Until They Come Home
When friends and family members leave the faith, there’s a better way to reach them.
By Carol Barnier
The young woman passing out pamphlets wove in and out of the group of college students that encircled the preacher and praise singers. She’d seen it all before. This little spiritual band appeared on the student green of her college campus every spring, as predictable as crocuses. And just as predictably, students showed up for the entertainment value, to watch the back-and-forth volley between the preacher and the atheists who loved to argue.
Sometimes the debate got heated and turned vitriolic, but often it verged on comical—at least in her opinion. Usually she thought neither side did very well in putting forth reasoned arguments. And that was why she felt the need to be there. This pastor’s daughter moved among the crowd, passing out the pamphlets she hoped would equip and empower other students to grasp a clearer understanding of truth that would remove the blinders on their eyes and brains. And this was the truth she’d come to accept: There was no God, and they should all just get on with their lives.
That pastor’s daughter atheist was me.
I’d been raised in the church and deeply entrenched in its social structure. I was church pianist, Sunday School teacher, VBS worker, you name it. Yet by the time I left home, I had proclaimed myself an atheist and was determined to see others recognize the truth of my beliefs.
How did I get there? Like many kids today, I had questions. Questions about God. Questions about truth. Questions about things that just didn’t seem to make sense. But when I began asking these questions out loud, they clearly made the Christians around me uncomfortable. Not only did that put distance between me and my faith community; it also led me to believe that their discomfort was born of a secret: they must not have answers. So, after exploring on my own for several years, I became an atheist—and remained one for 13 years.
Yet I was hardly a strange case: research done by the Barna Group in 2006 suggests that 6 out of 10 kids raised in the church leave it when they become adults (although not all turn to atheism as I did). Other studies put estimates at 7 out of 10 or even as high as 88 percent. While these statistics have startling implications, I suspect that to a parent or anyone who loves a prodigal, the numbers are only mildly interesting, because it’s their loved one who has walked away.
The Holy Spirit had a substantial task in bringing me back to faith, but back I eventually came. In retrospect, I’ve been able to pull out lessons from my journey and clearly see the things that my parents, siblings, former church members, and friends did right—and the things they could have done differently. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Welcome the questions.
A period of questioning actually signals something good and healthy: it indicates that you aren’t satisfied with a faith that isn’t your own and care about the integrity of your beliefs. You’re no longer riding on the coattails of your parents’ faith. You want it to make sense so that it becomes a part of you. There’s no doubt that this is a fragile time. But it can also be a glorious season that often precedes a surrendering and commitment to God that would not be possible for a child blindly following his parents’ values.
When we lack an answer for a question someone has asked, the discomfort that we as Christians may feel is actually silly. All of us in the community of faith need to own one really big truth: There’s no question so big it can unravel God. He can handle anything that comes along. He can withstand the scrutiny. None of my questions were new. Many of them had been asked centuries before, and often answered beautifully, even elegantly, by some marvelous minds. So what you don’t know, you can find out—there’s no need for panic. What’s more, God understands exactly what’s beneath each surface question, and is able to reveal truth to seekers in a way they can understand.
2. Focus on the heart.
If you have a prodigal in your life, stop worrying about his or her behaviors. Even if you somehow force him to stop smoking, stop sleeping around, and stop getting drunk, what have you accomplished? He’s now just a better-behaved sinner. And what’s worse, he believes that all you really wanted was for him stop being an embarrassment to you and your church buddies. As a result, his heart may now be further from the very God you want him to embrace, simply because you defined God’s personality by your own demands for better behavior. Stay focused on the core issue: his heart.
3. Stop blaming the parents.
When you observe someone leaving the faith, it can be easy to assume the parents are at fault. Some may have made grievous mistakes, but many did a perfectly reasonable job of parenting. Most parents of prodigals have been almost crushed by the weight of misplaced guilt, which is frequently fueled by a misreading of Proverbs 22:6, the oft-used “train up a child” verse. If you read that verse like a promise, you’re in hot water, because it means that since he has departed from the way he should go, the parents must not have raised him right. They may believe they're not going to see their child’s face in heaven—and it’s all their fault.
It’s time to do a more rigorous reading of this verse without attaching inappropriate implications. Seminarians and theologians have long known this, but many of us (myself included) assumed that Proverbs were promises. But think about it. What do you then do with Proverbs 10:4: “Poor is he who works with a negligent hand, but the hand of the diligent makes rich”? If this is a promise, you shouldn’t know anybody who is hard-working and poor, or lazy and rich. Yet I know many in both camps. The book of Proverbs holds many other such examples—they are God’s wisdom and guidance put into tightly constructed phrases about actions that position us for His best in our lives. But they do not turn God into our vending machine, now required to plop out the result of choice.
Parents have amazing influence over their children, but there isn’t a formula or an algorithm that guarantees a positive outcome. Consider this: If perfect parenting were possible and always resulted in perfect children, then Adam and Eve should have been flawless. But that sure didn’t happen, did it? Not only did they have the perfect Parent; they also lived in a perfect, unfallen world. It doesn’t get any better than that. And yet they still chose to walk away from Him.
4. Relate to the whole person.
Remember that this “prodigal” is still a whole, though not perfected, person. Aside from the fact that she’s stepped away from what you believe, she is nonetheless a multi-faceted, unique individual who has a favorite food, loves a certain kind of movie, is annoyed by a particular injustice, and enjoys a certain sport.
Don’t base all of your interactions with her on the fact that she stepped away from faith. If you do, she’ll soon be avoiding you. Wouldn’t you avoid someone who felt compelled to hammer away on what she thought was your downfall every single time you crossed paths? Connect with the entire person, or you may lose authentic opportunities to talk about matters of the heart.
5. Stop repeating yourself.
If you find yourself saying the same thing over and over again, stop. She already knows you believe her body is a temple of the Lord. He already knows you think he should come back to church. Saying it over and over again won’t make him know it any better. Do you think that if she hears it another 687 times, it will suddenly compute and she’ll drop to her knees in repentance? That’s not going to happen.
You may worry (especially if you’re a parent) that if you don’t constantly assert your feelings about her choices or beliefs, she’ll think you now approve. But it’s far more meaningful to say something like, “Well, you already know how I feel about that, but I want you to know I’ll always love you. You will always be my daughter.”
After I came back to the Lord and thought back to my years away from Him, I often wondered why He found me worth pursuing. But one day, He answered me so very clearly. He showed me that He saw beyond all my bitterness of spirit, pride, and arrogance—all the way to the beauty of the real me that I would become after surrendering to Christ.
We may be focused on our prodigal’s circumstances in the now, anxious and troubled by what we see, or perhaps truly horrified. But take heart. One of God’s favorite things to do is to take something seemingly hopeless in the eyes of the world and, through His love, render it into something valuable and extraordinary—even breathtaking. The good news is that God is an artist, and we are His favorite medium.
Carol Barnier is the author of Engaging Today’s Prodigal: Clear Thinking, New Approaches, and Reasons for Hope.