Amish & Adolescent Faith Development

Amish kids have the best parties. We have the wild parties.” I’ve long been fascinated by the Amish tradition of Rumspringa. Within some Amish circles, teenagers are encouraged to “run around” (literal translation of Rumspringa) for a while and experience life outside of the Amish. This begins at around 16 years old when they are permitted to enter the “English” world for a while, try everything, and then later are asked to make a decision whether to join the church or not. Surprisingly, 85-90% of Amish teenagers come back and commit to the church after a period of running around. To my Evangelical worldview this seems like a horrible idea! The church elders encouraging sixteen year olds to leave home, drink all they want, do drugs, go to wild parties, have sex? This seems contradictory to everything we stand for. Yet the results are compelling, aren’t they? Sixteen year olds who have been raised in the church, permitted to taste forbidden fruit, and then asked to determine if that is the life they would like to live or if they’d like to shun the world and commit themselves to a life of simplicity. What I appreciate most about this tradition is boiled down into two things: First, the adult recognition that teenagers need to be given the opportunity to explore their identity. It takes some maturity on behalf of the adult Amish community to recognize that their young people need to make a rational, individual choice to join their community for a lifetime. In my circle of Evangelicalism we are deathly afraid of this! We’re so afraid that our kids may chose not to follow Christ that we do whatever we can to prevent them from figuring out who they are. Second, the adults acknowledge that teenagers need to make an informed choice at the end of Rumspringa whether to join the church or not. Most churches I’ve been a part of want kids to make this choice before they are ready to make a decision that’ll last a lifetime. I did confirmation at 12 years old… was I really going to chose to not join the church? My daughter was asked to be baptized at 6 years old. Was that really a rational, informed choice that will last a lifetime? (I hope so!) But yet, there seems to be something to allowing a child to reach an age where they can make a choice they are developmentally prepared for in full knowledge of what they are or are not doing. Certainly, I’m not suggesting that the best way to reach church kids for a lifetime is to kick them out of youth group and encourage them to go have 2-3 years to live it up. (Well, one could argue that Evangelicals practice Rumspringa– we just call it college, but that is besides the point!) But, now that youth workers are looking hard at the causes of losing huge chunks of teens during the college years, maybe Rumspringa is something we need to study and understand a bit more? If you want to learn more about Rumspringa, the National Geographic Channel is airing Devil’s Playground tonight at 8:00 PM Eastern Time.

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