In its annual American Worldview Inventory report, the Cultural Research Center announced the results of a nationwide survey that revealed, among other things, that only six percent of American adults hold a biblical worldview—an all-time low. For some, this statistic might be just another number. But for others, this statistic is deeply discouraging because it is indicative of their friends and family leaving the Christian faith.
Many Christians are taught how to share the gospel with non-Christians, but what’s often not taught is how to respond when those who were raised within the church, have heard the truth, and even perhaps once believed in the gospel walk away from the faith. Individuals may choose to leave Christianity for a variety of reasons, perhaps because of a painful experience (e.g., a church split or being a victim of abuse), doubts left unanswered (or feeling rejected when their doubts are voiced), or a sin they want to participate in. No matter the reason, Christians need to respond to our friends’ situations and choices with grace, humility, and compassion.
Here are four steps you can take when responding to a friend who has announced they are leaving the faith.
1. Listen and Learn
Listen to what your friend has to say. James wrote, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (1:19). If your friend is willing to share their reasoning for leaving the faith, it is best to hear them out rather than berating them or getting defensive. Choosing to leave the Christian faith is no small decision, one your friend has most likely wrestled with in private. Your friend’s heart will likely grow harder towards Christianity if you respond to their decision with hostility and rebuke.
Listening will also provide you with an opportunity to learn any areas in which your discipleship of them or fellowship with them as believers may have fallen short. Do not assume that you already know why your friend is making this choice. If they are willing to confide in you, be fully present and listen to their story.
2. Ask Questions
After your friend has confided in you, you can ask questions. Some of the best questions to start with are:
- What has led to this decision?
- What has been hard?
- What has been good?
- Tell me more about that.
- What do you need right now?
By asking thoughtful questions, you can learn how your friend has been processing, thinking, and reasoning through this choice. Your job in these conversations is not to be right, win a debate, or convince your friend to change their mind. Instead, your job is to seek to understand how they came to their conclusions. Leaving the faith is a serious choice, and we must take our friends seriously and choose our words judiciously: “Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble” (Prov. 21:23).
3. Offer Encouragement
Offer encouragement to your friend. That is to say, do not encourage them to leave the faith. Instead, encourage them by letting them know that they are not alone in struggling with their faith.
Being a Christian comes at a price. Jesus told His disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). He also said that the world would hate and despise those who love and follow Him (John 18:15-25). Being a Christian also does not mean never struggling with sin or having doubts. In Romans 7, Paul describes the struggle with sin that Christians will continue to have.
We should reassure those who are thinking of leaving the faith that it is okay to have doubts, falter, struggle with sin, or be weary or afraid. Be careful not to puff yourself up (1 Cor. 8:1). Instead, show your friend empathy, remembering that you are a human as well. Ephesians 4:29 says, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” Ask God for the words to say to encourage your friend.
Finally, “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). Only God can change your friend’s heart and mind. It is God who turns the heart of stone into a heart of flesh (Ezk. 36:26). Pray to have the self-control to listen, the wisdom to ask good questions and seek understanding, and the love and courage necessary to uplift your friend and speak life into their situation if invited. Do not give unsolicited advice but keep that door open and pray that the words of your mouth would be pleasing to God (Ps. 19:14). Pray for your friend’s healing and renewed trust. Pray that God would reveal Himself to your friend and that they would respond and not reject the truth. Also, invite other Christians to pray with you for those you know who are leaving the faith.
Our hearts should break for those who are discouraged, scared, or disillusioned and are considering leaving the faith. We must continuously build one another up in Christ:
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Heb. 10:23-25)