the shape of leadership

Reaching Prodigals

What to do about those who leave the faith

Kristi Northup on July 30, 2018

A few months ago, I was picking up my kids from school, and, as always, I had the radio on. The story opened with this statement: “1 in 4 Christians are leaving the faith.”

I turned off the radio and drove in stunned shock. That sentence broke my heart to pieces.

There are many reasons why people leave the faith, according to Drew Dyck, who addresses the topic in his book, Generation Ex-Christian. Some are unable to accept the exclusive claims of Christianity. Others rebel and embrace behavior their upbringing prohibited. Still others experience something in church that causes hurt, and some just drift away. These are sons and daughters who are worth everything to their Father God. One of the greatest stories in Scripture is that of the prodigal son and the copious love of his father.

While it’s important to understand why people walk away, we must also consider these questions: How do we reach them? Where are they? What must we do we see them come back into Christian fellowship and, more importantly, to faith in Christ?

Prodigals are dear to my heart because of a deeply personal experience in our family. My husband’s younger sister, Angie, grew up in a Christian home with loving, godly parents. Wayne had been rebellious and difficult, then came back to the Lord when he was 17. Angie had always been the good child, the easy one. She played keyboard in the youth group at First Assembly (of God) in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

One of the greatest stories in Scripture is that of the prodigal son and the copious love of his father.

Going into her senior year, however, her heart began to pull away. As she watched her brother gain attention and love as he rededicated his life to Christ, she became jealous of his relationship with her parents. Though she attended a Christian college after graduation, she began to drift, and eventually quit school. She started partying long and hard on the weekends, which seemed fun and helped her forget her problems. After experiencing a DUI, she lost her license and nearly lost her job. She spent five years living with a man who made her feel worthless.

She was not only estranged from God, she was estranged from the family. For many years, we hardly saw her. I watched my in-laws grieve every Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. I saw them beg God in prayer to bring her back. Holidays were difficult, because we didn’t know whether she was coming. There were many secrets, and just as many broken promises. This went on for 17 years.

When Angie was 37, she started talking about moving to where our family was. My husband said, “I’ll believe it when she gets here.”

But what happened next was truly miraculous. She packed up her life in Minneapolis and moved across the country to New Orleans, a place she had only visited once. She realized her family loved her no matter what, and that they wanted a relationship with her despite the hurt that had happened. She began attending one of the women’s groups from our church. Letting go of the guilt she had wrestled with, she truly came back to Jesus.

What’s amazing about people who come back to God is that they don’t start from the beginning. The things they learned as a child jumpstarts their faith. Angie dove into God’s Word and built relationships with God’s people. Still, she lived with many regrets over what she had missed, and the years she had lost when she might have been married and had a family of her own.

A few months after she moved, she met a great guy named Jonathan who was from a Pentecostal background. The next year, they married. Now, at the age of 41, they are expecting their first child. They are serving the Lord together and discipling others in our congregation. Many times, I’ve thought of the verse from Joel 2:25: “ I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten” (NKJV). The Lord has restored the lost years.

Many people have stories similar to Angie’s. Many families have agonized like ours. It has given me faith like never before to see sons and daughters come back to the Father. Angie is not the only one. We’ve seen club musicians and dance moms, Christian school parents and entrepreneurs come back wholeheartedly to Jesus. Everyone has a unique story. Yet often there are similar threads. Here are a few things we’ve learned from seeing people restored to faith in Christ.

Never give up on praying. I watched my mother-in-law pray daily for the salvation of her daughter. Even when I didn’t see how it could ever happen, she always believed. Sometimes she was angry, other times sad, other times near despair. But she never gave up. It can be difficult for family members to talk about their unsaved loved ones, but no one can pray with more passion than a mom or dad, brother or sister, grandmother or grandfather, aunt or uncle. Where there is a burden, there is still hope.

Ask God to reveal the source. For many prodigals, there was a moment that a root of bitterness formed, and it created a deadness in their spirit. One friend felt crushed when his youth pastor didn’t attend his father’s funeral. Years later, he realized that was when he started to turn away.

Did they witness hypocrisy? Was there a hurt relationship? Where is there unforgiveness? Only the Holy Spirit can reveal these things to them and bring healing.

Take the time to reach out. Maybe you have a friend you grew up with or a co-worker who has not been in church for a long time. Pick up the phone and invite them. When you sense the smallest prompting from the Holy Spirit, respond right away. Don’t delay, or you’ll lose the courage. You don’t know the ways through which God’s kindness has been drawing them to repentance.

We must be like the shepherd who left the 99 sheep to find the one that was lost. We must be like the woman who fervently searched for the precious coin and rejoiced with her friends when she found it. We must be like the father who threw off restraint and ran to embrace the son who had disowned him. Lord, help each of us to say, “I’m not going to stand by while one more falls away. Not on my watch.”


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