As the manager of a Christian charity shop, I often have conversations about faith that people who meet me soon start. They usually try to make a connection by telling of someone they have known in their family or friends who had a connection to faith, church, and belief. Often it is of a life of dedication and service or a life turned around that they begin the conversation with. Today is no different. Steve is in the store servicing the air conditioners by cleaning out the filters. There is a great wafting smell of eucalyptus pervading the store. As the day draws on and the store closes I go to count the money. Now that there is no-one else around Steve strikes up a conversation. There is time to talk uninterrupted. He starts to ask a few faith-related questions before finally telling of his own recent faith journey.
“You would get to meet a lot of people in need of someone to talk to help lift them up.” Steve begins. “Yes I do a lot of the time, it makes a real difference in having someone to talk to when they need it the most,” I reply. “I know what that’s like” Steve counters with a more solemn tone “Even having a pet can make a difference as I found out when my wife left me.”
Expecting to hear about this separation from his wife instead Steve tells me the difference it made, while all alone at home, of his cat suddenly jumping up to sit on his lap. “It’s like she sensed that I needed someone right then.” All alone he had no one to talk to, and at his lowest thought of committing suicide. But then with the cat on his knee, he thought about the warmth he had growing up as part of a church community. So Steve made a deal with God. “I said to God ‘If when I go fishing on the boat this Easter, if I catch a lot of fish, I’ll go and share them, and go back to you God, and to church.'”
As Steve set off from shore, it was a calm day with no choppy waters. He set in his fishing lines and sure enough, he caught a lot of fish, the most he ever had. Back onshore he proceeded to make other people’s days by giving his fresh catch away. And the next day he was back in church feeling the warmth of the church community with no judgment for having been away. He continued to tell me, as the grandson of missionaries, all the places and years his grandmother and grandfather had served and still serve today. Steve was fishing for a return for God, and his caring cat started him on a road back home to God. God works through mysterious ways to reach each of us.
Here are some points to consider when helping to encourage and support someone returning back to God.
- Every Journey Back to God is Unique and Precious.
While there are common stories in how people became disenchanted with religion, each story of a person’s journey back to God is unique. Taking time to listen and to understand the life story of someone returning to God is important. There may be a pivotal turning point that has great meaning. Indeed, there may be experiences with some people that made a huge difference. For others, it may be a divine insight they received as an answer to prayer. Taking time to listen and find the felt need that was met will give you an insight into how God works in people’s lives.
- Slow and Steady Progress Makes for a Solid Return to God.
There is often a turning point that brings people back to God. Some call it the God moment in which a divine experience occurs. For others, it’s a variety of scenarios that resolve their unbelief. Whatever the case, slow and steady progress makes for a solid return to God. A deepened faith sustains longer than a sudden quick fix of faith challenging experiences. Life is a process. When we realize we live in a messed up world we can connect to a power beyond us able to transform. The earliest of Bible writers Job realized that
If you return to the Almighty, you will be restored: If you remove wickedness far from your tent. Job 22:23 NIV
A return to God means working each day turning to God and away from the things that keep us from God.
- Mentors Model Godly Living
A great example of a Godly life is one of the best advertisements for Christianity. When someone is returning back to God they can benefit greatly in having a mentor to turn to and nurture their faith. A Christian with a broad range of experiences who has weathered many storms of faith and come through relying more on God is a great example to model Godly living.
- Doubt is Part of the Journey
Growth in Christian living comes through perseverance. Doubts are part of that journey. Faith is tested and refined through trials and temptations. None are immune from thoughts of confusion and craving for instantaneous solutions to difficult situations. Humans are fallible. Faith involves trust that despite our doubts there is a God of love working in our lives. Seek patiently and you will eventually find meaning and purpose in the faith journey of life.
- Spend Time in the Deep Pond
Often people prefer to dabble their toes in the superficial shallow end of faith where they feel safe and secure in taking part in the forms of faith. Secure in traditional understandings they rest assured that they are satisfying the bare minimum. Yet year after year as they stay in this arena they stagnate in their relationship with God and their hearts can grow cold. Others take the plunge deeper into faith stretching their preexisting boundaries to seek a greater depth of knowing God. It is then that they can experience the deeper spiritual ponds that extend their experience and understandings. It is in the deeper pond that the completive yearnings of the soul are nurtured.
- Share the Journey with Another Returner
Nothing speaks more to the journey of a returner then to connect with another Christian brother or sister that has journeyed a similar path. It is wonderful to make a connection with someone who has a shared journey. Church communities provide a place to explore and connect with fellow believers that can support each other.
- Respect Personal Differences
Not everyone views the dimensions of spiritual life the same way. Well-meaning Christians can become a stumbling block by imposing their hard and fast views on someone struggling in their return to God. Trying to understand life from another perspective helps enable a respect for personal differences. We can all learn from seeing the Christian experience through differences. We can all learn from seeing the Christian experience through the lens of someone else’s experience.
- Resist the Super Christian Poster Approach
Too often people returning to God are paraded around as a perfect super Christian who has got their life totally in order having turned it around in their return to God. It can place them on a pedestal without the resources to live up to this unrealistic expectation that they will retain this super Christian persona. Each returner is a child of God. Children of God need to grow and mature in their faith, encouraged and nurtured as part of the body of Christ. Resist placing returners to God as the pin-up super Christians of your church.
- Get Ready for Relapses
Backsliding has a bad reputation and becomes an easy label to pin on someone struggling in their spiritual life. Life has its ups and downs. When we realize that we can expect there to be times of relapse as the struggles of life weigh us down. Recalling how God has been there for us in these times in the past limits the relapse time away from God. Reaching out for support from the wisdom holders in your community draws upon the agents of God to build you up again in faith.
- Encourage, Encourage, Encourage
Always remember that a return to God isn’t a one-off experience. Just because someone has struggled doesn’t mean they are destined to not succeed. Success isn’t the measure; relationship and encounter is. Encourage and build up all those that you meet as they seek God’s presence in their lives so that it becomes a vibrant living well to draw upon in service to others in need.