KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The fifth-grader considered himself a typical Christian boy.
But he had a secret: Internet pornography.
Now 27, Justen Wack, of Gardner, Kan., recalled how he first discovered pornography. While living in Cleveland, the family of one of his friends got Internet service. The boys came across a pornography site and were fascinated.
"When I would go to his house, we would look at it," Wack said. "We were in the middle grade of elementary school. It was never addressed at my church so I wasn't confronted that I was doing anything wrong.
"As I got older, at some point I realized that it was wrong," he said. "But by this time I was hooked. There was a lot of guilt and shame. I felt terrible, but pornography is like a drug. That's the powerful thing about it."
As a Christian, Wack is not alone.
The extent of pornography use within the Christian community came to light about 10 years ago, and since then a growing number of faith-based ministries are finding it tough to address.
"Pornography is a huge problem," said the Rev. Rick Power, senior pastor of College Church of the Nazarene in Olathe. "It's exacerbated because it can be done so easily on the Internet in your home and office and even on mobile devices."
"It is a very shameful, dark, broken place for Christians," said Phillip Cosby, director of the American Family Association of Kansas and Missouri. "They have the appearance that all is OK, yet they have this secret. They are living a lie and have this reputation to maintain."
Cosby has spent a lot of his time talking to churches and encouraging them to do something about the problem. Two weeks ago he was at Shawnee (Kan.) Bible Church. The Rev. Darrell Godfrey, the Shawnee pastor, said church leadership recognizes that pornography needs to be discussed. Part of the problem is getting people to own up to their use of it.
"Our Christian belief is that humans are created in the image of God, and we should uphold the highest standard in our relationship with ourselves and others," he said. "Pornography dehumanizes people because it offers sexual gratification without relationship or responsibility.
"We need to free people from the shame of pornography and for sex to be part of a loving relationship between husband and wife."
Many parents don't talk to their children about pornography, although "many young people spend hours a day looking at this stuff," Cosby said.
Most churches don't touch the subject, and those that do often find themselves hitting a brick wall of secrecy.
What has come to light in more recent years is that pornography is also attracting Christian women. A poll several years ago conducted by ChristiaNet.com said 50 percent of Christian men and 20 percent of Christian women were addicted to pornography.
As far back as 1996, Promise Keepers, which ministered to men at huge stadium events, did a survey at one of its conferences. It revealed that more than 50 percent of the men in attendance had viewed pornography within one week of the event.
Even more disturbing to Christian leaders is how Internet pornography is affecting clergy.
A 2000 Christianity Today magazine survey revealed that 33 percent of clergy admitted to having visited sexually explicit websites, with 53 percent saying they had visited them a few times in the past year.
"Many pastors are isolated from accountable relationships," Power said. "They tend not to be open about the problem because it is important for them to be spiritual examples.
"That's why it is important for clergy to have colleagues or close friends that they can be open with."
Today there are more resources to help clergy, such as retreats, support groups and ministry programs, Power said.
"Ten or 15 years ago, people had to go to a local store or video shop, and there was the potential scandal of purchasing pornographic material, so this shamed a lot of people from doing that," said the Rev. David Krueger, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Linn, Mo., and head of the Christian Life Commission of the Missouri Baptist Convention.
"The anonymity of the Internet has been a game-changer."
"We have this addiction because society has allowed it," said Phillip Morgan, who conducts a spiritual care support group for the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. "We are in a society that is using sex to sell."
Sexual images have become prevalent, said Teresa Willnauer, of Olathe, Kan., who with her husband, Paul, conducts a 12-step pornography addiction recovery program for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"And with the Internet, it's there with the click of a mouse," she said.
Krueger said the obsession with sex is such a problem in today's culture that it has spilled over into the church.
"As Americans, we have become very good at compartmentalizing our lives," he said. "This is why Christians should seek to apply the Bible in every area of our lives."