“So many of the books out today beckoning young Christians to answer radical calls to obedience are totally unrealistic. They tell these extraordinary, one-in-a-million success stories in a way that suggests anyone can do it. But what these authors fail to mention, however, is that their results aren’t typical.” — Jonathan Hollingsworth, co-author, Runaway Radical
The mother-son writing team of Amy and Jonathan Hollingsworth have just published a riveting, true story about radical faith gone wrong. Runaway Radical is the raw, honest, and heartbreaking story of Jonathan, a young man fueled by a missionary zeal to ‘save the world,’ who embarks on a mission trip to Africa only to return six months later, depressed and badly shaken, his faith crushed. In a culture where books on saving the world abound, touting the most remarkable stories of success, Runaway Radical offers an important counterpoint to this current missionary mania by sharing the potential perils of following your call to save the world, at all costs.
This is a brave and honest book. What inspired you to come out and tell your story?
Jonathan: When I came back from Africa a failed missionary, my pastor wanted to sweep the whole thing under the rug. Worse, he made me promise not to tell anyone about the spiritual abuse I had experienced while there. I agreed to keep quiet because I believed my testimony would bring “division” to the Body of Christ. What I didn’t realize at the time, however, is that a false testimony causes way more harm to the church than a “bad” one.
In telling my story, we’re trying to bring a balance to the tales that usually get told about missions. This is the book I wish I had read before running off to Africa. I had never heard of a missionary coming home broken and defeated, so when it happened to me, I had nowhere to turn for solace.
Amy: I was working on another book but Jonathan’s story kept creeping into the narrative of that book. At some point I realized his story was the book I was supposed to be writing. But the real catalyst was desperation. Jonathan had been sworn to secrecy, and at the time we agreed to it, believing we were sparing him additional pain. I never could have imagined the destructiveness of that decision. There was only one way for Jonathan to interpret our agreeing to silence: what happened to me didn’t really matter, or worse, it didn’t really happen. He spiraled downward. So one morning I knocked on his bedroom door and said, “Let’s tell your story.” There were days when I thought I was crazy for suggesting it. It was an enormous risk. We had no idea when we began how Jonathan’s story would resolve, if at all. But as it turned out, one was the key to the other. Having the freedom to tell his story is what allowed him to slowly recover. And I think you hear his voice getting stronger as the book progresses.
This is one of the first books of a mission trip gone wrong. And yet, I imagine yours is not the first such experience. Why do you think more of these stories aren’t told?
Jonathan: Christians don’t like stories with less-than-happy endings. In fact, many Christians don’t want to believe that anything done in God’s name can end badly. Stories like mine don’t make it very far because Christian culture is dead-set on controlling the narrative.
A lot of Christians feel like it’s their duty to hide their pain and take a bullet for the greater good of the Gospel. When they don’t, they lose the support of the Christian community. In a culture so hostile toward negativity, who would want to tell their story? Sometimes it’s just easier not to say anything at all.
Amy: I think it’s because we, as Christians, often feel the need to be God’s press agents. We feel the need to put a positive spin on negative things so that God doesn’t look bad. But God doesn’t need our PR.
I ran into an acquaintance at the grocery store a few months after Jonathan arrived home. She told me God would restore Jonathan two-fold, just as he restored Job. And I told her that wasn’t a guarantee, or even a promise. The only promise was that God would be with us through our suffering, not two-fold restoration. She blinked at me, said she could see I was disillusioned, and then hurried away saying, “I’ll pray for you.” Our deepest desire is that Runaway Radical will help other young people and their parents, but that will only happen if we tell the truth, not spin the details.
You were an avid reader of books by other Christian missionaries prior to your trip — books that incited your passion to give everything up and go and save the world. But you say these books were actually a broken compass, and led you astray. Can you say more about that?
Jonathan: So many of the books out today beckoning young Christians to answer radical calls to obedience are totally unrealistic. They tell these extraordinary, one-in-a-million success stories in a way that suggests anyone can do it. According to these books, it’s just a matter of picking a spot on the map, hopping on a plane, and trusting God to do the rest. But what these authors fail to mention, however, is that their results aren’t typical.
The message is not only that anyone can do it—it’s that everyone should do it! This really threw me off course. The idea that I wasn’t a real Christian unless I gave away all my possessions and lived with the poor was a recipe for disaster. Before long, nothing I did seemed good enough. If I wasn’t doing everything I could, I wasn’t just letting the world down, I was letting God down.
Amy: I know that some people who have read Runaway Radical want to know if Jonathan just took the radical message to its extreme. (Although it’s hard to imagine being radical without being extreme, since they mean the same thing.) I read the books after Jonathan left for Africa and I can only say he didn’t take the message too far; he took it to its logical conclusion. A friend said recently that he thought many of these authors were trying to stir up the complacent and so they set the bar way up here, just hoping for movement upward but knowing the standard itself is impossible. Perhaps that’s true but what about an idealistic 20-year-old who sees the impossible as the standard? He can never reach it, and he ends up in despair. He is a missionary who returns home with worse than nothing, an entry in the negative column, having lost his own faith.
When did you first begin to realize that your expectations for ‘saving the world’ in West Africa were in trouble?
Jonathan: I’d like to say I had this moment of epiphany where I realized my expectations were too high and my motives were misguided. But the truth is, those revelations came second to what really sabotaged my time in Africa.I knew about six days in that something was off with the mission agency. It turned out they didn’t have a great reputation among the other non-profits in the community, and on top of that, one of the major projects advertised on their website (a fully-functional kitchen add-on to the local orphanage) ended up being a sham.
Over the course of the next four months, more projects would fall through, but I was forbidden from seeking out other opportunities to help in the community. Every aspect of my life was under their control: what I did, who I spent my time with, even what I said on my blog. It was like being under house arrest.
When I finally told them I’d had enough, they refused to relinquish my plane ticket and it took third-party intervention to get me home. To add insult to injury, I was told that none of the money I had raised would be returned to donors (a hefty sum, enough for a two-year stay), and that the mission agency had no intention of remaining accountable for how the money was spent.
Your experience led you to take a closer look at – and ultimately, critique — the radical call to ‘do good’ in our Christian culture today. How is that problematic?
Jonathan: I think Christians my age are desperate to set ourselves apart from past generations of Christians. We want to show the world that Christians aren’t legalistic anymore. We’re not preoccupied with the old rules (don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t get tattoos), because we know that Christianity isn’t all about what we don’t do.
So the message has changed. It’s no longer “don’t drink, don’t smoke”; it’s “feed the poor, save the world.” We’ve replaced the don’t’s with do’s. But what took me longer to see is that both directives are legalistic moralism. Both reduce following Jesus to a checklist, a way to measure our devotion to God through our outward behavior.
It’s much harder to spot legalism when it’s disguised as compassion, but the outcome is the same. It always ends in despair.
To the many young people who are considering mission work overseas today, what pieces of advice would you give them? How would you counsel them to prepare for their journey, spiritually, physically and mentally? Amy, as a parent, how would you advise families of missionary-bound kids?
Jonathan: One of the messages we hope doesn’t get lost in Runaway Radical is that we’re not trying to discourage anyone from pursuing overseas missions. We’re not trying to counteract all the voices telling young people to “GO!” by telling them to stay. At the end of the day, we’re only trying to warn people of some of the potential risks that might be missing from the brochures.
In my case, it wasn’t the culture shock or the tourist thieves that posed the biggest threat—it was the people in my own group. All the warning signs were there, I just didn’t know how to identify them.
For someone planning to go on a long-term mission trip, my advice would be to watch out for these red flags: Is the organization asking you to do anything that violates your conscience? Do they have a bad reputation in the community? Are they exhibiting any manipulative or controlling behavior? Do they want access to your funds or your plane ticket? And most importantly, do they have a good policy for volunteers who want to leave early or is it unclear?
Amy: We’d heard from countless missionaries who have responded to Jonathan’s story with painful stories of their own. The fact that many agencies and churches suppress these stories is what leaves young missionaries and their families so unprepared. One missionary contacted us to say that he and a team of college students came home from a two-year stint having justified the spiritual abuse they endured as cultural differences. But they couldn’t shake the depression and despair until Jonathan’s story helped them name what had happened to them. I would advise talking to other missionaries, not just the representatives of the agency. And my most important advice as a parent is to figure out what is motivating your son or daughter to go. Do they have realistic expectations? Are they motivated by guilt? What is their perception of God and what he’s asking of them? Even though Jonathan’s plane ticket home was held hostage – effectively holding him hostage – what really kept him trapped in West Africa enduring the abuse was his belief that it’s what God was asking of him.
What did you both learn about your faith, about God, and about family from this experience?
Jonathan: It took a long time for me to even want to engage my faith after Africa. In some ways, I had to rebuild it from the ground up. My relationship with God wasn’t the only thing that suffered through it all—I even had to learn how to trust my family and friends again.
After all the time I spent trying to be a good Christian, of constantly trying to win God’s approval but always falling short, his love never felt more apparent to me than the moment I stopped trying to earn it.
Grace was the only antidote to my legalism. God wasn’t going to love me less because I failed, but he also wasn’t going to love me more if I had succeeded. The very thing I was striving for had already been given, and that can’t be changed.
Amy: I was probably as profoundly changed through Jonathan’s experience as he was. One reviewer said that Runaway Radical was “a coming-of-age story as moving and meaningful as Salinger,” and I was really grateful that someone picked up on the fact that this is the classic coming-of-age story—a young person ventures out into the world, suffers a great loss, and comes to maturity through disillusionment instead of through enlightenment. But in our case the protagonist’s mother loses her illusions, too.
Our tight evangelical circle failed us, and we were forced to find God on the outskirts, among the marginalized. I feel as if I have an entirely new community now, an extended family. We found people from all different backgrounds with different voices saying the same thing: don’t be silent, don’t keep this to yourselves, don’t act as if it never happened.
It sounds strange to say that what I learned about God through this process is that he values the truth, but it’s because I discovered that many spiritual leaders value the opposite, insisting on a culture of silence. I never could have imagined the destructiveness of silence nor could I have imagined the healing power of telling your story. So for me the message is tell your story, tell your story, tell your story.
Finally, Jonathan — how are you now? Where are you in your faith journey today? What are your plans for your future?
Nothing has been the same since Africa. Before, I thought I knew exactly what I was supposed to do with my life. I knew what God wanted from me, and I knew how a dedicated Christian was supposed to act. But now it’s sort of all up in the air. And that’s ok.
I will say, though, I think I’m in a much better place now than I was when I was “radical.” As crazy as my journey was leading up to Africa, the craziest journey has been making the shift from certainty to uncertainty. I have so many more questions now. I don’t even know if I’ll end up going overseas again one day. But what I do know is that for the first time in a long time, I feel like I have the freedom to do good. Not because I feel obligated, or guilty, or called, but because I want to. And that makes such a difference.
Read an excerpt from the book and more at the Patheos Book Club here.