Have you ever winced upon learning that a longtime friend has left your church? Even harder, did your friend appear to doubt much of what he or she used to believe about God, the Bible, Jesus Christ, the church and the Christian faith?
If so, how did you respond?
That’s a tough question to answer; isn’t it?
Over the years, after making almost every mistake in the book, I’ve discovered and enjoyed using 10 counterintuitive yet powerful steps … with amazing, God-blessed results. So has each member of my immediate family. So have many in my church. I pray that’s your experience, too.
First, love your friend unconditionally.
Second, invite your friend to tell his or her story. When your friend does, just listen. Don’t ask questions. Don’t interrupt at all, except to quickly affirm that you’re actively listening.
Third, 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 just 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.
Fourth, after your friend has finished talking, remain quiet. Keep listening. While on business in Orlando, I met a man named Leonard who poured out his heart to me. I didn’t say a word. I just kept listening intently. When he was done, 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.
Fifth, 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. I let my eyes do all the talking. 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.”
Sixth, whatever you do, don’t promise to meet your friend’s needs. Often they want to know the answer to their burning question, “Why?” You don’t know. Don’t even try to guess. Speculation will only ruin your credibility.
Seventh, 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. That mutual friend may be a pastor, a professor, a psychologist or another respected Christian leader. Or that mutual friend may be an “ordinary” but wise individual you both know you can trust.
Eighth, ask your friend if you can pray for him or her. If they’re in agreement, pray right then. Then remind your friend from time to time that you’re still praying for him or her. Prayer invites Jesus back into the picture.
Ninth, 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.
Finally, stay in touch with your friend no matter what. Your friendship can’t be contingent on whether or not 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 is an award-winning author, editor and speaker. His latest book is “Loving Your Neighbor: Surprise! It’s Not What You Think.” Click here for “What’s Your Story?”— a related discipleship article by Sanford.