We all know someone who has left the Church and chosen to stop practicing the faith they were given in baptism. Whether it’s a friend, child, grandchild, sibling, parent, niece or nephew, it can be a deeply painful thing for someone we love to leave the Church. Especially when they leave the Church to live lives explicitly contrary to Church teaching.
In situations like this, it’s natural to ask, “What do I do to bring them back?” The desire to see our loved ones return to the Church is a deep and abiding desire, one Christ and the Church share with us.
So what do we do? What’s the right thing to say? Are there books we can send them? A YouTube video that will convert them? How can we bring them back to the faith?
There are many different ways to answer these questions, and each person will have their own approach, but I’ve found there is one thing that is often undervalued: our presence.
Jesus and the woman at the well
John chapter 4 tells the beautiful story of an encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman. There are a couple key points to know about this story.
First, the woman Jesus encounters is a Samaritan. The Jews and Samaritans at the time of Christ disagreed on significant points regarding culture, politics and religion, so they did not interact with each other. Actually, they hated each other.
Second, this story happened around noon. (Jn 4:6) Women at the time walked to the well together in the mornings while it was still cool. The Samaritan woman, however, went to the well in the middle of the day, when it was least likely she would encounter other people. This tells us she was a social outcast, probably because of the life she was living.
Third, she was raised and educated in her faith. Jesus and the Samaritan woman have a conversation about religion, a conversation she is able to follow. She is not ignorant about her religious beliefs.
Finally, though she knows the faith she was raised in, this woman has chosen to live a life of sin. We’re told that not only has she had five husbands, but the current man she is with is not her husband. (Jn 4:17-18)
Here we have cultural and political division, separation and disconnect from society, a person who was raised in faith or at least has some understanding of what is right and wrong, and yet, she’s still chosen to live a life in sin. Sounds like the circumstances of many people in our world today, doesn’t it?
As this woman approaches the well, Jesus knows all of these things about her and in the midst of all of this, what does he do? He is present.
It all starts with presence
We underestimate the power and impact of our presence. Jesus is simply present with this woman. He doesn’t begin with a lecture on how she needs to get her life straightened out. He starts with something rather human: a drink of water. As their conversation progresses, he takes her from natural thirst to supernatural thirst. From water that only temporarily quenches thirst, to “a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (Jn 4:14)
What can we do for those we love who have left the Church? We start by being present to them as Christ was present to the woman at the well. It’s very easy for us as Christians to jump to the checklist of things we need to do to convert people. We forget that before we can do anything in another person’s life, we first need to learn to be in their lives to build relationships and trust.
Presence requires that we enter into the lives of others. It requires that we seek to understand the other before seeking to be understood. It requires that we show up over and over again, even when it seems we aren’t making an impact.
To be present in someone’s life requires patience, perseverance and sacrifice. It’s not quick and easy. There’s no checklist, YouTube video, book or argument that can replace our presence in another person’s life. If we want to help those we love return to the Church, we need to learn to be present in their lives.
A word of encouragement
Being present in the lives of other people is hard, in many cases because of the messy nature of our lives. We’re all fallen, broken, sinful human beings and that’s pretty messy.
Do not be afraid of the messy situations people find themselves in. Jesus was not afraid of the messy situation of the woman at the well. Instead, he was ready to encounter and love. Christ’s presence in her life led to the conversion of her heart.
Seek to simply be present in the lives of those you love who have left the Church. In our fast-paced, consumeristic, self-centered world, our presence can speak volumes. To help those we love return to the Church, we can strive to become more like Christ and be an abiding presence of God’s love in their lives.