Desperate to attract Millennials, Mainline churches have an addictive marketing ploy to lure young people through their front doors: Pokémon Go. The wildly popular smartphone game was claiming at least 21 million users per day at the beginning of this week, more than any other mobile game app ever.
The Boston Globe’s Steve Annear reported on the phenomenon in an article July 13. “In Pokémon Go, an augmented reality game played on smartphones, churches are often designated ‘gyms,’ where so-called trainers can pit their virtual critters against opponents, or ‘Poké Stops,’ a place to pick up supplies,” Annear wrote.
He quoted a blog post by Tiffany Vail, Associate Conference Minister for Communications for the Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island conferences of the United Church of Christ (UCC).
“If yours is like most mainline Protestant churches in Southern New England, you’ve spent a lot of time and energy wondering how you can get those 20- and 30-somethings to come to your church,” Vail said. “What if I told you they are quite literally at your doorstep.”
She made several specific suggestions for capitalizing on the Pokémon go craze, including advertising churches as charging stations. “Try something fun, like: ‘Recharge your battery today; recharge your spirit on Sunday!’”
Some of her additional recommendations were:
- “Announce on your sign and your Facebook page that your church is a PokéStop or gym…”
- “Find out from the technical folks in your church whether there is a way for your to share your church’s wifi connection publicly…”
- “Plan a Pokémon event for your church’s front lawn or steps…”
“We don’t know how long this fad will last,” she concluded. “Why not become a positive part of it while we can?”
Whether or not efforts to leverage Pokémon Go prove successful, what’s clear is denominations like the UCC need help. An internal report produced by the UCC predicted that the church would lose 80 percent of its membership by 2045. This means that “the number of UCC members will drop precipitously, from 1.1 million to just under 200,000 adherents,” Institute on Religion and Democracy Communication Manager Jeff Walton commented in March.
The UCC boasts the oldest average age of any religious group in the United States, a distinction it shares with the Presbyterian Church (USA) and Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). And the problem extends beyond these three denominations, since Protestant churches (half of which were Mainlines) made up all 14 of the oldest groups in the U.S., according to data from Pew Research Center.
While an aging membership means that the UCC is rapidly deteriorating in size, the PCA has managed to overcome this obstacle. IRD intern Will Higgins reported earlier today that the PCA has enjoyed enormous growth in the last five years by taking “conservative, counter-cultural theological and moral positions” and by reaching out to immigrants and minorities.
Perhaps other Mainline denominations should take their cue from the PCA’s tried and true strategy. It may prove more profitable than attempting to build their outreach plan around Pokémon Go.