By David Sanford
It’s not unusual to discover that a longtime friend, neighbor, or acquaintance has left church and seems to doubt much of what he or she once believed about God, the Bible, Jesus Christ, the church, and the Christian faith.
So, how should we respond?
Over the years, after making almost every mistake in the book, I’ve discovered 10 counterintuitive yet powerful steps to reach out to friends who have drifted away from the faith.
I’ve been amazed by how God has worked through simple conversations where my friend talked and I listened.
1. Love your friend unconditionally.
2. Invite your friend to tell his or her story—and then just listen. Don’t ask questions. Don’t interrupt, except to quickly affirm you’re actively listening.
3. Be unshockable. Truth be told, we’ve all broken the Ten Commandments, at least in our hearts. Confession is good for the soul, so let your friend talk.
Don’t react to anything he or she says, no matter how ugly or angry. Your friend is not angry at you, even if it sounds that way.
4. After your friend has finished talking, remain quiet. Keep listening. I remember a conversation I had with Leonard, who poured out his heart to me. I didn’t say a word. I just listened.
When he was finished, I kept looking into Leonard’s angry, deeply hurt eyes and didn’t say anything. After a minute, with deepest sadness he said, “All I needed was hope and mercy.” What a profoundly haunting lament.
Yet if I had started talking, I never would have heard what he needed.
5. Once your friend tells you what he or she needs, still don’t say anything. After Leonard told me, “All I needed was hope and mercy,” I remained quiet for another minute.
His eyes and facial expressions began to soften and change. Only God’s love can do that.
Then Leonard told me, “And by listening to my story, you’ve given me both.”
6. Whatever you do, don’t promise to meet your friend’s needs. Often your friend will want to know the answer to a burning question: “Why?” You don’t know. Don’t even try to guess. Speculation will only ruin your credibility.
7. If you and your friend have a mutual friend who has a strong faith in Jesus Christ, explore the possibility of inviting that mutual friend to join you at some point in the future.
If your friend can share his or her story with a second person, it’s often helpful. The mutual friend may be a pastor or another respected Christian leader. Or the mutual friend may be a mature Christian you both know you can trust.
8. Ask your friend if you can pray for him or her. If your friend is in agreement, pray right then. Then remind your friend from time to time you’re still praying for him or her. Prayer invites Jesus back into the picture.
9. At the right time, invite your friend to read the Bible with you. Read one of the four Gospels together. As you read, pray that your friend will fall in love with Jesus again.
10. Stay in touch with your friend no matter what. Your friendship can’t be contingent on whether your friend comes back to faith in Jesus Christ. That’s up to Him, not you. You may have to hang in there for years before your friend re-embraces faith. No problem.
Never give up on your friendship. True, some will walk away. But never let it be said that you walked away.
DAVID SANFORD (@drsanford77) is author of Loving Your Neighbor: Surprise! It’s Not What You Think (Kregel), available this summer.