One Thanksgiving day, Bart Campolo, son of well-known evangelical professor and speaker Tony Campolo, told his father he no longer shared his father’s faith.
Shocked, Tony didn’t believe what he was hearing. How could his son, who had served alongside him for over two decades in some of the most economically depressed communities in America, preaching the gospel and serving the marginalized, now no longer identify as a follower of Jesus?
His son losing faith in Christ brought Tony deep hurt. It was like “somebody put a knife in my stomach,” he would later say.
If you’re reading this article, perhaps you’re deeply concerned about someone you love who is struggling to maintain their faith. Or maybe you’re like Tony, trying to understand why it is that the child you raised to love Jesus no longer believes in God. When those we care about are on the verge of losing the faith we hold dear, it can be terrifying and painful.
If that’s you, I would like to offer a few suggestions to help you navigate what can be an emotionally turbulent experience. When someone we love has left the faith, the most important thing we can do is stay in the conversation.
But in order to do that, we’ll need to tread lightly. That might feel counterintuitive; we want to fix this. Resist that (harmful) impulse.
Want to remain a positive influence in their life for Jesus? Consider adopting the following suggestions.
6 steps when someone you love is losing faith
1. Avoid overreacting.
Recently, my 12-year-old daughter said she no longer believed in heaven. Instantaneously,
I felt sick to my stomach: “Is my daughter deconverting?” Followed by, “I need to I fix this. Now!”
Thankfully, I resisted that urge. It took everything in me to restrain myself from offering an over-the-top argument for heaven. But that would have been a mistake, causing more damage to her faith than good.
If I had expressed my fears and frustrations at that moment, I would have shut down my daughter from ever opening up and sharing her doubts with me in the future. Open lines of communication are crucial.
And the best way to sever those lines is to overreact when they share doubt and unbelief.
Our kids need to know it’s safe to reveal what they’re really thinking and feeling without being afraid someone they love will fly off the handle. Despite being caught off guard, instincts in this case are not what we should follow.
Think through in advance how you might respond to a child or friend informing you of serious doubts about Christianity. Have a plan for how you will respond. While no two plans will look the same, all need to include these next several features.
2. Listen patiently.
At the conservative evangelical institution where I work, an unofficial campus group has formed, aimed at being a safe environment for those who losing faith. Rather than gathering to study evidence for Christianity or bolster their faith through Christian apologists, this group longs to express doubts and frustrations without judgment or someone attempting to resolve their questions. Those losing faith may not desire an answer—at least initially—as much as a compassionate ear.
If your child or a friend is willing to confide in you something so personal as a faith crisis, the best thing in that moment is to refrain from trying to solve their problem. Instead, listen patiently.
This means not interrupting. Not asking if they have really thought this through. Not suggesting solutions.
It means trying diligently to hear beneath the surface. Sometimes, stated reasons offered for someone’s doubts might not be the true source. Listening patiently means asking questions—
not so we can craft a response, but rather to both understand and make your friend feel heard.
Consider questions like these:
- When you say _______, can you help me understand what that means?
- How long have you been feeling like this?
- Did something specific bring about your doubts?
- What I hear you saying is_______. Is that right?
- Is your thinking still in process, or have you arrived at a settled position?
But avoid questions like these.
- How can you not believe it’s true?
- Aren’t you just angry at God because of _______?
- Do you know how much this hurts me?
- Is there sin in your life?
- Have you really looked into the evidence for Christianity?
As hard as your friend’s statements may be to hear, it’s important to thank them for doing so. Let them know you appreciate that they cared enough to tell you. Acknowledge that it must have been difficult to bring up the subject.
Doing so will offer proof that you really mean what you say next.
3. Love unconditionally.
Pam’s story was achingly similar to dozens I interviewed. Once Pam shared with her mother she no longer identified as a Christian, Pam’s mother refused to speak to her. Years passed without a word between them. When Pam went to visit her mother on her deathbed, her mother turned away, refusing to acknowledge her presence.
Devastated, Pam’s unbelief calcified into a heart of stone that will take nothing short of a miracle to soften. To Pam and others, rejection confirmed they want nothing to do with Christianity.
Your emotions of betrayal can feel devastating and powerful, fueling a “justified” rejection of those we feel have betrayed not only us, but God.
But more than anything, our children and friends need to know we love and accept them unconditionally. And by unconditionally, I mean with no strings attached. That they will always be welcome in your home. And—if this person is your son or daughter—that they will always be your child. We communicate we love them even if they reject the most important thing to us, our faith.
This allows us to cultivate a relationship where we can stay in the conversation.
But even more, this demonstrates God’s unconditional love for them. Think of the woman at the well. Zacchaeus. The woman caught in adultery. All had rejected him with their lifestyles. But Jesus pursued them, loved them, and kept the conversation going.
We don’t just stay in the conversation for our agenda, a search-and-rescue mission—but because we are also the rescued. We, too, have been loved unconditionally.
Consider stating something like this to your child or friend: “You need to know, no matter what you believe, I will always love you. Of course, it’s hard for me to hear this. But my love and acceptance of you aren’t based on you identifying as a Christian. I will always be there for you and support you wherever you go, whatever you do, whatever you believe.”
4. Establish boundaries.
Former Christians commonly complain of conversations with loved ones who constantly try to reconvert them. Eventually, those relationships become strained and lead to resentment or even estrangement.
And yet your friend or child needs to understand this news is something you need to process—an opportunity for further conversations. You can’t force these conversations, but you can increase the odds of a positive response: “You can probably imagine this is hard for me to hear. I need some time to process it. Would you be open to talking about this soon? Maybe we can set aside time next week to chat. We can talk about how to navigate it, so it doesn’t lead to both of us becoming frustrated.”
- Express your desire to respect them by not raising the issue every time you see them.
- Ask if they would be open to a few follow-up conversations to help you understand better what led them here.
- Allow them to set the terms of these conversations’ frequency, how open your friend is to hearing apologetic responses from you attempting to make the case for Christianity.
If they are afraid every chat will lead to you challenging them, expect fewer visits and phone calls. Specific times to discuss matters of faith will be much less damaging.
5. Play the long game.
When it comes to someone you love losing faith, commit to playing the long game: resisting the urge to pressure them to quickly return to the faith, and instead, developing the kind of relationship that allows you to play a role in their future return.
As hard as it is to do, we need to exercise patience, recognizing decisions made, for example, by our children in their high school and college years aren’t usually the end of the story. Typically, with age comes wisdom and experience; both of which can cause what’s foolish in our 20s to seem reasonable in our 50s.
Like a lot of things in life, seeing faith in a new and positive light may take time. A long time. Keep investing in the kind of relationship that allows you to stay in the conversation.
6. Remember Peter isn’t Judas.
Both Peter and Judas denied Jesus. But Peter repented and returned to serve Jesus even more wholeheartedly. Admittedly, Peter’s return happened shortly after his denial. But that isn’t always the case. I know of many individuals who have deconverted and then, years later, returned to the faith.
Lauren, who led worship and served as a youth leader at a church she planted, became disillusioned after church leadership mistreated her terribly. Eventually, she denied the faith. Lauren went on to make over 200 films in the adult entertainment industry. But porn wasn’t the end of her journey.
God miraculously got ahold of Lauren. Today, she is once again a follower of Jesus.
For intellectual reasons, Darrin left the faith he’d grown up in. He became an online atheist apologist, writing for a popular anti-Christian website and actively seeking to destroy Christians’ faith.
But God opened Darrin’s eyes. After becoming convinced by the evidence for Christ’s resurrection, Darrin recommitted his life to Jesus, and once again calls himself a Christian.
If Lauren and Darrin—about as far morally and intellectually from Christ as a person can get—
can return, there’s hope for your loved one too. God’s heart is for your friend or child.
He really does love them more than we do. We know this because he sacrificed His Son for our children and friends (Romans 8:31-32). We can trust He never stops actively working to draw them back to Himself (John 5:17).
 Tony Campolo, Leaving My Father’s Faith, directed by John Wright, aired on February 7, 2018.
Copyright © 2023 by John Marriott. All rights reserved
Dr. John Marriott is the Director of the Biola University Center for Christian Thought. He teaches in the Philosophy department at Biola and also teaches at Talbot School of Theology. John serves as a consulting editor for the theological journal, Sacrum Testamentum, and acts as the Director of Cultural Engagement for the Renaissance Group. Learn more at JohnMarriott.org, and visit LosingMyFaith.org for more resources.