Cutting Edge Amish

This morning I was reading a little of Marko’s upcoming book, Youth Ministry 3.0, and one of the early chapters made me think of the Amish. Maybe the Amish have had the solution for a long time?

My hypothesis is simple. Since adolescence is a cultural phenomenon and the church is called to create culture for redemptive purposes, maybe the church can turn the tide on adolescence elongation in our society over the next generation?

Factor #1 Sociologically the window of time known as adolescence is continuing to widen. Culture simply gives children a longer time to mature to adulthood. This creates a need for adolescent ministry to stretch from about 10 years old to about 25 years old. Fifteen months ago I posted some solutions to fight the elongation of adolescence. At the current pace, if nothing is done, adolescence may last 25 years by the time next week gets here.

Factor #2 The church is largely unprepared to help kids walk through the stages of adolescent development faster. With the roles of identity, autonomomy, and affinity to be accomplished before an adolescent is seen as an adult in our culture coupled with churches completely in denial that they can do anything about these tasks… and Christian parents completely whipped by professional adolescents who demand to be cared for deep into their 20s… we can see how the church has become part of the problem of elongation of adolesence in our culture with no real solutions.

The Amish solution. The Amish do one thing really well. They maintain adult members like crazy! Rather than having young children get baptized and join the church before they are ready to make an independent decision… the Amish encourage a period of running around and jumping… Rumspringa. When an Amish child enters Rumspringa the parents literally allow (encourage?) them to run around and do whatever they want. Explore the world, however they define that. Parents hope that their kids will come back to the faith… and many do… but they also reliquish control over that process, allowing the child to chose the faith themselves. Later, when they come back to the faith they come back in full knowledge of what they are walking away from and in full knowledge of what they are committing to.

Oh! We evangelicals do much the opposite, don’t we? We would never want our kids to sin! And strangely, some of the most committed followers of Christ I know are also some who tried out the other side of things and came running back to the cross!

Evangelical Rumspringa. One indictment of the church in Hyde’s Dedication and Leadership is that we don’t call our people to dedicate themselves to the church. (He compares dedication in the church to dedication to communism.) Hyde argues that our standards of leadership are too low which leads to an utter lack of true commitment to the cause. To further Hyde’s indictment, we ask for a commitment to the faith before people are cognitively aware or capable of making a rational decision.

This leads me to wonder if there is wisdom in giving our students entering college permission to do what they already are doing… but with a stronger purpose. Right now, we expect nothing out of college students. They are involved in churches, even on some levels in church leadership, but once they hit college we allow them to hit the pause button on their faith development. What if we did this more intentionally? What if we said, “Take this time off to go out and run free. Explore some stuff, chase your hearts desire, experiment with whatever you want to experiment with. But make me this promise that on July 1st after you graduate from college you will come talk to me about your faith. At that moment you will decide if you really want to follow Jesus and commit yourself to the cause or not.” This would test our definition of the sovereignty of God, wouldn’t it? For Calvinist, this would test our definition of predestination, wouldn’t it?

A Secret Revealt… We already do this practically. I know some people were offended by what I just wrote. In effect I just said that the church should give young Christians permission to sin with the hope that they will come back to Jesus. My argument back is that we are largely mislabeling our kids Christians when they are not truly dedicated to Christ in their hearts. They may have made a one-time commitment… but largely we know we are failing to develop a faith that lasts a lifetime in youth ministry. Christian Smith labeled what most kids in our ministries believe as Therepeutic Moralistic Deism. And every researcher agrees that youth ministry, as we know it, largely fails.

What I am asking is [not proposing, by the way]… Is there value in telling our kids who “don’t really get it” (e.g. about 90% of the students I’ve invested in over the last decade) to take a little rumspringa in college and lets talk about giving your life to Christ on ______?

As a confessional evangelical, my worry is that we’ve falsely assured some people who have confessed and been baptized that they are “saved for life. I worry that this isn’t really true as they may have not really understood the Gospel at all. I wonder if we merely coached them to say and do what we wanted them to do… and somehow assured someone of their salvation falsely? I wonder if an emotional decision made in middle school is enough?

How can this impact culture? Well, if that theory worked in college… maybe we could start backing down the length of time before we ask for that adult confession of faith? Back it down from 22 to 20? Then maybe move it into high school in a couple decades? Right now… in practice we largely don’t want people involved in ministry until they are married with kids! And for many… that’s 30 years old or later!

Thoughts? I know I’m on the edge of being labeled a heretic here. Keep in mind these are merely propositional thoughts and not proposals for your ministry.

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in the San Diego neighborhood of Rolando with their three children.

9 comments

  1. adam… great post! my first reaction, i think like many, would be to begin arguing many of the points you bring up. have you seen the documentary “devil’s playground”? it is a very informative look into the rumspringa tradition, which is why when i first read the suggestion that you made above, the hair on the back of my head stood up. having been in youth ministry for 10+ years, i have seen many kids enter into college and find the world more appealing then their “committed relationship” to God. I don’t know of any of my former youth who have stopped all together believing in God, but i know that the majority of them have turned away from the relationship.
    for a long time, i have been asking the similar question, but more concerned with the kids who have made their “commitment” when they were 5 or 6 at VBS or in Sunday School. i truly have a hard time believing that at 5, 6, 7, 8-year-old has a full grasp of the idea and the meaning of having a relationship with Jesus Christ. i know adults who don’t have a full grasp of the gospel!
    i have said to kids before, when they are ready, where ever they are, they can come and talk to me about what a relationship with Jesus Christ truly, really means.
    thinking about rumspringa for kids is super scary, but i like the general concept. thanks for the ideas and words… great stuff for making us think about and question what we know as the norm… although it is broken. super bummed i didn’t pick up marko’s book in sacramento!

  2. abby, i have seen those documentaries. I mentioned two in the first draft of this post but clipped them out for length.

    I don’t know how comfortable I am with the concept either. But I am very interested in coming up with out of the box solutions.

    I love that invitation you’ve made to your students! I’ve been joking with Kristen that we have a more effective ministry to some of our students in Romeo now than we did on staff… and I think it has something to do with their choosing the faith for their own.

    I’ve been talking a lot about kids taking ownership of their faith… I’m not wondering if that isn’t far enough?

  3. welp, I was going to ask if you had seen “Devil’s Playground” but apparently you have! My problem with that film and with the Rumspringa concept is that those kids are not experiencing the whole world. Raging parties, getting drunk and doing meth are hardly all the world consists of – certainly not my world. What about fine art, drama and music, great cathedrals, hikes in mountain passes, and so on? Are they really making an educated decision for being Amish? Also, in the meantime, lots of preventable serious damage (pregnancies, STDs, addictions, drunk driving accidents) can happen.

    I don’t think there is a formula for how people come to faith. The one thing we all need in order to come to real faith is realization of sin – something which a Rumspringa can accomplish, but can also happen in other ways as well.

    BTW – Don’t get me wrong, I admire the Amish way of life greatly and, oddly enough, I am currently in a deep personal struggle that is pulling me towards a more radical living of the Gospel.

  4. Wow. That’ll make me think. Don’t forget, too, that the Amish are very, very community-oriented – far more than we are. That sense of community, according to what I have read, is a strong factor in youth making the adult decision to join the faith. So, I’d have to wonder how that would factor into an evangelical Rumspringa. I’m still thinking …

  5. Nice post, Adam. I think you bring up a lot of good points.
    I would even suggest that the fear associated with letting kids screw up can be linked to the fear that the gospel isn’t valid. If you are afraid that your kids are going to abandon Jesus because they discover that “living in the world” is more fun, what kind of Jesus have you been teaching them about? A stale, sheltered, watercolored Jesus, or the one who is worth sacrifically living and dying for each day?

  6. Interesting thoughts. I wonder if it’s an ownership issue. With Rumspringa and with college, students are out on thier own deciding for themselves what they believe, if they believe, why they believe, etc.

    I wonder if all too often we package faith in such a way that it’s all too easy. I wonder if there are some ways we can work towards letting them experience the freedom to ask those questions in middle school and high school.

    Do we actually do them a disservice by leading too much? By taking away thier responsibility and commitment because we haven’t given it to them. i.e. withholding.

    I wonder how much the conversation on YMX about commitment factors into this as well.

  7. i think the under lying issue is: Do we trust our students? Do we trust that the parenting was sufficient? Did we prepare them enough so they can make it through the “devil’s playground”?
    I rather have a high school endulge in the things of the devil, namely porn, sex, drugs, drinking, swearing, “r” movies, vote republican, and have cyber sex in high school then in college. Why? Because in high school they have their intimate relationship (parents, youth pastor, adult volunteer, friends, teachers, coaches) there for them when they mess up. College is such an isolated-psuedo community.

    If we give them (the high school students) the freedom to roam (i love the song by Metallica “where ever I may roam”), then they (the students) will need to harness the consequences.

    Also the Amish are great parents. I would trust the parenting of an Amish parent rather then a parent who cares more about their work than about their kid. At least in the Amish community, we can be sure that the kid entering his/her Rumspringa had great parents.

    I completely agree with this statement: The church is largely unprepared to help kids walk through the stages of adolescent development faster.
    why? because we adults in the church who had a Rumspringa and are trying to teach their kids what not to do. (i am generalizing here) these adults are in denial. they want to talk about everything these kids these days are doing wrong, but rarely want to admit what they did at 16. i bet we would be surprised if we asked our church secretary what she/he was like at 21.

  8. Jeremy. I wonder if we really want to know the answer to those questions? Do we really want to know, as believers, if we’ve invested enough? Do we really want to give our kids any freedom to chose anything?

    I am who I am today because I made a rational decision to follow Christ. It was my decision and I owned it from day one. I am far from perfect… but over the years I have counseled dozens of kids who doubt their faith… and I am always left wondering… why is doubt such a bad thing?

    If it’s really true what are we afraid of?

  9. amen. i am who i am because of my multiple failures.

    if we want our kids to own their faith, then that means we give them space to figure it out. right? it leaves us as the youth worker in an uncomfortable place, but we can be uncertain and be certain that God through His Spirit can change kids lives, not us.

    one can see doubt one of two ways. 1. doubt is a slippery dangerous slope or 2. doubt is a demonstration of humility.

    i like the second option. i see doubting as a way of trusting, but others see doubting as a way of destruction.

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