“A deeper understanding and trust in the gospel message can give confidence to how we approach prodigals with the good news of Christ’s love.”
Let me offer a theory I have based on personal experience: mothers are some of the most intense prayer warriors that anyone could ever hope to have. I never need to check the weather where I live. If there is ever any sign of a storm, my mother, who lives almost 300 miles away, will call to ask if I am okay. I can hardly fathom the daily stress a mother must endure praying for the health, safety and success of her children. But furthermore, I would wager that praying for an unrepentant and unbelieving child has to be the greatest burden any Christian mother could ever take to the throne of grace.
Prodigals and a Broken Heart
A prodigal is someone who has walked away from the heritage of their faith. Much has been written on this topic attempting to account for why so many young people are leaving the church, and while some of this is helpful from a sociological perspective, much of it places the guilt upon parents and churches for not doing enough. While there is much to consider in way of confessing the mistakes we have ALL made along the way, this perspective takes a low view of the power of the gospel.
I cannot tell you how many times I have heard a mother wonder how she might have done things differently to prevent her prodigal from leaving the church. But equally sad and nearly as frequent is hearing a mother totally refuse to acknowledge any wrongdoing for the ways in which she and her husband may have misrepresented the Christian faith to their children. Neither of these two expressions are consistent with an understanding of the gospel and they often lead to knee-jerk reactions that are entirely counterproductive to presenting the gospel to children who have already rejected it.
Prodigals and the Gospel
The truth is, if a child has grown up in a church or a home where the Word of God was taught and the gospel was proclaimed, the eloquence of the presentation is not the issue. When a person hears the gospel, their hearts are either broken in repentance or hardened in pride. Unfortunately for prodigals, the more they hear it, the more they reject it, and the harder their hearts will become.
Consider from your own life a person who you may have seen grow up in your church but has since left the faith. Are they not always much harder to talk to about spiritual things because they already know all of the answers? What we must come to realize is that in many cases, they are more practiced in rejecting the gospel (from repeated efforts) than those witnessing to them are experienced in sharing the gospel.
So, What Do We Do Now?
How should we pray for people who don’t want to be prayed for? How do we begin to communicate the life giving power of the gospel to someone who only sees it as dead religion? How do you love somebody with the love of Christ who hates God? A deeper understanding and trust in the gospel message can give confidence to how we approach prodigals with the good news of Christ’s love.
When to Share the Gospel
One of the problems we all fall into is thinking that the gospel is only necessary in certain circumstances. The truth is, the gospel is the center of all Scripture and the foundation for all of life. It’s not just a prescription we keep in the medicine cabinet and pull out whenever there is a crisis. It is a daily vitamin and crucial for our spiritual health. The gospel needs to be central to everything we say and do. Sometimes, this is very subtle, but when we orient our life to the gospel on a daily basis, we begin to face situations in life differently and we testify to the sanctifying power of the gospel with a transformed life.
If we want to share the gospel with prodigals, they are going to be particularly critical of any hint of hypocrisy. This kind of scrutiny can actually be helpful in self-examination as we desire to be transformed into the image of Christ. And when we do sin, it is crucial that we heed the words found in I John 1:9. We need to confess our sins and demonstrate to prodigals why we are just as needy of the gospel as they are. If we act as though we are better than the gospel, they will fail to see why it is so important in their life as well.
Trusting the Power of the Gospel
John Newton was perhaps the quintessential prodigal--a slave trader and a self described “Wretch.” Yet he declares in the song Amazing Grace, “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.” It was the gospel that found Newton when he was lost in sin, and it was the gospel that caused him to see the love of God. Therefore, it should be the gospel that we rely on in communicating our faith even to hard-hearted prodigals.
The Apostle Paul says that he is not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power for salvation (Romans 1:16). As we interact with prodigals, let us recollect how we have all been brought to saving grace through the same simple message, a message of good news that has transformed us, and can transform a prodigal as well.
A Few Dos and Don’ts in Dealing with Prodigals
Don’t play the role of the Holy Spirit. Constantly convicting prodigals of what they’ve done wrong will only bolster their pride and drive their determination to stay away from the Church. Don’t rush the process. Salvation does not come on our terms, in our timing, or through our clever devices.
Don’t think that just because the prodigal prayed the sinner’s prayer when they were a child that they will eventually return to their faith. Don’t lower the standard of conversion. You can’t hang fruit on a dead tree and say it is alive. Keep proclaiming the gospel until you see clear marks of true conversion and the undeniable fruit of the Spirit.
Don’t treat them like a special project. Don’t treat them differently from your other children. They need the gospel, but they also need parents. Parents are a picture of our heavenly Father’s love for us. That in itself is a beautiful picture of the gospel.
Pray for them. Don’t give up. Be persistent. No one is ever too far from God that He cannot reach them.
Pray for opportunities to naturally work the gospel into conversations. Don’t force it. Don’t pounce on them as soon as they walk into the door. Don’t buy them Bibles every year for their birthday. Don’t leave gospel tracts in their folded laundry. Just love them and look for opportunities to share the good news of what Christ has done.
Rev. Adam Miller is the President and Host of Songtime and can be heard daily on the Songtime Radio Broadcast.
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