (called Gyms). The real concern and question here: Is there something inherently wrong (or even evil) with the game? Is this a game that Christians ought to avoid? The simple and quick answer is no, however, there are a number of cautions that are needed.
How to Respond?
How should we respond or engage? Be sure to have conversations with your students about what they are doing with their phones (whether smart or not). We need to be wise about any use of technology (Matthew 10:16). What are the habits of our students related to use of technology? What are they looking at and doing on their devices? This larger conversation is needed whether or not they are playing Pokémon Go.
These conversations regarding habits, values, and priorities are healthy and needed about all of their interests whether videos, music, or relationships. Perhaps the real value in evaluating this game is to remind us to continually be in conversation with our students about technology habits. However, one particular concern about this game is the players’ personal safety. Students should understand it is best to play in groups, to watch out for each other, and not to go anywhere dangerous, alone, or at night.
I am not aware of, nor do I see any particular evil inherent in the game itself, unless it might be said to be a waste of time. If we were going to evaluate our use of time related to Pokémon Go, then we must also honestly consider our use of time related to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, sports (fantasy sports anyone?), TV shows, etc. I have found this game to be a fun and simple way for students to engage in a common activity with me. It’s fun to tell stories of what has been captured and how the game works. It’s even more fun to have a common conversation with adolescents, who during this stage of life are prone to clam up and are less likely to engage with adults. Perhaps there is even a conversation or two in there about being transformed into the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18)?
Finally, related to culture, our students are developing the skills to discern and evaluate what is good, right, and beautiful. So much of life is stuff that gets on us that we cannot control, but we can teach our students to discern whether a cultural artifact (Pokémon Go) is something that is worth our time and attention. Better yet, let’s demonstrate a healthy, balanced amount of time and attention we might give it.
Perhaps we teach them by our example to engage the world in a way that doesn’t allow its influence to govern us and yet still allows us to have a voice in the community square with others who might not participate in the church. This silly game has opened up conversations with people I would rarely have had the freedom to speak with otherwise.
Given our cultural divisiveness displayed across the headlines today any engagement with others who are different from us is helpful. Some have suggested that this game provides opportunities for evangelism; I don’t doubt it. After all, St. Paul demonstrated how to do this when he was in Athens (Acts 17) – he used cultural things of his day, the local temples and religious customs, to point to God. Because transformation is a subtle theme in this game we might speak to others about our transformation and healing from brokenness (sin) that God gives through the sacrificial work of Jesus.
In the end, I view this as an opportunity to engage adolescent pop culture in a way that shows our students that we care about them, beyond a moralistic (do this and don’t do that) indoctrination that frets about and prohibits engagement with culture.
I say, Pokémon Go!
Canon Don Shepson
Dr. Shepson is currently the chair of Montreat’s Bible and Religion Department. Prior to his teaching career, Dr. Shepson held various positions in Christian ministry: college pastor at Christ Church in Hamilton, MA, youth pastor at First Alliance Church in Fort Myers, FL, program director at Alliance Redwoods Conference Grounds in Occidental, CA, and camp director at Lake Swan Camp in Melrose, FL.
Dr. Shepson earned his B.A from Wheaton College in Illinois, his Master of Divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and his Ph.D. in Educational Ministry from the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. His dissertation studied the effects of relationships on the spiritual formation of college students. Dr. Shepson was ordained into the Anglican Mission in the Americas in 2007 from within the Anglican Communion Network and spent time in service as a deacon serving at St. Paul’s Church in Asheville, NC, before being ordained a priest and becoming a church planter alongside his academic vocation.
Dr. Shepson views his call to ministry primarily to be the disciple-making and training of college students to complete the Great Commission, but he also has a deep love and need for the local church. He and his wife, Sara, have four children, three girls and a boy.
Featured Image: CCO public domain for editorial use.