Jonathan Hollingsworth lived full of passion and a desire to do more, to live radically in obedience to Jesus. He and his mother chronicle his adventure of faith in Runaway Radical: A Young Man's Reckless Journey to Save the World, in which he reveals a dark side of service on the Dark Continent. After a life-changing trip to Honduras, where Jonathan met with deep poverty and a deeper helplessness, he came home to his comfortable, middle-class American existence with a renewed determination to change the world.
For Jonathan, changing the world began with asceticism, giving away material possessions, living simply (under his parents' roof), and making plans for a life of service among the poor. He found a place to serve in Cameroon, raised money and made plans in record time, and settled in with a pastor in an active ministry. Within days, Jonathan's hopes of having an impact in Africa were dashed. The pastor with whom he worked was controlling and manipulative. His movements and interactions with non-Christian Cameroonians, as well as with other missionaries and local Christians not affiliated with his host church, were limited. Many promises made to Jonathan during the planning of his stay in Africa were broken. Against the wishes of the pastor, he only served four months of his one-year commitment.
Once he returned home, the manipulation continued. Jonathan had serious concerns about the African ministry, the use of funds there, the leaders' treatment of church members and others, and the falsehoods about the ministry presented to their American partners. Jonathan's American pastor threatened to defame Jonathan if he chose to go public with his concerns. All of this amounted to Jonathan's feeling distant from church, and, ultimately, from God.
Jonathan's story is a cautionary tale about the dangers of the new radicalism, which fosters a new kind of legalism. He writes, "The legalism I rejected proclaimed, Look how good I am because of what I don't do. The legalism I accepted proclaimed, Look how good I am because of what I do." Either legalism puts the self in the center, and attempts to put self in control. Many young Christians have become disillusioned because they can't meet the demands of the new radicalism. They are "challenged to impact and serve the world in radical way, but we never learned how to be an average person living an average life."
I was sickened by the way trusted leaders in Jonathan's life stole his passion and quenched his desire to serve. Instead of teaching him to share grace, they taught him that he wasn't submissive enough--to them. Instead of fostering a passion to follow Christ, they taught him that serving God means following manipulative, controlling church leaders. It was a failure of discipleship, a failure to teach, a failure to lead, and Jonathan was a victim of their failure.
Jonathan's story is certainly heart breaking. He does a service by shedding light on the dangers of legalism in every form. More specifically, he offers a warning to others who are making sacrifices in order to serve in Africa. He has plenty of stories of Westerners who were deceived, abused, or cheated by African ministry partners. Unfortunately, the tone of his book is very negative about missions altogether. I know he would acknowledge that there are worthy missionaries and ministries, but it's easy to see that he is suspicious especially of his peers who are radically serving, assuming they are living under a legalistic drive to prove themselves to God by doing good.
Before he left for Africa, Jonathan read many books by and about "passionate do-gooders" who serve in Africa. He's right about one thing: these stories inevitably focus on successful, life-changing events and ministries. So I affirm his efforts in telling his story in Runaway Radical. Christians, and especially missionaries in training, need to know the realities of failure, of conflict, of the fallenness of people in church leadership on every continent. I wish Jonathan's story had more balance, but I suppose he brings a balance to every other missionary story in print.
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!