I was raised in a Christian home with my father...

My Story 
I was raised in a Christian home with my father being a pastor.  I placed my faith in Christ at a very early age (I was almost six).  My "prodigal" years happened once I entered the Navy after high school.  I would not describe what happened to me as stepping away from the faith in the sense that I abandoned Christianity or a belief in God.  Rather, I would describe my lifestyle as (using Craig Groeschel's terminology) that of a Christian atheist.  I basically ignored God, the bible and the church.  Though I still believed there was a God, and if you had asked me, I would have avowed that I was a Christian, I lived as if God did not exist.  Because I was in the Navy and stationed overseas during the majority of these years, I had relatively little day-to-day interaction with my family and with the church leaders with whom I had grown up.  Consequently, there was very little accountability. The change that came about in my life happened once I had received my discharge, and I moved back to my hometown.  So in one respect, my transformation was somewhat shaped by the environment in which I found myself.
What are some things your family did well in responding to your departure from their faith? 
For the majority of the time that I drifted from the Lord, I was in the U.S. Navy and stationed overseas in Japan. Consequently, I had no daily contact with my family, and very little other contact with the exception of the occasional phone call and weekly letters. My father was (and is) a pastor, and at the end of every letter he wrote me every week, he would close with the phrase: Remember who you are, and whose you are. I knew what he meant. In his way, he was admonishing me to remember that I was a Dale and that I was his and my mother’s son. But even more, he wanted me to recall the fact that I had placed my faith in Christ at a very young age, and as a result, I belonged to Christ. That not-so-subtle reminder was not lost on me, even though I continued to live a very riotous life.
What are some things your family could have done better in responding to your change of faith? 
In junior high and high school, I believe a couple of factors other than my sinful nature contributed to my prodigal behavior. First, my dad is a no-nonsense, strict disciplinarian. There was no room for arguing with his position. What he said went. Since he was a pastor, our lives revolved around the ministries of the church, and so there was never any doubt about where I would be on Sundays, Wednesdays, and any other day that something was going on there. I began to resent the fact that my friends and acquaintances did not have the restraints and constraints placed upon them that I felt were placed upon me. The reasoning given for my involvement in church-related activities was not because I should want to be there as an act of service to my Lord, but rather because I was the pastor’s son, and that was where the pastor’s son ought to be. Consequently, I began to look forward to a time when I would be able to make my own decisions based upon my own agenda and not another’s. Second, and because of the first, I began to understand the Christian life as things one does rather than who one is. I know that is not how my parents understood their faith, but it was the way I interpreted the Christian faith based upon the rules we lived by. While I do not hold them to be accountable for my prodigal behavior, I wish that more time had been spent teaching me to love Christ rather than dictating for me a list of rules to follow.
Can you share an example of how the church responded well during the time you were leaving faith? 
n the throes of my prodigal behavior, the Lord sent a fellow sailor into my path who influenced me greatly. He was a believer who lived his faith out in such a way that he gained favor with everyone he met, and left the imprint of Christ on their lives. Through casual conversations, he became aware that I was a preacher’s kid and that I had been raised in church and had professed a faith in Christ. At the time, we were stationed together in Japan, he attended a small Baptist church off base, and he invited me to come with him and his family. Finally, on Easter in 1989, I went with him. I really appreciated the fact that he thought enough of me and cared enough to invite me to go with him and his family. They took me home afterward and I had Easter lunch with them. But Monty didn’t stop with a simple invitation to church because he knew my rebellion was not going to be cured by going to church. Instead, on one occasion, when the time was right, he looked me in the eyes and said, “You know the way that you are living is not bringing glory and honor to Christ. You also know that He did not die for you so that you could live like this and ignore Him.” I NEVER forgot those words. He had lovingly and carefully confronted me as a believer, and as a result, had stripped me bare of all of my arrogance and pride. I did not let him know it at the time, but his life and his words were like the hounds of heaven chasing me over the hills of my rebellion. Interesting conclusion to the story: Monty never saw me back in church. He only knew me for a short time, and during that time, I was a drunken, selfish, self-centered, rebellious prodigal. Many years later, after returning to the Lord and the faith, I wanted to find Monty to tell him the difference he had made in my life. I had lost complete track of him and had no way of locating him. Miraculously, however, on a snowy day in Tennessee, some nineteen years after my last contact with Monty, I was able to obtain a cell phone number from one of his acquaintances whom I had tracked down on the internet. I called and left Monty a message, and fifteen minutes later, he called me back. I cried as I re-introduced myself and began to tell him what a difference he had made in my life. I told him that I had returned to the faith, been called into the ministry, graduated from college with a degree in Bible, graduated from seminary with a Master of Divinity, and was currently pastoring a church while working on my doctorate in expository preaching. I had seen the lost saved, prodigals restored, marriages rekindled. I had traveled all over the world sharing about Jesus with lost folks…and I wanted him to know that he had been a part of every bit of it. Though he never saw the results of his faithfulness to Christ with regard to my circumstance, he had still had a major influence on my return. I just wanted him to know how grateful I was. He cried. I cried. Moreover, I believe the Lord was exalted.
Are there ways that the church or those in the church could have responded better to your departure from their faith? 
Unfortunately, because my prodigal years were spent away from home and the church I had grown up in, I am not sure that they could have done much to have helped me. The only thing that could have been done was what I just described Monty doing for me.
In the responses of Christians, what surprised you most? 
Regarding Monty, what surprised me most was his non-condemning attitude. Though he did not approve of my behavior, he never distanced himself from me, nor did he condemn me. He accepted me while maintaining his witness before me.
Was there a particular event that had a negative impact on your leaving the faith? 
Nothing specific led to my departure. However, please refer to what I described earlier as an improper belief on my part that the Christian life was more about doing, and less about being.
Was there a particular event that had a positive impact on your return to faith? 
Honestly, on a vacation to Destin, Fl, I woke up with a terrible hangover, and two more days of vacation left. I asked myself, “Is this it? Is this what living the good life is all about?” If Jesus came to bring abundant life, I sure wasn’t living it. There had to be something else…something more fulfilling than living for myself. That vacation was the beginning of what would become a complete turnaround for me.
Since God is willing to make something good of all things, have you felt that some good thing has emerged from your journey? 
Absolutely. I can talk to people who are rebelling or are struggling with whether or not God will forgive them of what they have done, and I can talk to them as one who knows the pains and hurt they are dealing with. Furthermore, as a pastor who has experienced what I have, I believe it makes me more accessible to prodigals who need someone to talk to and be real with…someone who won’t be pious and judgmental, but will still call them to repentance and reconciliation. My experiences have also allowed me to be very application-driven in my sermons. Often times I use scenarios in which the point of my sermon can be applied, and these scenarios come directly from my own experiences.
If you were able to step back in time and chat with yourself what might you say to yourself? 
The Christian life is not about doing. It’s about being. When you stare at the cross, and when you are consumed by the substitutionary atonement of Christ, you will no longer focus on yourself. I would tell myself to focus on the bloody, beaten, scarred, screaming-in-pain body of Christ, and recognize that all of that was done in my place. Then I would say, “You are a child of God because of what Christ has done. Now, go live like a child of God.”
How would you advise parents of a prodigal today? 
Let your example be ever before them…because it is. Let your son or daughter catch you praying for them. Let them see you studying your Bible…not for a SS lesson or for a sermon, but just because you love the Scriptures. Teach your children about Christ’s death and substitution. Teach them about the resurrection and the victory over death, hell, and the grave that resulted. Develop ways in your own life and in the life of your child that teaches you to fall in love with Jesus all over again. Don’t push and become legalistic. A prodigal will see right through legalism. However, a life of service to Christ that is based on a true and legitimate love of Christ will serve as a powerful example.