Talk about practicing what I preach.
Not long after I wrote about keeping the faith in a Christian college, a friend and former student emailed me to let me know that he had relinquished his own belief in Jesus. It was surprising news. While I hadn’t talked to him in for a few months, he is an intelligent fellow from a good home, and I had never detected any movement in that direction.
So there I was, reading his email, wondering how I should respond.
Naturally, I freaked out.
I didn’t throw chairs or wring my hands in agony. But I did experience a lot of sadness and anger, and even a fair amount of fear. As his former Bible teacher, I wondered whether there was something I said or did that launched him on this path.
I imagine this sort of reaction is pretty common for Christians when their friends or family members decide to leave behind the faith. After all, Christianity is a belief system — but it is also a host of uniting practices and activities. When someone rejects those, it feels like betrayal.
Of course, describing this transition as a “decision” isn’t quite accurate. I decided to follow Jesus in a very different way than I decided what to wear this morning. The latter was done in haste, without very much consideration about the meaning of my clothing (much to my wife’s chagrin). But my verbal confession of faith that Jesus is Lord was the culmination of a series of experiences, realizations and insights that I ultimately found undeniable.
And from what I can tell, going the other direction tends to work the same way. In my friend’s case, he found some questions he couldn’t answer and had some painful experiences. Brick by brick the wall was built (or, you could say, torn down). And I didn’t see it coming.
My worry is that as Christians, we sometimes add a few more bricks to that wall by responding out of insecurity and anger, instead of love, to those who leave the faith. We are called to bear witness to the reality of Christ’s love not only for those who have never come to faith but also to those who leave it. With that in mind, I offer this exploration of how to — and how not to — respond when loved ones reject Christianity.
The Apologetics Double-Barrel Approach
Of all the problematic responses, this is my personal favorite. Maybe it’s because I love thinking hard about whether Christianity is true, but every time someone I know has left the faith, I’ve opened up both barrels of the apologetics gun.
The desire to present the case for Christianity at that moment is understandable. After all, it’s a pretty good case. At the same time, the double-barrel approach reduces people to their minds and misunderstands the messy nature of how belief systems actually change. If disbelief — like belief — is the culmination of a process, then no silver-bullet argument will reverse it.
I’ve been guilty of skipping the crucial step of asking whether they even want to discuss the truth of Christianity. Some people simply don’t want to have the conversation, at least not right away, and forcing it on them drives an unnecessary wedge in the relationship.
The Morality Police Approach
For some people, leaving Christianity behind can result in a loosening of their moral code. They may feel a sense of newfound freedom and express it in ways that Christians find problematic.
Of course, sometimes the problem begins much earlier. Some folks who dislike Christianity’s ethical demands will hunt for an intellectual justification to rationalize their rejection of it. In these cases, the root problem isn’t really a philosophical one, but rather a moral one (which is especially important for Christians who favor the double-barreled apologetic response to keep in mind).
Whatever the case, we as Christians need to realize that it’s not our job to play “morality police” and attempt to hold people to a standard with which they no longer agree. After all, their foundation for their moral decisions may be very different from ours. The truth about morality must be accompanied by love and grace, lest it unnecessarily reinforce their hostility toward Christians.
The Awkward Christian Approach
When my wife and I go out to eat, we’ll often pray before our meal. It’s always a little awkward, especially when the server drops by with the food in the middle of it. I’m sometimes tempted to alter what I say and hurry through the prayer to prevent an awkward moment.
But prayer is what Christians do. It’s part of the heartbeat of our life in Jesus. My tendency to avoid prayer in public isn’t grounded in a desire to avoid making others uncomfortable, or a commitment to pray in secret as Jesus commanded, but rather a lack of courage.
I’ve observed a similar pattern with friends who leave the faith. It’s tempting to paper over our differences, to mute the distinct habits and ways of speaking that are a constant reminder of the divisions between us — and the bonds we used to share. Sometimes that desire isn’t grounded in a sense of hospitality or love for the other person, but in a desire to avoid the reminder that things are not the way they once were.
There is a fine line to walk. “Christianese” won’t resonate with them anymore, and it’s important to be sensitive to that. And it’s pretty clear we should avoid undue controversy or divisions with those we love and practice the sort of radical hospitality toward them that distinguishes us as Christians.
But this hospitality must be marked by a quiet confidence that comes from a refusal to compromise the distinctive aspects of our faith. When Peter asked Jesus about the Apostle John, Jesus responded: “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me.” It is a command for us as well. We must go about our Father’s business oblivious to the particular shape that other people’s relationship with Jesus takes.
How Then Should We Act?
Immediately after my panic subsided at my friend’s news, I began to think through how I should respond. I came up with the following non-definitive list:
Take the long view. If I’m right that faith and unbelief in God are movements of the soul that take time before they manifest themselves externally, then I’m going to be patient and not try to immediately force him to see how he’s wrong.
Take the God-centered view. This comes about through reading the Bible and praying. The more we recognize God’s love for our friends, the more we’ll be able to walk in that love with Him. And the more we realize that “all things are God’s,” including salvation, the less we will respond to decisions like my friend’s with fear and anxiety. Instead we will be moved to prayer.
Take my friend’s view. Because I was curious about why my friend left the faith, I proposed a future conversation about the reasons for his decision. I want to hear him out and to answer his questions as well as I’m able. We’ll talk apologetics, because we both enjoy a good debate. But for those who don’t, I recommend addressing these topics with sensitivity.
Take my own view. In light of my friend’s email, I have decided to do some good, solid self-examination. My fear that I said or did something that played a part in his leaving is real, and his decision gives me an opportunity to discern whether there are sins that I have committed for which I need to repent and ask forgiveness.
Take a joyful view. Drew Dyck, whose book Generation Ex-Christian addresses these issues in much more depth, offered this sage advice:
I think too often when a friend or loved one strays from the faith we lose our joy. Our concern for their spiritual well-being actually causes us to adopt a dour demeanor and sabotages our witness. How do we expect them to want something that we don’t appear to even enjoy?
There’s a lot at stake in our friends’ lives, but as Christians we need to constantly return to the source and center of our lives and to cultivate the sort of joy that exists in all circumstances.
Belonging After Disbelieving
When it comes to evangelism, the Christian community talks about “belonging before believing.” We are to be hospitable and inviting. Before people enter a personal relationship with the triune God, we welcome them to come and see His redemptive power.
The same should be true of belonging after disbelieving. It’s naïve to think that differences in belief won’t alter the relationship. The grounds for our fellowship with other Christians are not our social connections or even the beliefs that we share, but rather the Spirit who is at work in our midst. Because those who reject Christianity reject these grounds for union, belonging after disbelieving in this sense is an impossibility.
But as Christians, we do have a fellowship with the world that can unite us. Inasmuch as they stand in need of redemption, so do we. It is a position that removes all grounds for boasting or judgment. When we recognize that, we can fellowship with them out of the love that Christ has for us.
And this is the opportunity before us: to love as Christ loves us and to give ourselves to others as He gave himself for us. I don’t know what will happen with my friend or if he’ll ever start attending church again. My calling is to love him regardless. And by God’s mercy, I’ll someday learn how to do just that.
Copyright 2010 Matthew Anderson. All rights reserved.