It was an ordinary Wednesday night at youth group. But the prayer time at the end was anything but typical. After Pastor Doug's sermon, while worship music played softly in the background, teens were invited to receive prayer from any of the adult volunteers. I was standing in the back of the darkened room, waiting to see who might come this week.
Among the students who stood up was Brian. This was not remarkable—I was close to him and knew that he was dealing with tough stuff. He zigzagged his way through his huddled and (mostly) reverent peers. When he got to me, I asked: "Hey, Brian. What can we pray about?"
This is when it got interesting.
"I have been doing witchcraft—casting spells, trying to summon spirits, putting hexes on people–that kind of thing. I want help. I want to stop."
His confession was a shock. But it gave me renewed passion for a research study I was beginning—a project on teenagers and their interaction with the supernatural dimension.
I will tell you more about Brian's story in a moment, but let me share with you some of the key insights we learned from the research, because I would not want you to be as unprepared as I was.
The first realization should be the pervasiveness of the problem. Huge numbers of teenagers—both inside and outside the Christian community—are dabbling with witchcraft or psychic-related activities. In total, three-quarters of Americans ages 13 to 18 have personally engaged in at least one type of witchcraft or psychic-oriented behavior at some point during their lives.
Moreover, teens are constantly hit with portrayals of the supernatural in movies, television, books, music and video games. The research showed that more than four out of every five teens say they witnessed supernatural themes in media during just the last three months.
Keep in mind that some teens are more deeply enmeshed in spiritual experimentation than their peers. But don't miss the bigger picture: The lives of the vast majority of today's teenagers are being intersected and influenced by their forays into spiritually dangerous territory.
Even more troubling, the spiritual experimentation of churched teenagers is virtually indistinguishable from that of unchurched students. This brings to light one of the strong cautions for church leaders and parents: Do not be lulled into a false sense of security by a student's attendance at a church. Many teens—like Brian—are effectively leading double lives, going regularly to church but also test-driving other forms of spirituality.
Why do teens experiment with the supernatural? For many it's just a new experience, and teens relish uncharted stimuli. Others say they find that witchcraft and psychic efforts make them feel powerful and in control—especially when life is chaotic. In fact, some of the most spiritually at-risk teens are those who are relationally isolated or who are dealing with a high degree of life stress. Isn't it fascinating that Satan, in a replay of Eve's tempting, seduces teens by offering them the illusion of control?
Teens also struggle with spiritual experimentation because of their lack of spiritual discernment and paltry familiarity with the Bible. Most teens have difficulty identifying more than two or three verses in the entire Bible on any topic, let alone articulating a biblical worldview about the supernatural dimension.
This is partly the fault of the teens, who have not taken the initiative to put their faith together in a sensible manner, but it is also a burden of churches. The research revealed the startling reality that only one-quarter of churched teens actually recall hearing helpful teaching on the subject of the supernatural in the last year! What topic could be more important?
Parents also are partly responsible. We discovered that few Christian families discuss how to interpret media messages related to the supernatural or spend time addressing scriptural teaching on the matter. (People can't give what they don't have, and many parents do not have these tools themselves.)
Here is a telling example: 84 percent of teens (and 78 percent of born-again Christian teens) have seen or read one of the Harry Potter movies or books, the child-wizard stories from J.K. Rowling. While Potter has become perhaps the most popular spiritual mythology among young people today, few parents or pastors have taken the initiative to discuss the spiritual themes embedded in the chronicles.
Only 21 percent of teens have talked about these matters with their parents and only four percent recall such input from a church leader. And among those few born again teenagers who say they have avoided Harry Potter, only a small minority did so because of religious objections. Whether Potter should be avoided or represents an avenue to spark discussions about the supernatural dimension, the bottom line is that most teens have gotten little, if any, spiritual guidance on Potter's widely embraced legend.
But despite these challenges, there are lots of opportunities. For instance, the research showed that a majority of teens maintains a foundation for effective ministry—they believe that the supernatural world exists; that there is a real evil and a real good; that every soul will be judged after death; and that demons and angels exist. So the residue of Christian belief is present in millions of teen souls.
We also learned that the most effective deterrent to spiritual experimentation is the presence of a biblical worldview in the life of a teen—that is, a way of seeing and interpreting the world in light of the Bible. Few teens (only about 2 percent) have such a perspective, but these teens were vastly different than their counterparts, even their churchgoing peers.
In addition to the other insights we gained through the research (some of which are highlighted in the sidebar), let me offer one final observation. Many teenagers are comfortable exploring witchcraft and psychic activities because they experience a form of Christianity devoid of spiritual power. Our nation's teens are described well in 2 Timothy 3:5, who "act as if they are religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly" (NLT). Not unlike adults, they are in church week after week, but fail to witness the immensity of God's power and provision.
What can your youth ministry do to help teens develop their spiritual senses? How can you more effectively instill a biblical worldview? How can you help a generation whose spiritual complacency is succumbing to spiritual captivity? After experiencing God really working, it's much more difficult to swallow Satan's cheap alternatives.
Back to my young friend Brian, who received prayer, support, and—over time—deliverance. Sometime later, he told me that God coming to his rescue has deepened his faith beyond anything else he could imagine. That sounds like Paul's approach with the Corinthians (1 Cor. 2:4): "I did not use wise and persuasive speeches, but the Holy Spirit was powerful among you."
David Kinnaman is vice president and strategic leader of The Barna Group, Ltd., in Ventura, Calif. His report, "Ministry to Mosaics: Teenagers and the Supernatural," is available at www.barna.org.