How should we respond when friends leave the faith—when others drift away or choose to leave the Church Jesus founded and take a different path?
He was Immanuel. He was the Messiah. He was the Hope of Israel.
He was Lord, Master and Teacher—actively healing, modeling righteousness and teaching the gospel of the Kingdom of God.
He was bringing glad tidings of exceptionally good things—life-changing, engaging truths that reshaped His followers’ worldview.
And yet, even when Jesus was working miracles, John records, “Many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more” (John 6:66).
Many walked with Him no more.
This line thuds when read aloud. Many walked with Him—Immanuel, Messiah, Lord, Master, Healer and Friend—no more.
It is a plain statement of fact that is discomforting to absorb. How could this be?
Leaving the Church and falling away from the faith
Even now, some disciples stray from the faith—leaving the Church Jesus founded and its beliefs, practices and community—choosing, at least for the moment, to walk with Him no more. (Learn more about those biblical beliefs and practices in the booklet Where Is the Church Jesus Built?)
Some may say:
- “I’m going to step away for a while. I’m just taking a break.”
- “I don’t feel like this is for me. I mean, not right now anyway.”
- “I don’t understand everything. And no one listens when I try to ask.”
- “I’ll still be a good person. This is what feels right for me.”
As Christians, how should we handle such layered, confusing and challenging circumstances? Let’s examine how we can best respond when others choose to walk with Him no more.
To whom shall we go?
It is difficult—even unsettling—when a fellow Christian turns away from truth. An array of jumbled questions flood in: Why would he do this? What is she thinking? How could he not see where this path leads? What do I do now?
In just such a moment, Jesus asked the 12 disciples, “Do you also want to go away?” (John 6:67). Jesus prompted them to examine their hearts—to evaluate where they stood in relation to Him.
Jesus highlighted restoration in the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7).Imagine Jesus—as our Lord, Master, Teacher and Friend—asking us the same question. “What about you? Do you also want to go away?”
Peter’s response was rhetorical: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (verse 68).
That’s the model for us. We can center our attention on our Lord and Teacher and commit our lives to those words of eternal life.
Walking by faith—oriented by truth—is a Christian’s duty. To meaningfully assist others, we need to ground our own spiritual house. When others stray from the faith, we must resolve to strengthen our spiritual underpinnings and connection to God.
Respond, don’t react
How should we respond? Learning that a friend or loved one is leaving the faith produces heightened emotions.
These emotions can fluctuate from sadness and despair to anger and defensiveness. The fight-or-flight response can overwhelm our thinking. Some may take to social media to argue or blast the decision—or even the person. Others may just awkwardly try to ignore the person.
Neither reaction is helpful. Instead, we should pause and consider the goal. The desired long-term outcome is for the individual to restore his or her relationship with God. Choose to respond, not react.
Pursuing restoration: how to encourage someone to come back to church
Jesus highlighted restoration in the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7). The shepherd pursues a sheep that strayed and restores it to the safety of the fold.
James encourages, “Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20).
Pursuing restoration requires that we involve God. Pray for wisdom and discernment on whether and when taking action is appropriate. Ask God for clarity on how best to proceed.
Restorative efforts can be made more effective by ascertaining why the person chose to depart, if he or she is willing to discuss the decision. There could be various reasons. Maybe it was a lack of understanding about some aspect of Scripture. Perhaps it was an overlooked offense or simmering disagreement with someone. Possibly an outside distraction such as a new job, a budding relationship or an activity or hobby altered the person’s priorities and clouded his or her judgment. Clarity can enable you to provide targeted assistance.
These tense situations can prove emotionally draining. Before taking action, consider seeking counsel (Proverbs 11:14). Talk to a pastor or other respected individual to plan a wise response. Sound advice can increase the likelihood that your actions will prove helpful.
Taking action when someone leaves the Church
What can we do then?
Our initial response is crucial. Avoid trite statements such as, “I just want you to be happy” or similar phrases that are incomplete or give the wrong impression. Instead, pray, meditate and study before responding.
Here are three constructive actions toward restoration:
1. Be a light.
Jesus adjures us to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world and a city on a hill (Matthew 5:13-16). You and I need to be shining examples of godly character in motion. For insightful tips, see the Christian Living section on LifeHopeandTruth.com.
Your example may matter more than ever before. Someone who departs from the faith needs a vivid example to contrast with the world. Being a blameless example is especially important for young people who may be sensitive to perceived hypocrisy.
Live the character of Christ (Galatians 5:22-23; Colossians 3:12-17; 1 Corinthians 13). Now is the time to ramp up your emphasis on applied Christianity. Be a visible beacon of truth, faith, humility, compassion and generosity.
2. Keep the door open.
Promote restoration by being compassionately approachable. Consider the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). One son’s shortsighted, rash choices took him places he never intended to go. That is often the case when someone departs from the faith to pursue some temporary—and ultimately fleeting—priority.
In the parable, the compassionate father was ready to embrace and restore the young man while he was “still a great way off” (Luke 15:20).
We should evaluate the attitude we exude when someone stops walking with Christ. While we cannot make spiritual choices for others, we can communicate compassionate interest.
Depending on the situation, we might do this by investing time, checking in via text or social media and conveying warmth and concern through phone calls. Where beneficial, set aside time to meet up to keep the door open.
Admittedly, this can be complex, especially in situations where a person is combative and argumentative. In such cases, Paul advises us to avoid “those who cause divisions and offenses” (Romans 16:17). Verse 18 shows they have an attitude of hostility as they “do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple.”
Elsewhere we’re admonished not to “keep company” with those who reject godly living (2 Thessalonians 3:14). Recognizing the degree necessary requires careful discernment.
These are not across-the-board directives to arbitrarily ignore anyone who leaves. Paul clarifies in the next verse. “Yet do not count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother” (2 Thessalonians 3:15). In other words, we must not hastily cut people out of our lives. While the relationship may change, many times we will be able to keep the door to restoration open.
Elsewhere Paul directs, “You who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness” (Galatians 6:1). Like the father in the parable, an abiding concern and compassion for the individual should frame our approach.
3. Support others.
These situations affect the entire community. Paul emphasized the interconnected nature of Christians (1 Corinthians 12:12-26). He explained, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (verse 26, New International Version). We should be connected enough to recognize pain and concerned enough to provide care.
Identify those acutely affected by the situation and offer them encouragement. Parents, spouses, children and friends often face the brunt of emotional pain in such circumstances. This can be a confusing time—especially for young people or family members. Be alert to others who need reassurance or who have unanswered questions that need to be resolved.
We share a responsibility to guide, shield and encourage those who continue walking with Christ. There is a duty to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). Absorbing the loss of a brother or sister in the faith is traumatic. We need to encourage, uplift and support those who remain faithful.
Walking with Him—again
We should also take heart. After all, hope abides (1 Corinthians 13:13).
Jesus summarized the parable of the lost sheep: “I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).
Where there is potential for joy, there is so much hope.
Did any of those disciples who stopped walking with Jesus later have a change of heart? I hope so. I have known friends and acquaintances who resumed walking with God after a period of wandering. While some carried unfortunate scars, they found peace and restoration through repentance and reconciliation.
Jesus is Immanuel, Messiah, Lord, Master, Teacher, Healer and Friend. Walk with Him and encourage others to walk with Him as well.