In March of last year, a Gallup poll revealed that for the first time in America’s history, church membership had fallen below a majority. Survey data shows that since the 1970s, “Americans [who] said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque” has been dropping steadily, from around 70 percent in 1975 to 47 percent today.
This data fits with the experiences of many believers who have adult children, siblings, parents, or friends who were once churchgoers but have now fallen away and are living a fully secular life apart from God. For followers of Christ, it can be a gut-wrenching and painful experience to watch a loved one publicly turn away from their faith or renounce what we believe is the ultimate source of truth, human fulfillment, and flourishing on earth.
But we also know that life is full of suffering and disappointment. The trials of earthly life can feel overwhelming for everyone, believers included. It’s safe to say that we have all had moments in our lives when we have doubted God’s existence, or at least doubted His goodness or questioned His wisdom. We also know the powerful allure that the world offers us in its material things, sinful pleasures, and idolatrous philosophies that draw us away from God. Therefore, we must have empathy for those in our spheres who struggle with doubt. We also must think biblically about those who profess to no longer believe. After all, if it weren’t for God’s grace, none of us would have any faith at all (Eph. 2:8-10).
When we first learn about a loved one turning away from the Christian life, it can be tempting to react quickly and strongly, confronting the person with theological, intellectual, and what may seem to us commonsense reasons for why they are making the wrong decision. But as experience will tell us, this rarely works and often only increases tension and resentment. Instead, our ardent desire for our loved one to return to the faith must be seasoned with patience, patience, and more patience.
As we move forward in the hope that God will draw our loved one back to Himself in a manner according to His will and in His own good time, here are a few suggestions on ways we can reflect Christ’s love to our struggling loved ones.
1. Focus On the Relationship First
Instead of focusing on your loved one’s lack of faith, make a sincere, directed effort toward building your relationship with them on a human level. In your conversations, focus on discussing day to day activities, such as jobs, children, family matters, illnesses, shared interests, and the like. When possible, make a concerted effort to be there for your loved one at a moment’s notice, whether it be if they are sick and need errands to be run, need a last-minute babysitter, or just need someone to talk to during a time of difficulty. If faith-related topics come up, seek to listen well, ask good questions, and don’t try to win an argument.
In this way, you will build trust with your loved one, showing them that you care for their whole person no matter what their faith status is and no matter what season of life they are in.
2. Be Vulnerable
Being able to relate to your loved one even when they have abandoned the faith that you hold so dear is extremely important. The best way to do this is to let your guard down in your conversations with them and be as vulnerable as possible. If they bring up faith-related questions and show an interest in discussing them, share your own faith journey story from the very beginning without omitting any embarrassing details. Share any struggles you have had over the years in your relationship with Christ and the theological questions and Scripture passages that you continually wrestle with. Share your personal faults, weaknesses, and familial wounds and how they have affected your faith journey.
The more you share about your own personal struggles as a believer and the more honest and vulnerable you are, the more likely it is that your doubting loved one will make a connection with something you say—however small of a detail it may be—and be able to relate it to their own experience. Who knows—some seemingly insignificant anecdote you share may just be the mustard seed that plants itself in your loved one’s soul that will one day become a beautiful tree of renewed faith.
3. Share Life’s Beauty
As believers, we know that everything that is beautiful on earth is ultimately a reflection of God. This underscores the importance of talking with your loved one about the beautiful things in your life that you are passionate about. Discuss the ins and outs of the novel or biography you are currently reading. Share why you loved a particular movie or TV show that was excellently acted and produced and describe how it edified your soul. Illustrate how the latest concert you attended electrified you. When your loved one shares their own experiences and passions, listen attentively and connect with them over shared interests.
By keeping your discussions focused on passions and hobbies, the arts, and the multitude of other beautiful things that fill the earth, you can connect with your loved one in a deep yet unthreatening way that does not directly touch on faith. Even so, your conversation still has the potential to nudge your loved one a little closer to the Creator of all that is beautiful.
4. Live Your Life as a Witness
As previously mentioned, directly confronting your loved one about their doubts regarding faith is generally not advisable, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be an active witness of faith to them. How? By living a life of virtue fueled by your faith, which will be difficult for your loved one to ignore.
There are few things on earth more beautiful than a believer living an authentically free life to the fullest, being a visible sign of God’s presence on earth by living out the virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Christians like this have a palpable sense of joy and peace that radiates from their soul, and which anyone, believer or not, can’t help but notice. Give your loved one the freedom to recommit to the faith through the witness of your own life.
5. Fast and Pray
There is a storied tradition throughout the entirety of Scripture on the importance and effectiveness of fasting for a particular intention. When we combine this with prayer, it is a potent means of calling on the Lord for the conversion of a loved one. As Christ Himself said, “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you receive it, and you will” (Mark 11:24). Here are a few themes we can meditate on as we pray for our loved ones to return to the fold of faith.
- Hope. Who can forget the incredible true story of Saint Augustine and the faith of his mother Monica? The early life of the man who many consider to be the greatest early church father was marked by sin and a rejection of the Christianity that his mother Monica tried to instill in him as a child (as described in his book Confessions). He embarked on a decade-long affair with a woman he never married, fathered a son with her, and spent years believing in astrology and Gnosticism. Throughout those agonizing 30 years of witnessing her son away from the faith, Monica never lost hope and continually believed and prayed for her son’s conversion. Sure enough, Augustine underwent a monumental conversion to Christianity and went on to become one of the most beloved bishops, thinkers, and writers in church history.
- Surrender. As hard as it is to let go of our own will when it comes to our desire for our loved one to return to the faith, that is exactly what we must ultimately do—let go. Time and time again, Scripture tells us to humble ourselves and surrender all things to His will. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6). When we entrust our lost loved one in prayer to the Divine Shepherd, we will drive out anxiousness about their fate and bring peace to our souls.
- The Prodigal Son. Perhaps the most beautiful and moving parable in all of Scripture is Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32). Part of the reason why it is so moving is that it is continually relatable and applicable to our lives as believers, for we know that whenever we sin, Christ welcomes us back with open arms time and time again when we beg for His forgiveness, for His mercy never ceases. As we meditate on this parable, let us picture our lost loved ones returning to our Savior, His arms spread open on the Cross, bleeding for their restoration with Him, and being washed in the blood of the Lamb’s embrace.