I’ll never forget seeing Kyle at the deli. There I was, overwhelmed by the number of different kinds of hard cheeses and keeping my young daughter from a third free peppered pastrami sample, when I saw him.
Recognition and surprise registered on both our faces. I tried to smile. Kyle mumbled a terse greeting and quickly turned away. My daughter’s hand returned to the samples, but I barely noticed. The deli worker waving a package in front of my eyes finally snapped me out of my daze.
The thing was, most people who knew Kyle in college — including me, his campus minister — were certain that he’d go into church ministry. He was the InterVarsity leader we all counted on for consistency and enthusiasm. Where other small groups met in the campus ministry office, Kyle moved his to the cafeteria so that anyone passing by could join. When he wasn’t studying, Kyle volunteered to mentor youth in the Bronx court system. His thoughts on worship and prayer deeply expanded my sense of God.
When someone told me that Kyle wasn’t a Christian anymore, I didn’t believe it. Then I saw his social media profile where he described himself as an atheist wanting to disentangle himself from his Christian past.
I wish I’d responded differently. Several exchanges later, neither of us any wiser about our life circumstances, our relationship had changed. The deli’s awkward silence physicalized and reinforced our digital encounter.
If you’ve experienced this yourself, you know the deep and complex emotions it raises: betrayal, grief, guilt, confusion, fear, and more. And if you haven’t yet experienced this, I’m afraid to say that you likely will.
In an informal study of recent InterVarsity alumni in 2020, more than half of them felt less connected to God, faith, and Christian community than they did as college students. Between one quarter and one third described themselves being in a spiritual crisis. Without an intervention by God’s grace, many of these InterVarsity alumni may leave the Christian faith.
After my disastrous encounter in the deli with Kyle, I decided to learn everything I could about loving people through faith transitions. As someone deeply committed to the way of Jesus, I know that the way I treat other people in their moments of doubt, disillusionment, and disbelief matters. Here are some of the things that have been most helpful for me in loving others through their faith transitions and pointing them back to Jesus.
1. Lead with Empathy
Nobody I’ve seen walk away from the Christian faith has done so casually or callously. Most often, people go through long periods of disillusionment and questioning. As Christians, we have a responsibility to listen to our friends and empathize with their experience, even if we disagree.
Empathy is especially important in contexts where there has been spiritual, emotional, or physical abuse. If I had listened first — instead of leading with criticism — I might have known that Kyle’s pastor had been spiritually and emotionally abusive. This would have helped me more deeply appreciate how Kyle’s choice to walk away from faith wasn’t simply an abandonment of a set of values we’d shared. He felt he needed to say no to the abuse and therefore no to the concept of God that reinforced this abuse.
2. Affirm the Relationship
Recently, at a Christian conference, I spent an hour talking to an acquaintance about her disbelief. In this context, affirming the relationship simply meant expressing gratitude for her honesty, appreciation for her questions, and commitment that I was not going to pressure her to conform to my beliefs and perspective. Affirming the relationship helped our conversation continue instead of getting shut down by the dissonance between our perspectives.
If we immediately accuse someone who’s wrestling with their faith of heresy, if we immediately question their salvation or label them as a backslider, we’re likely only adding to their disillusionment. They need to know we love and care for them first as people, not based on their status in the church, theology, or how they identify themselves spiritually.
3. Address Your Emotional Iceberg
If we’re unaware of the swirling emotional dynamics at play in a friend’s decision to leave the faith, we can easily react in an unhelpful way. I had a lot of emotions under the surface with Kyle. I was embarrassed and then angry that I hadn’t believed what friends had said about him. I feared that Kyle would reject me and the meaningful parts of our shared religious experience. I felt betrayed and guilty. I was a campus minister after all; my friends aren’t supposed to abandon faith. What would other people think of me and “my” ministry?
These feelings undermined my ability to do the one thing that mattered: love and pursue Kyle like Jesus, like the shepherd leaving the ninety-nine sheep to search for the one that’s lost (Lk 15:1-7). When we name our feelings and bring them to Jesus in prayer, we’re better able to reflect Jesus’ searching and compassionate heart.
4. Engage with Conviction & Curiosity
So far, you might think that our primary response to friends who walk away from faith is simple affirmation and empathy. Such a response is incomplete. As followers of Jesus, we are commissioned and empowered to make disciples (Mt 28:18-20). Friends leaving the faith deserve to know our convictions about Jesus, Scripture, faith, life in the Spirit, and our future hope.
At the same time, our convictions about Jesus will be best received and understood if they come from a place of conviction and curiosity. Recently, someone asked, “Why Jesus alone and not all faiths equally?”
“Because of Jesus’ unique combination of spiritual vitality, radical others-centeredness, shocking self-oriented claims, and resurrection from the dead,” I answered. “Why is it important to you that all faiths are equal?”
Just answering their question would have satisfied the curiosity but ended the conversation. But by combining conviction and curiosity, I was able to open an important barrier to this friend returning to faith in Jesus.
5. Pray Without Ceasing (1 Thes 5:17)
We love our friends in times of faith transition by praying with and for them. Prayer is powerful in reorienting our hearts toward others in love. We pray for wisdom in how to skillfully love our friends. We pray for grace to work through our own emotional reactions and grow in empathy. We pray for the Holy Spirit to help us bear witness to Jesus in ways that offer hope and healing. We pray for patience and quiet trust, knowing that God’s at work even when we can’t see it.
That interaction with Kyle was years ago. I still grieve the loss of this friendship and pray that someday, by God’s grace, we may reconnect with joy. In the meantime, I’m grateful for what the experience has taught me about friendship and Christian witness.
Next time someone you love goes through a season of disillusionment, consider taking these five steps. Commit yourself to loving them well in the prayerful hope that they may come to an even deeper faith on the other side of this season!
I once had a picture in my mind of several pottery jars. Some had First Nations designs on them, some Celtic, some African, Asian, and many more. I saw a hand pouring water into each pottery jar. It was like Creator (God) was saying to me that he has poured some portions of his gifts of grace into each ethnic group.