Pokemon Go turned out to be one of my unexpected surprises of 2016. I remember seeing the Super Bowl ad of “I can do that” and thinking it was something I would try, but not actually get heavily involved in. I wasn’t an O.G. Pokemon fan. I was in late middle school/early high school when Pokemon was really beginning it’s boom, and I was honestly more preoccupied with girls than taking on a new media franchise. Even though I wasn’t heavily invested, I was still aware of it’s cultural impact. I knew the theme song and I knew that the Team Rocket pledge was annoying. I knew that when I worked at Waldenbooks, parents thought Pokemon was the devil, and then I kind of forgot about Pokemon until Smash Bros came out. I remember when I was writing Book 2 (The Obligatory Sequel), Chick Jacobs, a reporter for the Fayetteville Observer, told me I should have Pokemon in one the books because his daughter liked it. I remember thinking, "Yeah that would be cool, but I don’t think I’ll ever care enough about Pokemon to write about it." Well, I was wrong.
The day PokemonGo came out, I was hanging out at Arnold’s (my favorite place to eat wings) with a group of my friends (side geeky note, we called this group “Fellowship Of The Wing"), and when I saw it was available, I instantly downloaded it and within minutes that it was out in the parking lot with my friend Clint before hunting my first Pokemon. I caught my Charmander in a Waffle House parking lot, and then before I knew it, we were trespassing in someone’s back yard. Something about the combination of video games and geocaching to me was just super fun. I was pumped to see that my town had a decent amount of stops and gyms, but before long I found myself going around exploring new areas looking for where I could find Pokemon.
Days after the game was released, Vincent was getting married in Charlotte. For those who have never met me in person at a comiccon, Vincent has long been my partner in Faith & Fandom doing sketches, prints, and helping me run our booth. Vincent is also an avid Pokemon fan. While I was in Charlotte for his wedding, me and my girls spent a lot of time exploring the city trying to catch ‘em all. I’ve been all over Charlotte for a long time. I love so many things that happen there like Panthers games, Heroes Con, and great concerts, but I really hated driving there. Now. I don’t mind driving to different locations and exploring things with my kids. I enjoyed going around and seeing places that I had never seen in my years of travel. We explored gardens, state parks, and a vast number of areas and we were happy just walking around together. Suddenly running errands and travel that normally wasn’t fun had a silver lining. Even in our small town, we enjoyed exploring and catching things. We were going out just to go way more than we ever had.
It made me realize that we had become comfortable. Not just my family, but as a people. We get comfortable and complacent only going where we have to, only taking the shortest route, and only interacting with the people we are required. We stop branching out and view varying our schedule as a burden. We become calloused. It showed me that with the right motivation, we have no problem going into the world. With the right motivation, none of this is a burden.
One of the last thing that Jesus told the disciples before returning to Heaven was, “Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Matthew 28:19. Jesus commanded us to go into the world. He also gave us a mission to accomplish when we go. I’m a pastor, and I’ve been involved with ministry for decades, but if I’m super honest, when Go came out, I was intentionally going out into the world a lot more to catch Pokemon than I was to make disciples. I taught Bible studies on our college campus, led worship, preached on Sundays, and helped make our church function. All of that was true, but those were all in safe confined zones of ministry. I wasn’t branching out of my comfortable places to make disciples or teach people the things Jesus had taught me. I was going into the world, but not carrying out the mission Jesus gave me.
This isn’t a juke to tell you to stop playing Pokemon Go. I still play a lot. This is me being reminded that I wasn’t making an effort to fulfill the calling and mission Jesus gave me. Now I let Pokemon be a reminder to me that I need to be going out into the world and examining myself from time to time. We need to be intentional when we go into the world for the sake of the Gospel. When I hear there’s an open spot at a gym, when I’m out of potions and pokeballs, when I hear there is a Pokemon I desire near by, I go out with purpose. I have a reason. I just need to be reminded that God wants that and so much more from me when I go into the world. Don’t let Jesus’ great commission be a burden to you. Look on it with joy. Let it be a motivation that actually makes it desirable to venture into the world.
One of the other things I love about Pokemon Go is how eye opening it is. I’ve seriously learned things about places all over the country because of it. On each Pokestop or Gym, there is usually information about that location that offers insightful content. For instance, I learned that John Willis founded my town. I’ve lived in this region my entire life, yet I never knew who founded this town. Yet while battling a local gym, Pokemon informed me. From Disney World to my neighborhood, I’ve learned new things about the places I roam.
It’s also caused me to open my eyes to what Pokemon are around. One of my favorite things is to go new places and open the game just to see what is roaming around my location. I can tell you that at Ocean Isle Beach, they have more electricity based Pokemon than I've ever seen. Disney World has more Pikachus in one place than I’ve ever seen (one iconic rodent for another). My oldest daughter Rosa loves trying to guess what kind of Pokemon we will find in certain regions because of our surroundings. Her guesses are almost always wrong, but when we open up the game to see, we see what is actually in front of us.
The game also is eye opening in terms of other players. I love seeing who is on what team. You can pretty much sort your friends into Pokemon teams the way you would Hogwarts houses. I see Valor as Gryffindor, Mystic as Ravenclaw, and Instinct as Hufflepuff. (I’m Valor, by the way.) I know it’s just an arbitrary color choice for many people, but I also think it says something about their character and how they view themselves. I’ve had some awesome discussions and made new friends just by talking about what Pokemon team people are on. My church held a Pokemon Go outreach in our city. We paid for 3 Pokestops to have non-stop lures for 5 hours. We gave out a lot of prizes, and also gave $50 to whoever was on top of our gym. One of the best parts for me was meeting all the people in the flesh who I only knew by their username. I met dozens of people in person I had not only never met, but who also would never have come to my church. Effectively, I made better contact sitting at the park playing Pokemon with people in my community than just waiting and hoping people would walk in our doors.
I love the way the game can cause us to have fresh eyes to the world around us, but even more so I love how beautifully and powerfully God opens our eyes if we allow Him. There is so much going on in the world around us that we miss when we aren’t looking. Sometimes we allow ourselves to become blinded. Truly, we need Him to open our eyes so that we can see Him for who He is. When we can truly see who God is, we can see the world as it is. Check out what Paul shows us in Ephesians.
"I pray that your hearts will be flooded with light so that you can understand the confident hope he has given to those he called—his holy people who are his rich and glorious inheritance. I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him.” (Ephesians 1:18-19)
When God opens our eyes, it changes everything around us. It’s not just about seeing who He is, but it’s understanding the hope, the family, and the power we find in Him. That’s way better than just finding out there’s 43 Rattatas around you. When God opens our eyes, it is also when we find salvation. We honestly don’t even see the need for it sometimes, or we aren’t looking for it. When the apostle Paul recounts his conversion experience, he tells them that this is what Jesus spoke to him. Paul says in Acts 26:18, "To open their eyes, so they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God. Then they will receive forgiveness for their sins and be given a place among God’s people, who are set apart by faith in me.” Paul thought He was doing what God wanted when he was persecuting believers, but his eyes weren’t opened. I love the irony that God had to blind him to open his eyes, and then Jesus commands him to go open the eyes of others.
This kind of game opened a floodgate for my family. My daughters have fallen in love with Pokemon. We have the first three series on DVD and stuffed Eevees, Meowths, and Pikachus around my house. We have an autographed Pokeball from the voice of Ash Ketchum, and our family rides around together letting our kids take down gyms and catch Pokemon. It’s something we share in together. It’s also the first video game I’ve ever been able to get my wife involved with in over 17 years. But now, it also serves as a reminder for me to go into the world and follow the things that Christ has commanded us. I hope that it can do the same for you. I also hope it can remind you to open your eyes. Open them up to what God is doing around you and in you. Open them up to the people that need you. God doesn’t want you to be complacent and blind. Go and see.
Also if you see a gym with Ninjashepherd on it, come at me.