I developed a fascination with witchcraft and magic when I was a little kid. Although the Harry Potter series wouldn’t come along for another generation, there were other works of fiction that certainly captured my imagination. I remember in second grade deciding that I was going figure out if witchcraft was real or not, and if it was, I was determined to learn how to do it. So I consulted what I thought was the authority on everything, the Encyclopedia Brittanica.
I was excited to find out that witches and warlocks really existed, although I was beginning to discover they weren’t as sanitized and innocuous as the ones portrayed on Bewitched and in Saturday morning cartoons. But one detail from that article scared the heck out of me—there was a historical reference about witches of earlier centuries selling their souls to the devil. Whoa, I thought, this was serious business.
Now I was brought up in a fairly middle of the road Christian household—nothing too radical, but we did believe in the existence of the devil. One of the first Bible passages I ever read on my own was Christ’s temptation by Satan in the wilderness, and it significantly affected my views of good and evil. I apparently had enough sense to know that if the devil was involved in witchcraft, I needed to stay away from it. I was an inquisitive child with the ability to read well above my grade level, so virtually nothing in the library would’ve been off limits to me. If I hadn’t discovered that red flag in the encyclopedia article early on, I wonder what kind of trouble I might’ve have gotten myself into.
It’s thirty-three years later and we’re living in a world that’s a lot more intense. Witchcraft is much more prevalent in pop culture now. It’s portrayed as darker, riskier, and dare I say —sexier—than the more “innocent” witchcraft of my youth. Today, the kids that are captivated by the witchcraft and wizardry of the fairly benign Harry Potter fiction series have all sort of options to graduate to when they get older— in both fiction and nonfiction. And some of it can actually get dangerous, especially when the line between fantasy and reality becomes blurred.
A statistic released by Barna Research a few years ago suggested that approximately three out of four American teenagers have had at least one significant experience with psychic phenomena or witchcraft beyond the reading of horoscopes. This is alarming for a number of reasons, a major one being that witchcraft and the occult are considered to be a huge potential gateway for demonic activity in the lives of those who participate in these kinds of activities.
So what’s with the rise of interest in witchcraft among youth? Is there a correlation between this and the much hyped trend of young people losing interest in Christianity and leaving the church? How should churches respond to witchcraft?
To answer those questions, we must consider the reasons people are attracted to witchcraft in the first place.
We like power. Some of us seem to want it more than others, but most of us do want power on some level: power over others, power over nature, power over what we perceive to be evil, even power over our circumstances. People like to feel empowered, and no one relishes the thought of being powerless, because that would make us vulnerable. Who wants to be a victim? Empowerment can take many forms, including the notion that witchcraft is an escape from the perceived “dos and don’ts” of Christianity. One of the primary tenets of Wicca, for example, essentially says to do what you want as long as you don’t hurt anyone else. Some people get involved with sorcery and witchcraft thinking they’re doing a good thing, believing that only “black magic” is truly evil. Many, however, who are initially attracted to the allegedly more “innocent” forms of witchcraft (like Wicca) may be more attracted to darker elements of witchcraft when they realize that more malevolent forms better feed their desire to control others.
Churches can counter this by teaching about the reality of supernatural power with an emphasis on the supremacy of God’s power over the power of evil. Christians who ignore the supernatural and write it off as superstition can’t easily reach people who have had legitimate supernatural experiences, because they’re essentially portraying the Christian faith as spiritually powerless and one-dimensional.
Rituals and tradition are cool. As much as American Christianity loves its rock worship bands, sermon series, and movie clips, we may be missing something when we lose all the traditional stuff. It turns out a lot of young people actually like feeling a connection with people of other eras. Rituals and rites that sometimes seem archaic and out of place in the 21st century have a certain amount of cachet (both spiritual and psychological) that plenty of well-meaning church leaders sometimes discount when they’re trying to be relevant and reach more people. Things like “Catholic style” communion, responsive readings, blessings, anointing people with oil, and traditional prayers from prayer books.
A few years ago, I read the story of a person who led Bible studies in a juvenile detention center. He brought in paperback Bibles with appealing full-cover colors only to find out that many youth wanted a Bible that looked like their grandmother’s Bible. Go figure. Those who practice witchcraft often recognize the spiritual power in ritual more than some Christians do. The trend in many Christian churches has unfortunately been to strip Christian practice of elements that are perceived as being ancient, out of touch, or rote. Those who are drawn to witchcraft, on the other hand, seem to embrace rituals and ancient elements.
We want legitimate experiences, and we’re attracted to mystery. If your church promotes a doctrine-centered faith that lacks any discernible experience of power, don’t be surprised if your young people start jumping ship. Flawed as it is, witchcraft is experience-based and it recognizes the existence of a spiritual dimension beyond what we can see. And it doesn’t feel the need to try to explain everything, become super-relevant to today’s culture, or even to “fit in”. There are elements of secrecy and rebellion in the practice of witchcraft that likely attract people too. Although Christianity should avoid promoting rebellion and secrecy in general, one has to wonder if we haven’t gotten so caught up in our desire to be accepted by mainstream society and viewed as respectable that we’ve lost that subversive, counter-cultural edge that made the early church grow so quickly in the first place.
There will probably always be some kids who rebel against the faith of their upbringing, and wander off into the dark territory of witchcraft and the occult. But there’s no need for the church to give them reasons to leave. Christianity that’s too domesticated, too predictable, and too safe is also going to be seen by many as too boring. These are some of the problems we need to address if we’re going to capture the imagination and ignite the wonder of this generation.
Supernatural October Series: For the rest of the month, I’ll be blogging about topics like ghosts, demons, exorcism, spiritual warfare, death, hell, witchcraft, Satanism, the occult, psychics, vampires, and Halloween. If you have any ideas or experiences you’d like to share, send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read additional posts from this series.