Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
(Thanks to the Purdue students, whose recent discussion helped me formulate some of these thoughts.)
"How can I help a friend who seems to be falling away from the faith?"
"How should I minister to Christian friends living in sin without any repentance?"
"How do I do this without pushing them away from me or God any further?"
Any Christian who loves Jesus and people will ask these good questions sooner or later. The Savior we love has called us to love each other and shown us what that love looks like. He's also given us plenty of warning that there are always going to be unconverted people in the church (Mt. 13:24-30) and that Christians can "fall into grievous sin; and, for a time, continue therein..." (WCF 17.3) So most people who are connected well to their church family will be called at some point to the ministry of restoration.
The Bible has lots of help, both in examples and direct teaching, for this important ministry. I think we can summarize the ministry of reconciliation in three points, three legs of a stool which collapses when any one leg is taken away.
Leg #1 - Relationships If you want to help a fellow Christian be restored to Jesus, building and maintaining a relationship with them is ground zero. Influence comes when relational capital is built. Without a relationship, words of rebuke will almost always fall short. If you meet with a friend to challenge them about a particular sin, but you haven't shown them any other attention in months, it is highly unlikely your ministry will bear any fruit. If your friend hasn't seen or felt your love in a while, your first act should simply be to reach out and begin rebuilding the relationship.
This means the ministry of restoration ought to begin well before backsliding comes into the picture. If you want to be used by God to help other Christians return to their Savior, it is absolutely vital to be building relationships with them now. We might put it even more strongly: only those who are living in close friendships with their church family will be used by God in the incredible ministry of restoration. This is part of what Paul means when he says that only "you who are spiritual" should be involved with those wandering from the faith.
Some are right to point out there are times when the spiritual danger is so great we can't wait to build a relationship strong enough to handle a rebuke. This is one of the reasons God gives spiritual authority to the elders of the church, so they can exert a different type of influence (still clothed in love, of course) in times of spiritual emergency. But even with the influence of authority, godly elders know the effectiveness of their ministry often depends on the depth of their love for the sheep.
Leg #2 - Prayer Restoration is, ultimately, a work of Jesus and His Holy Spirit. The shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to pursue the one missing sheep (Lk. 15:3ff) isn't you or me, but Jesus. At best, we are simply the crooks used by the shepherd to reel back in the wayward lamb.
Thus, the ministry of restoration must be one of prayer. Trying to help a backsliding Christian without being devoted to praying for them is a canoe playing tugboat to an ocean liner. Pray often for them and follow the apostles' example in letting them know that you're praying for them and what you're praying for them.
Pray, too, for yourself. If Paul needed prayer to speak clearly the gospel mystery of Christ (Col. 4:4), how much more ought we to pray that we would be spiritual enough (Gal. 6:1), have words "good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear" (Eph. 4:29), have lips that "feed many" (Pro. 10:21), and that we would know so much of the love of Christ, being filled with the "fullness of God," so that love couldn't help but pour out into our conversations (Eph. 3:18). Finally, pray for the log to be taken out of your eye (Mt. 7:3-5)—nothing else will help you approach your Christian friend with sincere humility than knowing you are every bit the sinner they are.
If you aren't going to be committed to prayer as part of your ministry of restoration, just stay home. More positively, the more you give yourself to pray for wandering Christians, the more you can expect to have a front row seat to the amaznig work of the Holy Spirit.
Leg #3 - God's Word The final, vital part of ministering to wandering Christians is the Bible. God's Word has power we don't have. We need Scripture, not only to inform how we do the ministry of reconciliation and restoration, but also as the main substance of that ministry.
With shame, I think back on how often I met with someone in spiritual danger, tearfully pleading with them to return to Christ, giving them spiritual insights, promising help, developing ideas...yet how I forgot to open the Bible. Or how I tried to end the conversation with a Word from God rather than putting that Word at the beginning, middle and end.
Jared's words might be good and right, but there's no power in them. There's also no promises attached to them. God's Word, however, is not only good and right, but powerful. Not only powerful, but comes with great promise:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
If you want to help a friend be restored to Jesus, be ready to bring Jesus' Word to your friend. Study the Scriptures, learn the gospel backward and forward, memorize helpful passages, plan what Bible stories you might read with them, and be bold - the gospel is God's power for salvation and His Word is the Spirit's sword to get into the parts of the soul completely inaccessible to us. (I recommend reading and using David Helm's excellent One to One Bible Reading as an outline of what it looks like to minister God's Word to someone else.)
These are the three pieces of the ministry of restoration: build a relationship of love, pray like it all depends on the Spirit's power (because it does), and make God's Word central to each conversation. May God bless our meager efforts on behalf of the sheep Jesus died to save!