When a close friend of mine shared with me through a text that she was no longer a Christian, I foolishly replied with three insensitive words: “Are you legit?”
She was someone I had grown up with in church, and we had served together in various ministries. Although younger than me, she spoke with much wisdom; I always saw her as someone who was more spiritually mature than me.
Naturally, her declaration that she was no longer a Christian came as a shock to me. I re-read the same text again and again, hoping that I had misunderstood her message. There was no ambiguity in her text. What was I to say now? Surely she wouldn’t want me to share with her the gospel that she no longer believed in?
As an introvert, I tend to stay within my tight-knit circle of friends in church, and not step out to minister to others. Because of my fear of rejection, I always assumed that the responsibility to reach out to those who leave the faith lies with those who were more extroverted and spiritually mature.
But when my friend made that declaration to me, I knew I could not sit back and do nothing. As her friend, I had to act. But while it was clear as day to me that I had to do my part to reach out to her, I wasn’t clear about how or where to begin.
As I struggled to connect with my friend, these are five things that I wish someone had told me.
1. He/she is still your friend
After my friend’s sudden declaration, I struggled to view her as my same old friend that I could spend hours talking to. I couldn’t engage in the same conversations about the books and the silliest happenings in our lives without the nagging thought that our relationship was no longer the same. That said, she was probably having the same difficulty as well, wondering if her Christian friends would treat her any different now that she no longer believed in God, and would leave her because of her decision.
When our friends leave the faith, it can be a crushing blow to us. To me, it even felt a little like betrayal. But I do believe that God wants us to continue to be the same friend to them, treating them as we did before. God wants us to view them as His children and fellow sinners who need God’s love and care—like we all do (Romans 5:8).
Friends who leave the faith are not “new projects” for us to take on, they are still our friends with the same needs, desires, and hobbies.
2. Take the time to listen to them
What my friend needed at that moment was not someone persuading her to come back to Christianity. She didn’t need another comprehensive or engaging presentation of the gospel. What she needed was a friend to hear her out.
Spending time to understand why our friends leave the faith as well as the process leading up to that decision is important. We need to remember that many of them have thought through the painful process and would appreciate someone patient enough to listen, instead of someone eager to re-share the gospel with them as if they’ve not heard it before. This also shows respect for our friend, recognizing that they did not make the decision lightly, and that they are probably going through quite a bit emotionally.
When we seek first to understand them, we demonstrate God’s love, care, and concern for them. The act of listening also reassures them that the friendship is a safe space for them to share, and opens up more opportunities for them to be honest with their struggles.
3. Know the faith you proclaim
I’m ashamed to admit that this was my biggest struggle. I don’t think it’s about knowing how to answer every difficult apologetics question thrown at us, but at the very least, we must be clear about why we are Christians.
When my friend asked me over dinner one day why I’m a Christian, my mind went blank. I realized I hadn’t thought it through carefully or prepared an answer. In the end, I stammered through a lengthy and lame reply that even I myself wasn’t convinced of.
The reason for our conviction is a common question from non-Christians, and the Bible exhorts us to “always be ready to explain” the reason for the hope within us (1 Peter 3:15, NLT). When we are ill-equipped to share with confidence, we are losing a precious opportunity from God to share our personal testimony with others and what our faith means to us on a personal level. By not thinking through our own reasons, we also lose the opportunity to engage meaningfully with the person on a topic close to both our hearts.
4. Reflect on how we might have influenced the decision
Though the decision to leave the faith ultimately rests with the individual and each one of us is accountable for our own actions before God, there could have been a string of contributing factors that finally tipped the balance.
In my friend’s case, I—along with other friends—had wrongly assumed that just because she was actively serving, her relationship with God was in a good state, so we neglected ministering to her. We spent a much larger proportion of our time with others who reluctantly came to church or didn’t feel connected to the church, forgetting that the one next to us needed the same kind of attention.
Perhaps, it might have been the little things that caused them to feel far away from God. We may not have ignored or excluded them in church, refusing to be the community we are called to be; but could we have been slow to listen to their struggles, or had focused on loving and spending time with others?
What did we do (or not do) that caused them to feel distant and doubt God? Are there things that we could have done better to point them to God? What practical steps could we have taken to improve the way we behave? In other words, how could we have been better friends? How could we have been more sensitive to their needs?
Recognizing hard truths help us to be better friends and better testimonies of Christ to those around us.
5. Recognize that God’s heart breaks more than ours.
If our friends are precious to us, what more to their Creator? If we, as sinners, can love our friends, how much more the perfect God?
If we want our friends to be reconciled with God, what more God, who sent His only Son to do that (John 3:16)? We can be assured that God’s personal heart is for all sinners to come back to Him in repentance (Ezekiel 18:23). Just as God is patient and will never give up on His children (2 Peter 3:9), may we learn to never give up praying and interceding for our friends.
Let us learn to trust in God, not doubting His faithfulness and His goodness, and cling onto His promises in the Bible that God will finish the good work that He has begun in every single one of us (Philippians 1:6).
I hope that my friend will come back to Christ one day. And till then, I will keep praying that God will turn her heart back to Him, trusting and submitting to His sovereign will.