rumspringa.jpgRUMSPRINGA: TO BE OR NOT TO BE AMISH, by tom shachtman

I can’t remember how I heard about this book. I think it might have been one of those “amazon suggests” things. But, however I heard about it, I was intrigued enough to buy it and read it!

A big of backstory: rumspringa is the old older amish practice of allowing their older teenagers (from 16 years-old, for 2 to 5 years) to experience the world. Many (not all) of the kids on rumspringa, party like crazy, experimenting with alchohol, tobacco, drugs and sex (along with motorized vehicles, cell phones, non-amish clothing, pop music, and all the other things normal teenagers experience). At the end of their rumspringa, the young adults are expected to choose whether or not they will be baptized into the church and become fully amish (theoretically, and normally, for the rest of their lives).

It’s a wild and surprising practice, born out of a staunch Anabaptist belief that the Christian life is one that each individual must choose, completely on his or her own. In other words, amish children are not really considered part of the church, because they are not considered old enough to make their own conscious choice. The idea behind rumspringa, then, is that these post-teenagers have to know what their choosing between. If they have been forced to live the sheltered amish life until the day of their baptism, they won’t really be making an informed decision.

But here’s the other wild and surprising thing about rumspringa: 80 – 90% of the teenagers return to the church, get baptized, give up their partying ways, and become fully-functioning members of the church. That’s a WAY higher percentage than any other segment of the church, protestant or catholic. Sure, there are many other reasons that bolster this percentage (the familiarity of what they know, the threat of not going to heaven, the threat of being cut off from their families). But it’s still a staggering percentage.

Really, the whole amish thing, and the sociology and psychology of rumspringa, is just a context, or a backdrop, for looking at adolescent issues in general. The kids in this book (and it’s LOADED with stories of real kids and their families) are like an interesting test case of adolescent issues. Their uniform pre-adolescent experience makes them a unique opportunity to look at adolescent issues (like experimentation, identity, belonging, affinity, autonomy) with a select group who haven’t been “polluted” by all the cultural bombardment that any other group of teens in American would have had. Of course, this group bring their own, mostly different issues to the adolescent table.

This is an interesting read for anyone – at least in a voyeuristic way. But for parents of teenagers and youth workers, I highly recommend this book. And if I were teaching youth ministry at a college or grad school level, I would totally adopt this book for a course on youth culture, or adolescent issues, or adolescent development.


  1. Hey – that’s the same picture as the cover of the DVD documentary The Devil’s Playground on the same subject. If you get a chance to check it out, you should rent it. Very cool.

  2. Even with a thorough knowledge of the background of rumspringa it is a really surprising & shocking part of the Amish culture.

    Last year I had the chance to (as did MANY others) to be part of a work week down on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The location where we stayed was also housing between 40-50 Amish each week, about half of which were teenagers. These kids were the most hard working, friendly, and playful kids I have ever been around!

  3. I laughed when I found out that was the next county over…
    I may just have to buy it- the point you brought up about the percent that return to the church begs much more thought :)

  4. it is an interesting issue mark. i have many amish cousins and aunts and uncles. while their sect of amish does not practice rumspringa, there are others that do. i could tell you stories that would or would not surprise you. its not a good logic. maybe good results (80 – 90%), but bad practice.

  5. Rumspringa is an interesting and potentially touchy subject. I like the point that Donald Kraybill makes in one of his books, when he subtly questions just how ‘free’ the Amish choice to join really is, having been brought up in the culture and being fairly ill-equipped to excel in the outside world(mainly I mean in the education department–though hundreds of highly successful Amish entrepreneurs show you that you don’t need an MBA to do well at business, at least).

    That said I am a huge ‘Amish supporter’ and I have nothing against the values the Amish propagate among themselves. I wish more of ‘us’ would be receptive to ideas the Amish promote and hold dear. I have had the good fortune to know quite a number of Amish in different areas of the country. One point I try to make on my blog is that despite the popular portrayal they are no more saintly or sinful than any one of us, they have their weaknesses as well and there can be bad apples in the bunch.

    But I always wonder if Amish are more content, have a greater sense of well-being, on the whole, than the average non-Amish Joe. A few studies have been done showing lower depression and suicide rates among the Amish, and that is one way to look at it.

    Probably my favorite way to see the issue is through a quote by Victor Stoltzfus that goes: ‘the Amish dream is attainable for a much higher proportion of its dreamers than the American dream’.

    Having a large family in good standing with the church, living within a simple set of rules, and being a good example to your community are ideals that are a lot more reachable than, say, getting a place in the ‘right’ zip code, driving a foreign luxury car, or achieving the next in a seemingly endless series of promotions as you climb yet another rung on the career ladder.

    I feel there is a lot we can take from the Amish example so long as we don’t idolize the people that provide it.

    Erik Wesner/Amish America

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