Last night I finished reading Runaway Radical: A Young Man’s Reckless Journey to Save the World after getting it for $1.99 on Amazon along with other books using a gift card someone gave me for my birthday. I had come across this title before, and put it on my Amazon wishlist to buy later since I can’t afford to buy everything I have a cursory interest in reading. But as a long-term missionary well acquainted with the highs and lows that life on the mission field can bring, this caught my eye once and I wanted to read it. As often is the case, the heavy discount on the Kindle book helped me take the plunge.
I guess I’m at least a decade older than Jonathan Hollingsworth, one of the co-authors of this book (the other being his mother Amy who provides the lion’s share of the content here), but when I started reading it I could see my younger 20 year-old self in him. I believe we’re close enough in age that I recognize some of the message of spiritual radicalism and books he mentions as having had an influence on him, only in my case many of them probably came out once I was already living abroad. But believing I was going to go change the world, having idealistic expectations of what I was going to do with my life for “God’s glory”, even if I didn’t get bitten by the mission bug until later in my 20s after having gone to Bible college.
On the one hand, I’m glad this book was written and is out there. This easy read details aspects of going on the mission field and some on-the-ground politics that many back in sending countries (in his case the United States) might not realize happens on the mission field or in short-term mission trips. However, there are several issues with this book regarding how it’s written, as well as the content provided therein.
Insight for Goers and Senders
Like I mentioned, most of the book is written by Jonathan’s mother, who from what I can tell seems to have suffered much more watching what happened to her son than what he may have suffered on the mission field himself. Often times the reader has to look for cues to differentiate if a chapter was written by Amy or Jonathan, which will come in the first few paragraphs of a chapter and often times Amy includes excerpts from Jonathan’s blog he wrote before and during his time on the field. Often I found it difficult to understand how or why some of these thoughts from Jonathan’s blog connect together with content in Amy’s chapters. However, Jonathan’s chapters are usually short.
Another benefit to reading this book is that it can help both the goers and senders learn a thing or two about accountability and vetting those they send to make sure they’re truly ready, both spiritually and psychologically (I will get to that in a moment), and how to do short-term missions better. One of the 3 star review on Amazon mentions “Much of what’s been said critically about short-term missions has been focused on the harm done to those we serve. We seldom hear about the harm that short-term missionaries can encounter themselves.” I agree almost completely with this sentiment, and for that reason I’ve touched the surface of such concerns on this blog in the past. Like here and here.
I question how “radical” and spiritually mature the co-author was when he went to Cameroon in the first place if he went smoking and drinking early on into his time there, and then getting reprimanded by his agency for being a bad witness to locals is somehow “legalistic and abusive” to him. Drinking and partying seems like an obvious no-brainer for someone who’s saved at all, let alone a leader, so I might just have a different definition of what “radical Christianity” is. But it’s obvious that if the author is still considering himself a Christian after having published this book, then he swung the pendulum very hard the other way into grace in an equally destructive way as the epilogue where he goes bar hopping with “youth pastors” describes.
But overlooking that kind of stuff, I am not sure the “abuse” he suffered was really THAT abusive. I mean, being basically forbidden from working with other missions in his city, and kept on virtual house arrest and witholding his return ticket are atrocious actions for his leaders to engage in, but not backslide-when-you-come-home-from-the-mission-field-and-lose-your-faith-over-it terrible in my humble opinion. And of course the most jolting aspect of his experience probably had more to do with how his church and pastor treated him when he came home (more on that in a moment). Again, I realize that one of the worst things we can do is invalidate someone’s experience when they have been abused, so don’t read my thoughts as though I’m pooping on Jonathan’s experience and saying “suck it up, buttercup”. There’s a part of the book where his mom documents a meeting they both had with his pastor, and he said the following;
“I concede that your son has suffered severe psychological distress,” he told us from across the table, and then added, “I just don’t think the conditions warranted it.”
I don’t want to sound like a jerk or invalidate how painful the experience was for Jonathan, but when I read that quote, I couldn’t help but feel there might be more than a sliver of truth to that suggestion. I mean, the whole book is told mostly through HIS MOM’s perspective, and there’s always two sides to every story. I’m wondering what the mission agency and Jonathan’s sending church — neither organization is named — have to say about what’s written in this book. Earlier in the book Amy concedes,
“Jonathan had never intended to go to Africa under the auspices of his church. Most of the literature he read took a pioneer’s approach to missions: do it bold, do it daring, do it alone. But once the word got out and the newspaper published his story and his campus picked it up and the funds started coming in, his church decided to claim him as its servant, as its son.”
While this may be true, and I don’t deny such things are common, it would still be interesting to hear another side of the story just in case.
I Can Relate to Some of His Experiences
When I was 25 I went and did a five month internship in The Netherlands where my confidence and ideals were shaken as I joined a team that dispersed by the time my internship was over, and most of the team returned to the USA. I saw and experienced things in a he said/she said conflict that helped dissolve the mission I joined, and when I came back to Canada I needed time and space to decompress and process what had just happened. I wouldn’t say I ever reached “depression”, but I got close for a short season. Sure I was disappointed, but not disappointed enough that my faith in God and desire to serve Him were irreparably shaken. I remember one of the missionaries there at the time encouraging me that despite all the negative stuff that took place while I was there, I should be grateful to have experienced my time there. He said something to the effect that it’s better to be disappointed with reality than to be elated with fantasy, and that I was getting an eyeful about what life on the field can often truly be like. And then the next year I returned again to The Netherlands to work in a different city and try again, and I met different challenges and disappointments.
It’s in that regard I felt I could relate to the author in terms of similar experiences in our early adulthood. As a long-term missionary myself — as in I’ve been on the field in Peru for more than the 6 months like the co-author was in Africa — I can honestly say I don’t feel he had as difficult of an experience in comparison to some of the heartbreak, disillusionment, betrayal and unmet expectations many others have gone through (although having his return ticket withheld is pretty darn awful), and stayed faithful despite it all. I also don’t find his experience to be atypical or an isolated incident, unfortunately. I mean, a young 20 year-old discovers there’s politics involved in church? Well knock me over with a feather! While I want to show grace and understanding to the challenges and difficulties people go through in their walk with Christ wherever that journey takes them and not belittle them for being crushed under the weight of something, but to compare his situation to that of a wife in an abusive relationship and in both cases being told to be quiet and stay in the abuse seems like a false equivalence, as they are quite far apart.
What The Book Gets Right
One of the things I do feel the book gets RIGHT is helping to “burst the bubble” for some of us (young or old) who have unrealistic and idealistic vision and think they’ll go single-handedly change the world. It also helps show in realistic ways how often times legalism is disguised as radicalness:
“At the core of legalism is the belief that devotion to God can be measured. Number of souls won, hours spent in prayer, number of days fasted, dollars given to charity. It becomes a way to prove to yourself, to your peers, and to your God that you’re actually taking Jesus’s words seriously. You’re not the average Christian: you’re radical.”
Let me close with one of my favorite analogies from the book
“Yeast works its way through dough silently and invisibly; you don’t know it’s there until you see the dough rise, until the chemical reaction has already taken place. Yeast feeds on what’s already there, consuming and changing it, reproducing itself, growing itself larger and larger by making empty spaces in the bread. In the heart. Jesus said to be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees. Because even a tiny amount can spoil good intentions, and ruin a calling. The teaching of the Pharisees causes its own chemical reaction, converting freedom into bondage. It grows itself larger and larger until love is displaced by guilt. The yeast of the Pharisees creates an empty space so that motivation moves from the inside to the outside.”
It can be said that some people’s motives for going on the mission field, whether long-term or short-term can be from a place of wanting attention, and feeling like you’ll earn something from God for having gone. I know because I’ve experienced the same temptations. But then I grew up and moved on.
If you want to hear of some practical ways you could help out a missionary struggling with burnout and discouragement, check out this previous post of mine (but get a cup of coffee ready, cuz it’s a long one.
August 26th, 2017 Edit:
The Kindle book is still on sale for $1.99 on Amazon, and the audiobook is available through Whispersync for $7.49. If you want to check the book out but have too many on your Kindle to get through, that’s both the ebook and the audio book for less than $10 total. Click the image below to be taken to the audiobook on Amazon.