Being "Radical" for Jesus: Interview with Jonathan & Amy Hollingsworth
By Boz Tchividjian
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: 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: 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, et cetera. 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: 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 Hollingsworth is an author, speaker, recovering radical Christian. He currently resides with his family in Virginia and can be followed at @JonHollingswrth. Amy Hollingsworth 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 http://amyhollingsworth.com and follow her at @AmyHollingswrth.