There might have been a time when nearly everyone on the earth was religious, but we’re definitely not living in that time right now. It seems like these days, more people are experiencing a change in faith or moving away from religion altogether. For those like me who have grown up greatly valuing religion or have chosen religious activity for their own life, having friends or family members who make different decisions or who choose to leave a once-beloved church can be confusing, scary, and even foundation shaking.
I would know—I’ve gone through it myself.
Some of you may be in a similar situation of loved ones leaving the Church, and anyone could be in a similar situation in the future. But there are a few principles I learned through my experience that have helped me immensely and that I find myself wanting to share again and again as I see others go through the same experience I had. These principles are not all-encompassing or fail-safe solutions, but they’ve definitely saved me a lot of worry and heartache.
Their decisions are about them. Even though leaving an organized religion is a personal choice, it can sometimes feel like a direct attack on your beliefs and values when a loved one chooses to do so. But it’s worth stepping back and looking at true motivations and asking questions if you don’t know those motivations. We shouldn’t make assumptions about why people choose to leave, and oftentimes there is more to it than meets the eye. But regardless of what your loved one decides about religion or beliefs, their decisions are about them and their own life journey.
It’s OK to process fear or grief, but we don’t have to be afraid. It can be scary or sad when someone you love rejects what brings you so much happiness. Wondering what will happen to those you love in the eternities can also be daunting. We shouldn’t force our beliefs on others, but we can do our part by loving and praying for them and being good disciples of Christ.
Be a good listener and respectful of others’ beliefs. You don’t have to agree on everything in order to love one another. President Dallin H. Oaks, First Counselor in the First Presidency, taught that “followers of Christ should be examples of civility. We should love all people, be good listeners, and show concern for their sincere beliefs. … We encourage all of us to practice the Savior’s Golden Rule: ‘Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them’ (Matthew 7:12).”1 Many polarized conversations on religion can happen. As we carefully listen and try to understand the perspective of another, they are more likely to do the same for us.
All are born with the Light of Christ. Leaving the Church doesn’t mean that someone no longer believes in morals or kindness or service or in being a good person. In fact, some of the best examples of selflessness in my life are people who aren’t sure about God or religion but have a strong belief in the goodness of humanity. Regardless of whether or not we’re active in the Church, we are all born with the Light of Christ and are blessed with His influence of goodness (see Moroni 7:16). And there are good people all over the world who come from many different faiths, cultures, and backgrounds.
Our job is to love them. “Dear to the Heart of the Shepherd” (Hymns, no. 221) reminds us of the earthly challenges we might all face at one time or another: “Out in the desert they wander, hungry and helpless and cold.” Spiritual trials are very real and can be hard to navigate. Those who are struggling with their faith are dear to our Savior’s heart. Shouldn’t they be dear to our hearts as well? Have we not all wandered at times and still been loved by Him perfectly? I’ve felt a powerful love from the Savior when I try to love His sheep no matter where they may be. He rejoices when we’re united in love, regardless of what we believe in.
Listening goes a long way. If a loved one is making the decision to distance themselves from the Church, they’ve probably thought about it for a long time. As you seek guidance from Heavenly Father about how to help, remember that your role isn’t to “fix them.” I know it’s easy to want to immediately share what you believe, but sometimes it’s more helpful to lend a listening ear and show them kindness and respect as they share their feelings. Be respectful of their thoughts. This can help you both learn from each other and maintain a relationship where you can communicate openly.
They should know you love them no matter what. If there’s something you honestly want to share with them, make sure they know you love and respect them first, even if they don’t agree with your beliefs. And you can always pray for them and for opportunities to share truth in ways that will be well received.
Trust them and make room for them to belong. Respecting a person’s concerns and leaving space for them can help them feel love and trust. People need to feel like they belong around believers for them to want to continue interacting with the Church in a constructive way. We should all have a safe place to express concerns and questions in conversations and in our homes, circles of friends, and congregations.
It’s always our duty as disciples of Christ to love others as He did. As President Thomas S. Monson (1927–2018) taught: “We are all spirit children of our Heavenly Father and, as such, are brothers and sisters. As we keep this truth in mind, loving all of God’s children will become easier.”2
We can have hope that Heavenly Father has a plan for each of us, and regardless of what our loved ones choose to do, we can continue loving them and teaching them through our example, and “press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men” (2 Nephi 31:20).