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Magazine > Content

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.

Copyright 2015 In Touch Ministries, Inc. All rights reserved. In Touch grants permission to print for personal use only.

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  • May 08, 2014 09:16 AM


    I was a prodigal child too. I would only add that parents' complete silence sends the wrong message too - that they don't care enough to show they are concerned. You need to find the right balance that reaches out to your child.
  • May 08, 2014 07:38 AM


    Thanks for sharing your story. It's so helpful and inspiring. I have "repeated myself" too much and intend now to reiterate my love EVEN IF they chose to go against what they already know I believe. God's grace is greater than our mistakes. So glad you're back and living the life God intended for you, and blessing many. <3
  • January 29, 2014 02:45 PM


    Thank you for this article. As another one commented I never cease to be amazed that when I need to hear something it always comes. I'm struggling with an issue with one of my son's who is about to be married, he's not in church regularly and I know I've failed in many aspects. I believe he is my prodigal but my weakness is impatience, when I know The Lord has told me to trust him with it. I'm praying everyday for The Lord to open his eyes to see what he needs to see but also to open my eyes and realize that His grace isn't just for me.

  • January 22, 2014 08:44 AM


    Enjoyed the article. Thanks.
  • April 28, 2013 03:42 AM


    thank you for this very encouraging and inspiring article. it's really frustrating to see my nephews enjoying their computer games and no time spend for God...i think the best way that i can do is pray for them believing that God can work in their hearts in many ways. that one of these days they too will go back to their help me pray .may God's blessings be upon you always.
  • February 21, 2013 04:00 AM


    thank you carol for sharing your personal experience with us..this article made me realize that anything is possible with God that those who walked away in their faith may still come home in God's perfect time..that maybe God is just pruning them and cultivating them so that they become fully grown when they return to their christian God be the glory.
  • January 26, 2013 09:44 AM


    Thank you Father! He knew I needed to read this article. I'm filled guilt and self condemnation because my son has chossen to live outside the faith. Until tody I looked at my prodigal as punishment for failing to follow scripture and not strictly adhering to principles of Christain parenting.
  • January 22, 2013 11:35 PM


    I thank God so much that i am able to read this article, i am touched and i learned a lot from reading this.. Now i believe i can understand prodigal brethrens, and i now undrestand them more and i will love them more.!!
  • January 21, 2013 03:09 PM


    Thank you thank you thank you , I have one son hes married and God has blesses me with 3 beautiful grand children a daughter in law who is faithful to the Lord and deligently works with the children in there relationshiip to Christ. I have recently learned of questioning Jesus roll in a christians life , by my son and the oldest grandson who is 22 and recently home for college. with all the comments on this article I know this must be of the upmost priority. Lord draw up nearer to thee, Lord we lift you up. Lord thank you for the protective hedge you place around our families , strenghten each of us, and let the prayers of the righteous avail much. Let your word be upon our hearts,mind and lips ,let your word be true. thank you for delivering us from the fowler, protect our children Lord,
  • January 21, 2013 07:50 AM


    Thank you and thank you to all those who commented. I needed this article and your thoughts.
  • January 18, 2013 04:12 PM


    It amazes me of how many people I've talked to, that are going through this same thing as we are. Children who were raised in Christian homes and when they leave home they fall right into satan's traps. I can name hundreds of things that I wish that I could go back and do over again and maybe it would have made a difference, but the part about Adam & Eve was such a revelation to me and a comfort, knowing that even if I had done everything perfect, our children could still have chosen the wrong path. WOW !!! I still wish that I could go back and do some things differently, but I can't. Thank you for this story and for the wittness you are. It has been a tremendous blessing and a remarkable insight to the minds of our children. Even though our children have not gone as far as to say there is no God, any path that leads them away from the Savior is heartbreaking to any parent. Let's all join together and pray for one another's children. God made us a promise, and I believe it !!!
  • January 18, 2013 01:07 PM


    Thank you for writing this Carol. It's funny I should read this today. I was dropping off my son this morning and was listening to a religious station talking about hell and my son who is 15 asked me why I keep listening to this stuff. I told him because I want to hear about God all the time and he said how do you don't even know if he really exists? I was motified and told him that he does and that if he wants to go to heaven he has to believe that Jesus died for our sins and the only way to go to heaven is if you are saved. He is in the process of making his confirmaton this year and I don't want to walk away after he is cofirmed either. Reading this today really put things into perspective for me. Thank you!
  • January 17, 2013 07:02 PM


    I am really grateful to this article, i now know that i dont need to blame myself of what s happening to my children, but i have to affirm my love and acceptance of them. that no matter what happened i love them and they are forever my children.
  • January 11, 2013 06:05 PM


    Thank you for this article it moved me to tears because I know one day I'll see my prodigals back in the Lord's arms. This article consoled me because I've felt like I failed the Lord in my role as a mother and as a Christian but I'm learning to better communicate with my sons and this article strengthens my faith in the Lord's love for all who walk the earth.
  • January 11, 2013 06:09 AM


    It never ceases to amaze me that when I need comfort or understanding it comes, thank you Holy Spirit, I found this so comforting, God knows what he is doing, he will take care of me and my daughter in his own time. Thank u for sharing this story so many of us are in the same place. If we listen carefully God speaks to us and helps us in our every day lives, thx for writing the article.
  • January 10, 2013 06:56 PM


    Genius! Thank God for you Carol.
  • January 09, 2013 04:21 PM


    Wow - this is great to read from this perspective. Thank you for sharing. I am a single mother with two daughters (12 and 8) and my biggest fear is that they will walk away. I want to learn from the get go on how to lay that foundation so they won't leave, but I have to remember that ultimately, my daughters are God's and not mine (I'm just a stewart) and they will have to make their own decision about this. It scares me to think maybe I'm not doing a good enough job or going to the other extreme of shoving it down their throat. It is such a fine line there and just to let go and trust God!! Thank you again for your story.
  • January 09, 2013 10:18 AM


    I can so relate to this article. All of my children have chosen to walk away from the church. But I see so many Godly characters in them such as compassion and charity.We are all very close and I will continue to be there for them and love them unconditionally. I believe the Holy Spirit is going to draw all them back to Him in His perfect timing.
  • January 08, 2013 08:51 PM


    I have a son who has left the faith. I have been so upset about it but I have turned it over to God because I know he loves my son more that I do. Thank you for the article!
  • January 06, 2013 08:37 AM


    Thank you for this!
  • January 01, 2013 12:56 PM


    Thank you for this article. As the mom of a prodigal I pray everyday for her to see beyond the condemnation to the love of Christ she once knew.
  • January 01, 2013 11:06 AM


    Oh my - my magazine 'just opened' to this article first off. I've been so heartbroken over our daughter leaving the faith, but this article overwhelmed me - even now my hands are still wet from the magnitude of it. What hope - I've always known the Lord to be faithful, but I have to grow in this area, leaving her to the Lord and not regretting that I MUST have failed. I believe that I have followed her suggestions and our daughter and us have a good relationship. It is just so very good to read an article of such hope - thank you Carol Barnier for your story - what a good year this will be!!

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