July 13, 2016

Pokémon And Pilgrimages

CNN calls it “the 90s fad that never died,” [1] and in fact Pokémon is on another upsurge. Nintendo’s new smartphone-based app / game, Pokémon GO, has been released in the US, New Zealand and Australia – topping the US iOS and Android charts within hours of availability – whereas the worldwide release scheduled for the first week of July hit some snags. The servers went live on July 4 in Singapore and Taipei but by 9 o’clock that evening they were shut down, apparently struggling to keep up with the huge demand for the game.

Pokémon GO is a new twist on the old characters and an even more interactive spin on the relatively new smartphone game, now inspiring players to not just stare at their tablets but get out into the world – literally go to different places to improve their scores. I learned about Pokémon GO this week when the grandson of a parishioner popped into the 8 o’clock service. He’s not normally known for showing up at church, let alone at the early service. “God moves in mysterious ways,” his grandmother said, and then told me all about the game – and that St. George’s Episcopal Church in Valley Lee, Maryland is one of the game’s hotspots! Pardon my Poké-ignorance, but I’ve since learned that at various places – St. George’s being one of them – there are such things as Pokéstops (from CNN’s article: “Geotagged locations, i.e. a landmark or destination, where you can get Pokéballs and other treats”); and Pokémon gyms (again, CNN: “Where you can battle your Pokémon with other Pokémon to earn control over different gyms, as well as other prizes. These are geotagged like Pokéstops.”)

Even the game’s website (www.pokemongo.com) encourages getting on the move. “Get on your feet and step outside to find and catch wild Pokémon,” it reads. “Explore cities and towns where you live—and even around the globe ...As you walk through the real world, your smartphone will vibrate to let you know you're near a Pokémon.” And I particularly like the disclaimer: “For safety's sake, never play Pokémon GO when you're on your bike, driving a car, riding a hoverboard, or anything else where you should be paying attention, and of course never wander away from your parents or your group to catch a Pokémon.”

I’m not at all suggesting that Pokémon GO is a great new evangelization tool – although, at the same time, even a modest knowledge and encouragement of this trend would go a long way with kids and families – but I am suggesting that this may be connected to a larger cultural shift, indeed movement – in the word’s most literal sense. Perhaps one of the potentially positive flip-sides of a tablet- and smartphone-enabled world may be that digital natives are now increasingly attracted to what Pokémon developers call “the real world,” these places and spaces, such as churches and churchyards, as ancient and seemingly odd as they may be.

Similarly, a report from the University of York recently reported that “England’s cathedrals are bucking the trend by attracting growing crowds.” Announcing a collaborative new study, the university wants to figure out whether there’s anything underneath these current trends which reveal that “over a quarter of adults in England visited an Anglican cathedral at least once in the previous year,” and that “over 40 percent of these visitors came from faiths other than Christianity or had no religious affiliation. At the same time, thousands are walking or cycling ancient pilgrimage trails across the UK, Europe, and further afield.” “So,” the press release asks, “in a country that seems to be rejecting organised religion, why are we attracted, in growing numbers, to shrines and sites of religious significance?” [2] The study’s working hypothesis is that we might be experiencing a return of the ancient practice of religious pilgrimages – “reversing the reformation,” in their words, or undoing, in part, the European late-medieval suppression of walking to sacred places, touching legendary shrines, simply being in old, quiet places. “Many people are in search of quiet places to just ‘be’ and cathedrals are one of the few places where it is possible to sit quietly without attracting attention or questions. But a pilgrimage also offers a sense of direction rather than simply a religious activity,” says Louise Hampson, a member of the project team. “It has a point to it with the added advantage that the places or shrines along the route are really interesting.”

Personally, and professionally, particularly as St. George’s and Ascension, Lexington Park, go about discerning our collaborative future, I’ve been wondering how much future stock we should continue to invest in the idea that at one place, at one time, at one hour, on one day there will be a sufficiently large gathering of people who coalesce around a common identity and shared practices of faith – sufficient, that is, to keep afloat a vibrant church and, indeed, exercise an impact on the life of our surrounding communities. Don’t get me wrong: I am absolutely certain that followers of Jesus will continue to gather and worship God in Christ in the morning on the Lord’s Day, the first day of the week, a k a: Sunday. There will be, I’m sure, something like several worship services on Sunday mornings in most every community ... until Christ returns. 

What I wonder, however, is whether that’s sufficient, whether that’s enough, whether we’re really being the church God is calling us to be. For me, there are signposts of this question all around. I think of Tom Ehrich’s insightful blogging, where he’s insisted for years, now, that we need to stop investing too much in Sunday mornings; and, in turn, develop more of a presence and engagement throughout the week and within people’s lives. Or the email I recently received, asking whether we offer a “worship service for small children and their families.” “I’m not talking about a ‘family service’,” the writer (a faithful Episcopalian, I might add) explained; “I’m looking for a quick, interactive worship offering for my four-year-old and us.” Is that creating just another niche opportunity, not a wise idea? Should I say, “No,” and expect her and her family to slowly grow into a more regular pattern of worship at 8am or 10:30am? Should I not be bothered and, in fact, somewhat encouraged by her email? And might the future of the church look like a whole spectrum of smaller, cultivated offerings, not so much a few generic, come-all gatherings?

Whatever that future will be, it will certainly be more fluid than fixed. For, above all else, I tend to think that so long Pokémon GO crashes servers due to high demand, and people who say they’re ‘spiritual but not religious’ wander into ancient churches, and families have busy, active four-year-old children, our comfortable patterns of gathering and making sense of what God is up to in this world will, invariably, be unsettled and disturbed. Such is the very nature of these things we create. 

Perhaps such is the very nature of God?

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[1] “Pokémon Go shows Nintendo's unique approach works on smartphones,” by Ravi Hiranand, CNN July 12, 2016 Found at: www.cnn.com/2016/07/12/opinions/pokemon-go-nintendo-smartphone/index.html

[2] “Mapping the rise of religious pilgrimage,” 5 July 2016. Found at: www.york.ac.uk/research/themes/religion-pilgrims