Being “radical” for Jesus: The stories that don’t get told

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Book Cover - "Runaway Radical"

Book Cover - "Runaway Radical"

We live in a time when many young people in the Church have been convinced that making a difference requires them to be “radical” for Jesus. What does this mean? Is this a good thing? Last year, I had the opportunity to learn about a young man who had bought into this “radical” Christianity to the point he was sleeping on the floor (it wasn’t right to sleep in more comfortably than most others in the world) and complaining whenever his family went out to eat (the money was better spent on helping the hungry). Wanting to do “big things for God” eventually propelled Jonathan Hollingsworth to pack up his bags and move to Africa. Instead of doing those big things, he encountered corruption, exploitation, loneliness, and a Christian culture that is all about money and rules. He didn’t encounter Jesus. Instead, he found himself trapped in a deceptive form legalism that made demands that no “radical” can satisfy.   Jonathan left Africa rejected, exhausted and wanting little to do with the God. To make matters worse, he returned home to church leaders who demanded his silence in order to protect their own reputations and their “ministries”. Ultimately, this amazing story is about a runaway radical who unknowingly stumbles into the beautiful arms of the ultimate radical…Jesus.

This amazing and tragic story is told in a new book co-authored by Jonathan and his mom, Amy Hollingsworth, entitled, Runaway Radical: A Young Man’s Reckless Journey to Save the World. This beautifully transparent book goes on sale next week and is a must read for all Christians who want to “make a difference”.   As the book prepares to launch, Amy and Jonathan graciously agreed to answer some tough questions about this journey and what they have learned about themselves, the Church, and God. I have come to deeply admire and appreciate these two heroes in our midst. I think you will too. – Boz


Boz: Amy, what if any, expectations or hopes did you have for your son as he hugged you good-bye and headed to Africa to serve in missions? Were any of those hopes or expectations realized?

Amy: I had really been challenged by Jonathan’s commitment and faithfulness in the year or so before he left for Africa. I joked with the newspaper reporter who interviewed him before his trip that she would come back to our home in a year to see a “For Sale” sign in the front yard and the entire family would be joining Jonathan in Africa. So he wasn’t following in our footsteps—or fulfilling a set of expectations from us—as much as he was leading the way. He felt called; we supported him wholeheartedly. My hopes were pretty simple: we prayed for his safety and for him to accomplish what he set out to do. I didn’t expect or hope for great things, but even the simplest expectations went unrealized.

Boz: As you look back, do you regret having such expectations or hopes?

Amy: I do have regrets, but not about my hopes and expectations, which were minimal. There is a bit of irony, though. Jonathan is a gifted writer, and I wondered when he left if one day he would want to write about his experiences in Africa. But never in a million years could I have imagined this was the book that would come out of that trip.

Boz: Jonathan, prior to the experiences outlined in your book, what was your understanding of spiritual abuse?  Has that changed since leaving for Africa? 

Jonathan Hollingsworth

Jonathan Hollingsworth

Jonathan: If someone had asked me a few years ago what I thought spiritual abuse was, I probably would have said bigotry (think Westboro Baptist Church). I thought spiritual abuse was always loud and overt, something generally reserved for people outside the church and certainly something that could never happen to me. I was my church’s prized little missionary, after all.

But the unfortunate paradox of spiritual abuse, I think, is that the more devout you are, the more susceptible you are to it. My church leaders knew me inside and out. They knew I would do anything to please God, help the church, support missions, etc. So when I made the incredibly difficult decision to end my mission in Africa, they knew exactly what to say to keep me quiet and ashamed. They used my own spiritual values to beat me into submission, and that, to me at least, qualifies as abuse. It’s a much more subtle form of abuse than what the Westboro folks dish out, but sadly I think it’s far more common.

Boz: Do you think control can ever be spiritually abusive? Explain.  

Jonathan: I think control, even at its most benign, has no place in the church. If the idea is that we’re supposed to disciple each other, to “come alongside” and help one another in our spiritual walks, then we have to leave our desire for control at the door. I might be oversimplifying things, but I think control is more a byproduct of fear than of love. So in my experience, the act of controlling someone’s spiritual life is usually a telltale sign that something isn’t right.

Boz: How have efforts to control you been a part of your journey and what type of impact has this had on your life? 

Jonathan: To say the mission agency in Africa had me on a tight leash is an understatement. I was constantly under their microscope, and the feeling of being completely trapped like that is not something I think I’ll ever fully recover from. When I was finally able to break away and come back home, my church wanted to keep my experiences in Africa a secret. They didn’t want me reaching out to anyone and they didn’t want anyone reaching out to me. I was expected to recover in private. So not only did they want to control my pain, they wanted to control my healing as well.

And I nearly gave in, too. But that’s what happens when you’ve been controlled for so long—you start to think you need it. Even after I parted ways with my church, I still questioned whether I did the right thing. I had to learn to trust my instincts again. I had to stand by what I knew was best for me, even while my church was insisting, “we are what’s best for you.” It was a really difficult transition.

Boz: Amy, how has your understanding of spiritual abuse changed as a result of Jonathan’s experience?

Amy Hollingsworth

Amy Hollingsworth

Amy: I had heard of spiritual abuse and had even written an endorsement for a book on recovering from spiritual abuse. But of course knowing and experiencing are very different things. What I didn’t understand before Africa was that spiritual abuse has one main tenet: the victim gets blamed, and as a result, victimized a second time.

Boz: From your observations and experience, what are some of the harms you have seen caused by spiritual abuse?

Amy: If a bad thing happens and it will reflect badly on a church or a mission agency, the expedient thing to do is blame the victim. That way the incident is self-contained; one person is at fault and no one else is affected. In Jonathan’s case, there was no way to deny the severe trauma he experienced, and the response from church leadership was, “It is obvious Jonathan has suffered; we just don’t believe the conditions warranted it.” That’s like saying, “We can’t deny what we see right in front of us, but we’ll pretend not to see all that led up to it.” Or worse, the implication is that there is some weakness in Jonathan, and that this wouldn’t be the exact same outcome for any other 20-year-old in the exact same situation.

Again, it’s the victim who is responsible for his trauma. But just in case there may have been any wrongdoing, forgiveness is rushed so that the issue is resolved, crossed off the checklist, and on to the next item of church business.

Boz: What do you believe has been more hurtful and painful to Jonathan, the experiences in Africa or the way the church has responded to it?

Amy: It’s interesting that you ask this question because when I was reading GRACE’s report on Bob Jones University, one of the survey respondents discussed this very thing. Her expectation, our expectation, is that the people who know you and love you will understand, will work to protect you and heal you. At the very least, you expect them to believe you. She said the response from those she trusted was more damaging than her assault.

And yes, how Jonathan was treated by the church was more hurtful and painful because it was so unexpected. Part of the self-containment was forbidding him from telling anyone what happened to him in Africa. And only because there was a threat to harm him further, his father and I agreed to the silence. That continues to be my biggest regret in all of this. We were complicit in the very thing that struck the last blow to his faith, to his emotional well-being. That’s why when I saw what the silence was doing to him, how it was destroying him, I asked him if together we could tell his story.

Boz: How do you respond to those who tell you that somehow God will bring good out of what has happened to Jonathan? Why do you think they tell you this?

Amy: I’ve heard that a lot: the idea that we need to bring good out of what happened to Jonathan or worse, that God is obligated to. What happened happened. To be able to tell his story, to write a book together is a wonderful thing, but it’s not an even or fair trade-off for what happened to him. It’s not a silver lining. I would still give anything for him not to have gone through this experience. Runaway Radical is not our attempt to manufacture good out of what happened to him. There was no good when we started writing the book. At that time we didn’t know how his story would end; we just knew we had to tell his story.

Why do people tell me this? 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 like he did with 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. We do the telling; God does the redeeming.

And we personally want to thank you, Boz, for your commitment to truth telling. For being willing to break through the church’s culture of silence. You offered us encouragement and invisible help throughout our healing process, without even knowing it—because you were out there advocating for those who had no voice.

Boz: Jonathan, why do you think Christians seem to be so uncomfortable sharing or hearing about failed experiences that don’t have “happy” endings?  

Jonathan: In my experience, stories of failure do not fit into the desired narrative. Failure is not an option when the “victorious Christian life” doesn’t allow for anything less than success. Admitting defeat is a sign of weakness—it implies a lack of faith. There’s a lot of spiritual significance attached to success and failure in the Christian world, especially in missions. That’s why it was so hard for me to leave Africa. I had never, in all my time in the church, seen a missionary come home waving the white flag. So at the time I didn’t know what to think. Like many young missionaries setting out for the first time, my expectations were unrealistically high. I thought my faith, God’s reputation, and the fate of the world hinged on this trip. I didn’t know how common disappointment was on the mission field, because those stories don’t get told. I think Christians need to realize that embellishing or sanitizing a testimony doesn’t do anyone any good. It just sets people up to feel guilty when they miss the mark.

Boz: Do you consider your experience a failure? Will it have a “happy” ending?

Jonathan: Without a doubt, the mission was a failure. I have no problem admitting that. And I don’t feel the need to manufacture a “happy” ending. I don’t think that’s healthy. But on the other hand, I don’t draw any doom-and-gloom spiritual conclusions from it either. Sometimes, things just don’t work out. It doesn’t mean that God dropped the ball, or that I didn’t have enough faith, or that it wasn’t meant to be. The truth is, even though I failed to accomplish everything I set out to do, some of the most meaningful experiences from Africa came from things I wasn’t planning on or expecting. And I’m grateful for those moments. The trip may have been a failure, but it wasn’t a waste.

Boz: What is the one thing you would tell a young person today who wants to be radical for God?

Jonathan: There are a lot of people out there willing to exploit those who give up their whole lives for a cause. For every radical who gets on a plane, there’s a con artist waiting for him on the other side. And sadly, sometimes that con artist is a church or a mission agency. Before I left for Africa, everyone told me to watch out for kidnappers and hustlers and pickpockets, when in reality, it was the people I least expected who posed the biggest threat. The world needs people who genuinely want to help, but just because you have the best intentions doesn’t mean everyone else will. Should this stop us from reaching the world? Of course not. And don’t think it will. But we should expect a little opposition along the way.

Jonathan is an author, speaker, recovering radical Christian. He currently resides with his family in Virginia and can be followed at @JonHollingswrth.  
Amy is the author of five books and a former psychology professor. She lives in Virginia with her family. You can read more about Amy at her website and follow her at ‪@AmyHollingswrth

Learn more about Runaway Radical on its Facebook page and its website.



  • Chaplain Martin

    When I read an interview such as the one regarding Jonathan, I am again reminded of how young people go to serve with so little preparedness to serve in the real world.

    When I answered the call to ministry, the first thing a kindly pastor told me was first to be sure I had a calling because the ministry is certainly not easy and next, go prepare.
    Actually, the first thing he said when I told him I wanted to be a preacher was: “If you can do anything else don’t be a preacher.” I was nonplussed, not the answer I wanted.
    Then he said go to college and seminary (graduate school). College and beyond, oh no, I just wanted to preach and straighten these folks out.

    We seem to live in a time when many and varied para church and independent churches are sending sheep to the slaughter. The don’t know how to navigate the reality of the world within the various agencies. There are many wonderful foreign ministries but there are those which are a disgrace to Christianity.

    My greatest disappointment in your interview is that no name is given regarding the offending agency or group. While I know doing so could result in a suit, these offending agencies should at lest be made to “clean up their act” so to speak.

    My remaining question is; would an investigation by a group such as GRACE be conducted as done in the mission school and Bob Jones University reveal actual wrong doing and spiritual abuse?

  • Kat

    Thanks for your article. I have experienced spiritual abuse as well from evangelical churches. One I was kicked out of for wearing pants for three weeks. We were told no one would ever love us as much as they did etc. The other church refused to deal with an older man that was flirty and sometimes would sit and stare at me. He would look at me and appear as though he is getting lost in me. The man was creepy, but because he was a well respected member of the community, nothing was said.
    I was told it was my perspective that was causing the problem. It was my fault. The pastor didn’t want to deal with it.
    Neurotic people that become believers make neurotic Christians.
    Thanks for your insight. It alleviates the guilt.

  • Chaplain Martin

    I note you indicated your were “kicked out” of two evangelistic churches. I’m sorry your experiences were such as they were. As a chaplain and at various times in my experience a pastor, I have spoke in many evangelistic churches. The transition to women wearing pants to church was starting in the nineteen sixties and seventies. In the last twenty years pants have become standard especially among older women. I’m referring to SBC churches and some CBF churches. These were considered evangelistic churches. I’ll include some of my speaking in Presbyterian churches.

    As far as the dirty old man is concerned, the pastor may have acted poorly for his position to say the least.

    To get to my point, there is a wide demographic of churches which fit into the evangelistic scope. I urge you to not give up but choose wisely, prayerfully, before jointing any church. Yes, they all will have problems. Consider a mainline church also.

  • Dianne Couts

    Thanks, Boz, Jonathan and Amy for this article. It should be mandatory reading for all mission executives, field directors and most importantly for all the bright-eyed young people anxious to join their ranks.

  • Jonathan Hollingsworth

    That means a lot Dianne! I definitely wish I’d read something like this before I ran off to Africa. It probably wouldn’t have stopped me from going, but at least I would’ve been a little more prepared.

    Unfortunately, stories like these don’t get brought up a lot in Christian circles. The Church is doing everything it can to fight the “lazy Christian” stereotype and I think they’re afraid that stories like mine will discourage people from serving.

    At the end of the day, I’m just trying to give people a heads up about what they might encounter on the mission field. Not every story ends like mine, of course, but it happens a lot more than most people think.

  • Wake up

    A true radical wouldn’t write a book about their experiences and then keep the profit, they would donate it to those who had helped them discover whatever it was they were in search of and then wrote the book about.
    After all, Jesus didn’t keep the profits from the bestseller he wrote, did he?

  • Dr. Jackson

    Well someone’s clearly gone off their medication….

  • Another Author

    “A worker is worthy of his wages.” As an author, I hear this objection all the time. Writing is the work we do. It’s how we feed our families. It is just as legitimate to be paid for writing a book as it is to be paid for digging a ditch or serving as a pastor. If we don’t allow Christian authors to earn a living from their books, there won’t be many Christian books because those gifted by God to write will be using their time and talents doing other things to support their families.

  • Thank you, Another Author, for your articulate defense! Writing is my full-time job and Jonathan is a college student paying his way through school. Would love to know more about your own work!

  • Feeding the Trolls

    ^”A true radical” wouldn’t be a comment troll. Beautiful post, wonderful story–Thanks Amy and Jon!

  • Yes! Thanks so much, Dianne!

  • Oscar

    It’s an interesting debate.

    My forte was comedy for many decades and it served well with remuneration. I considered the remuneration a fitting result for articulating words that gave amusement.
    The last three years have seen my writing take a different direction, helping others through abusive childhoods. It doesn’t put food on the table, but then I’m in the fortunate position of having a small table and other sources of dietary input. It does however provide considerable pleasure in being able to help others by delving into my own strange and turbulent past and the sentiments expressed by those who derive comfort and inspiration from my scratching’s is good reward. If I were to be offered considerable amounts of cash by formerly abusive and now ash and sack cloth wearers, I would of course take it 🙂

    It’s a matter of choice and circumstances.

    Thanks for the debate, fellow authors.

  • Oscar

    Hi Jonathan,
    I applaud your honesty in saying “Without a doubt, the mission was a failure. I have no problem admitting that”.
    I come from a missionary family, according to my parents it was a wonderful time where we benefited many with liberal doses of religion and some humanitarian aid. The truth is that it was a complete disaster and not just for our family, but many others and especially for those who’s country we were guests in and supposed to be serving. We exploited others with fine words to fund our “adventure” and then when we came home we expected the faithful to believe that we were true heros of faith.
    If the truth had been told, it would have saved our and many other families from disintegrating. But even decades down the track, the myths of heroic deeds take precedence over the horrors of abuse by missionary on missionary.

    It’s not the end of the road, just a road in a different direction for you and you still have your dignity. Travel well.

  • Tom

    Glad you wrote this Jonathan. Have you read Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness?” Do, particularly the first couple chapters. That was written over 100 years ago… and we’re still picking up lost teenagers on sandbars in the middle of the jungle. I trust you are honest enough to share some of the blame with your church, but sounds like they’ve got bigger issues.

  • Chaplain Martin

    It is good to read the last few comments that are at least on the subject of the original interview.
    While I know of the many wrong headed attempts in the past, and yes there are some wrongful attempts in the present, the major movement in missions has been away from the paternal approach to missions. This started in major denominations in the nineteen seventies. My wife had a wonderful friend long deceased raised by relatives, who were missionaries in Egypt. Long since deceased now. Her experience living with those relatives turned her against the church.

    The major NGO’s that have a religious base (or not) can be looked looked up on sites such as Charity Navigator which rates each one.

    The CBF (Cooperative Baptist Fellowship) to which I now belong does what is called “missional” work. The work is mainly partnering with others to meet social needs.
    As an example, my wife went to Guatemala with a group from our church to a ministry which take in children that are quite malnourished and through special diets bring them up to better health. No, they do not take them away from the parents, the parents bring them. Usually the parents take them home with instructions on what the children need to eat. They also send food home with them for a start. The problem is the diet in Guatemala. I will not go into that however, you can do some research.
    My wife has kept up with the progress of the children after her time there was up and another group came. Why different groups? The Children’s ministry cannot afford enough Guatemalans to give one on one attention to each child. Others of our church have gone back to serve for a longer time and have been amazed at the progress of the children there.

    There is Ricks Institute that has been in Liberia since about 1878 it was established by missionaries but is now run by citizens of Liberia. It has survived the terrible civil war with much damage to the buildings, but has continued on. I pray it will survive the Ebola epidemic, many people have taken refuge on its campus much like they did during the civil war. Classes have stopped for now. Teachers from the states have gone to enrich the teaching by teaching the teachers on methods to improve the learning. Graduates from Ricks have come to the states for college on scholarships. Experience builders, carpenters, electricians and others have made the rather difficult trip there and have given freely of their talents and experience.
    Recently a CBF member who works for the CDC went to the campus to serve as long as he could. Of course of his own expense.

    I personally know a missionary family that has spent over 18yrs. in service in Indonesia working in developing clean water supplies to the various villages. There is also a medical boat that travels up and down the river providing care. The husband is a expert in farming methods and helps them improve their harvest. Yes, they work in what can become a dangerous situation, quickly. There are Christians there and continue to worship God as they have individually chosen.

    Sure, as the Christians (I am familiar with) go out to serve whether it be in hurricane or other storm areas in U.S. or serve in foreign countries, they don’t leave their faith behind nor do they make “accepting Christ a savior” a requirement to receive help.

    Every mission every missionary in word or deed take with them who they are. Each needs to be evaluated on their individual traits and character. Of course the culture and character of the mission organization also.

  • Jonathan Hollingsworth

    Oscar, I totally agree. We could all benefit from being more open and honest about our shortcomings, especially in the Church. Thanks for your encouragement.

  • Jonathan Hollingsworth

    Hey Tom, thanks for your comment. Haven’t read Heart of Darkness yet, but I’m sure it would take on a whole new meaning now.

  • Ken J Garrett

    Thank you for this post, Boz! This is me! Confident of my motives, and severely critical of what I felt I knew of “the church today” (in 1984, anyway), my desire to live “radically” for the Lord led me to make some horrible choices for myself, my marriage, and my children. Communal living, discipleship training, excessive witnessing, withdrawal from family and friends who didn’t share my unbounded zeal and ambition, etc.
    I wouldn’t want to repeat it, and wouldn’t wish it on anyone–but my experience of failure and loss has brought me to a deeper appreciation for the grace of God and a deeper suspicion of my own desires to be “radical for Jesus,” instead of simply being in love with Him and His dear Bride. Keep speaking out, Jonathan, you’re not alone!

  • Jonathan Hollingsworth

    It’s amazing how many of us “radicals” end up the same. That should say something, shouldn’t it? Thanks for sharing your story, Ken. And I have to say, I wholeheartedly agree with your conclusion about grace!

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  • Oscar

    Another “radical” book to read is James McNeish’s “The Mask of Sanity”. It’s not a pleasant read and there is no happy ending.
    It is the story of a missionary family who became totally dysfunctional and then ended their lives all shot, except for the oldest son who was arrested and convicted for their murder.
    No doubt many would dismiss this as an extreme case, but the ingredients that caused this tragedy do exist in other families I knew on the mission field. Families with dark secrets behind the “happy family” façade and missions who have fought tooth and nail to keep those secrets from emerging.
    It would be a disturbing work of fiction, it is even a more disturbing true account and one best well heeded as a warning that for many missionary families life was not what it was painted as.

  • Marilyn Lloyd

    Jonathan you had extraordinary courage to write this book with your mother. Not having read the book, but reading the write up in “The Free Lance Star”, but especially the questions you answered here, I am appalled at the way Christians, and I am one, wanted to cover up the bad parts of what happened to you! Jesus taught love, and someone who goes over there with good intentions and is treated so badly, and then told not to talk about it, this IS spiritual and emotional abuse. And it is different, but yet the same as the sexual abuse of the Catholic Church that covered up the bad things to such a horrendous degree. And thereby allowing it to continue. You did a great service for future kids who want to volunteer. No one deserves abuse by the Christian Church. Of the many values I learned in Sunday School was honesty. And by writing your story you were honest. Jesus would be proud!

  • Jonathan Hollingsworth

    Thanks Marilyn! “The truth will set you free,” right? If only more churches believed that.

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