The Amish are a special cultural group in America (though there are communities in other countries too). They are a branch of a larger historical group known as the Anabaptists originally from Switzerland and France who seperated from the main branch of the Christian church during the reformation in the 1500s. The Anabaptists immigrated to America to find religious freedom in the 1700s and 1800s from various places in Europe where they had scattered due to war and persecution.
The Anabaptists split from the larger church due to religious differences regarding infant baptism. The Amish split off again from the Anabaptists because they wanted more control over the practice of shunning as a punishment, even to go as far as encouraging spouses to shun one another and parents to shun their grown children for disobedience to the group rules. This drew a clear distinction in the followers. They split into two separate groups called the Amish Mennonites (or just called Amish) and Mennonites. The Amish took the practice of shunning to the extreme and though there are similarities in the two religions, the Amish continued to make strict rules year after year for their members to keep them submissive, and remove them from main stream society. Though there are similarities, the Amish are a very different group from their origional heritage as Anabaptists.
Once immigrating to America, the Amish continued to split many times into numerous smaller cultural groups (perhaps as many as 40 different distinct religious groups) that live all over America. The differences in various Amish groups may be difficult to distinguish from other Amish groups to outsiders who see all the Amish and other plain clothes religions as the same. But there are various distinct groups of Amish, Old Order, New Order, etc. and they keep within their own cultural group and usually don't cross over into the other Amish groups.
Many of the specific differences in Amish groups pertain to the group rules for behavior and possesions, and the amount of personal freedoms they allow their members, such as the kind of buggy they are allowed to drive, the brightness or darkness colors of their clothing, their hat styles, use of cell phones and technology, etc.
Old Order Amish Of East Central Indiana
My experience comes from working with the Old Order Amish of east central Indiana. A community of Old Order Amish moved into Wayne County, Indiana area around the early 1990s seeking cheap farm ground and relocating part of their community from Pennsylvania. Farmland in PA was very expensive and cost too much for many families living there to expand. As a family has more children, and the community grows, they expand and form into small clusters or districts. Each district has its own church meetings and schools. The number of people in the church district is controlled and when it reaches its maximum number they branch off and set up a new church district within a small geographical location.
Many church districts in central Indiana are limited to about 200 +/- people (about 20 to 30 families) who live within a few miles of each other. Part of the reason for this small geographic grouping, is the church meets in each other's homes every other Sunday, they must drive their horse and buggy to the meetings (though they are allowed to hire drivers to take them everywhere they want to go any other day, just not church on Sunday), and it becomes difficult to fit more people into these house settings the larger the group becomes. Most church meetings are held in the home, but some are held in a barn. Each family in the community takes turns hosting the church service usally twice a year. The community owns a wagon filled with church benches and tables and hynmals. This wagon is moved from home to home for church service as needed. For the sevice, men sit on one side of the room and women sit on the opposite side of the room. They do not sit together. The Amish try to remodel or build homes that have an open floor plan so that several rooms flow together to hold large groups. But it in many smaller homes that don't have a large open space inside, the men are seated in one room and women are seated in another room and the minister stands between the rooms so both can see him as he reads from the scriptures. Each church district has two or three ministers that oversee the meetings, and the larger community as a whole has one Bishop and a few deacons that oversee the ministers and the larger community as a whole. Ultimately, the Bishop holds the power over the church and school districts, and the people in his community. A community might have several thousand members.
Amish school in Wayne County, Indiana
The number of kids in each school, within each local church district is also controlled. Typically approximately 25 +/- students and one teacher meet in the schoolhouse for lessons. The teacher is an unmarried young woman usually from the same community. If there are students with developmental delays there is also usually a teaching assistant or second teacher. She must also be unmarried and may be very young having just finished school herself. Sometimes the second teacher is only there part time. Grades 1 through 8 meet daily together and share the same school room from approximately September through mid April. Amish children are not allowed to attend school past the eigth grade. The school is closed from mid April through early September so that the kids and teacher are free to help with their family's garden and farm chores. School starts here at labor day in September, though I don't remember the exact day in April that it lets out, but it seems like it is somewhere in the middle of April.
The Old Order Amish families want to help establish and encourage their grown children to earn a living farming, and some of the younger men also do carpentry or help with their parent's business, until they can afford a farm. Having carpentry skills in addition to farming is very valuable. Usually men can earn a lot more money as a carpenter than as a young struggling farmer who often goes deep into debt to finance a farm and equipment. Depending on the kind of farm they set up, many young farmers may not be able to earn enough money to repay the debts. Farms such as dairies have income year around, but their expenses are greater in the winter when fresh grass is not available. Farms such as produce have a short growing and harvest season and often the income from such a farm is not enough to pay for a farm. Many Amish must be "bailed out" of bankruptcy by their family and the Amish church because they quickly get into a situation of being over their head in debt as farming and weather etc, can be unpredictable with ups and downs. But eventually, farming takes precedence and they are able to earn enough to care for the needs of their family.
Some of the farms also have other business located on them, and these farms tend to be more financially stable and weather the storms of the ups and downs of farming much better. Some of these other businesses on the farms might be greenhouses and garden supplies, farm equipment supplies and seed, hardware, livestock feed, flour and dry goods, bakeries (depending on the rules of the county), furniture, sewing goods and materials, butchering, etc. There are also farmers who specialize in building Amish homes and are knowledgeable in all aspects of house building (except electrical wiring), and many younger non married Amish men will work on their crews and learn from them until they settle down with a farm of their own. Sometimes Amish women will take on babysitting or sewing to earn some extra money, and almost always the youth are encouraged to work just as hard as they adults and earn money. All money the youth earn is turned over to their parents.
But if no ground is available for farming, then many of the younger generation must buy small lots of land, perhaps only one or two acres if they can find it and afford it. They can't raise enough extra food on one acre to make a living or hardly to even house their horse and a few animals. Many have to go into other lines of work that take them away from the farm, including working in factories, stores, shops, etc. and this puts them out into the world more, and could potentially be the outside influence that leads the people away from the Old Order Amish life and rules for living. Farm ground, and becoming a farmer, is highly regarded in this cultural group as it helps continue the future of the Old Order Amish community.
Christian? Do they follow the teachings of Jesus?
Why would the Amish need a missionary? Aren't they Christian? Well the answer is yes, and no. The Amish do not believe in salvation through Jesus Christ. They believe he is the son of God, but they believe their salvation is based on the merit of the works. Are they good enough? Did they follow the rules well enough? Were they a good person in this life? They ultimately don't know if they are ever saved, but they try to earn salvation. They are labeled and lumped into the category of Christian faiths, but they miss the very esscence of what a follower of Jesus really means and they are not truely free in their way of life.
The Amish church holds their members in emotional, spiritual, relational, and financial bondage. They observe Christian holidays, and speak of faith and hold many christian behaviors in high esteem such as service, fellowship, humility, modesty, subservient, etc, they first and foremost serve the rules and traditions of the Amish church first, and God second. Jesus said "Your traditions nullify the power of God in your life." If you make your traditions and rules your god, then you have basically created an idol to worship, and left the true power of God out of your life.
They call themselves new testament Christians, but they only follow part of the scriptures that perpetuate their lifestyle. They are weighted down with a huge book of rules they absolutely must follow called the Ordnung. Each Amish group has their own rule book. Though some do read the bible on their own, many do not read their bible, or understand it as it is written in an ancient language that is not spoken anymore. Some have reached outside of their community and purchased bibles in English but must keep them out of sight. Reading a bible written in easy to understand English is how many have found the truth about the Christian faith, Jesus, and the inconsistencies in the Amish church.
The Amish are baptized in allegience to the Amish church when they are around 20 +/- and ready to settle down and get married. They are not allowed to follow the bible verses that don't support the Amish way of life. They are not allowed to pray openly or out loud for each other. They are not baptized as a Christian being baptized into the Father, The Son, and the Holy Spirit. They are not allowed to be baptized for the remission of their sins and belief in Jesus as their savior or submersed in water to be born again. They actually get into very big trouble if they get baptized this way. Their big book of rules is essentially their code they live by, and it is very different than scriptures. Salvation through Jesus Christ is freely given, not a reward for righteous living.
Bishops from different states get together once or twice a year to go over the rules and reinforce them and write new ones if needed to keep their people under control. Rules, church news, births, deaths, marriages, etc from the various districts are sent out monthly and this helps to keep the various communities united and updated on what is going on.
The Amish hold church meetings every other Sunday in each others homes. On their off Sunday, they generally visit friends or family. However, they are not allowed to discuss the bible with each other. They are not allowed to attend bible study in each other's homes. They are not allowed to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit in their life, instead they must choose to obey the Amish church rules even when it contradicts with their concience or their faith in God.
The Amish are not allowed to ask questions about why the church follows some of the bible, but not all of it. The Amish church has made strict rules about this and if any member breaks these rules, they are called before the church too choose to repent in front of their members, or choose to be shunned from the community forever. If they are shunned they are forced to leave their family and way of life and not allowed to fellowship, eat together, or participate in Amish cultural life like the celebrations of weddings, births, birthdays, funnerals, holidays, etc. This is so devestating and instills such fear in most Amish people, that they live in total emotional, physical, mental, spiritual bondage.
The Old Order Amish see God as punitive and that they will be punished and loose their opportunity for salvation if they break a rule. They believe they are the only group of Christians who will make it to heaven and do not believe non Amish Christians are worthy of heaven. They believe all of the rest of the world, including other Christians are of the devil or the devil's children, and live in the devil's playground. They believe if they are shunned from their group, God will not forgive them, and they will belong to the devil and will go to hell when they die.
If the Amish learn about having a relationship with Jesus, and that Jesus sets them free from all condemnation with the heavenly Father, whether through their own bible study, or from hearing about it through a Christian (other secret Amish believer, Ex Amish, or Englisher (anyone not Amish), and they accept Jesus as their savior, and are baptized, they would have to keep it totally secret to remain in the church, because if what they have experienced would be made public, then they would be kicked out of the church. Many who have accepted Jesus as their savior and been baptized live in secret, chosing to remain within their group, but living secretly as a true believer and follower of Jesus. Many others have chosen to leave the church because it contradicts the scriptures and they cannot share their faith in Jesus openly. But many more have been shunned and excommunicated against their will because of the Amish church finding out that these individuals are acting on the truth of the scriptures. There are so many who have been shunned and excommunicated for this that they now have large thriving communities of excommunicated Amish or Ex-Amish who want to continue to live in a close community of other belivers and carry on with the positive qualities they were raised with, yet worship God and discuss the bible openly. There are also many Ex-Amish who do not join other ousted Amish, or join a church, and choose to remain alone and quietly blend into American society and leave behind their Amish way of life.
The Amish poeple need missionaries who care, who are sensitive to their cultural beliefs and traditions, but are willing to speak openly of biblical truth and love them. They don't need fake hypocrytical Christians that fill the pews on Sunday mornings at various churches across the nation. They also don't need folks who put them on a pedastal or have some false romantic notion about the Amish way of life. Truth is the Amish way of life has many great qualities, but no matter how great, it won't get them into heaven. They need genuine followers of Jesus Christ as a support in their life. It is such a shock to them when they are shunned as their whole life has been about community, and now they are without it. They need a loving Christian community and individuals surrounding and supporting them through adjusting to their new life. I have known many who went through being shunned, and it is a difficult process and transition to create a new life for themself if they are alone and don't have people they can trust to support them.
Perhaps you will someday meet an Amish person who is hungry to share in a friendship, and hungry to learn about biblical truth. I hope you will see them as a person with real human needs instead of a novelty or tourist attraction.
Or perhaps you might be interested in supporting a ministry or missionaries who help the Amish to hear about the saving message of Jesus, and help excomunicated Amish rebuild their lives. If so, you might be interested in supporting or learning from a ministry called Mission to Amish People or MAP. They are hosting an upcoming Amish Awareness conference April 10th and 11th.
You might also be interested in Light Of Hope Ministries and Blessings Of Hope who also have huge outreach ministries to the Amish, and are Amish themselves, but also have outreaches to churches, shelters, food pantries, and individual folks from all walks of life all over the country. They travel nationwide holding trainings and church services, and also travel world wide sharing their faith in Jesus.
Though they were shunned by the Old Order Amish church here in central Indiana, they have gone on to create a thriving Christian community of belivers in Jesus and live fullfilling lives helping set others free in whatever bondage they may be experiencing: physical, mental, financial, cultural, spiritual, etc. They moved back to PA, and have maintained their cultural identity as Amish and continue to dress and keep many of the traditions they were raised with. However, they serve Jesus first, and are led by the Holy Spirit, and no man made tradition or church stands in the way of their walk with the Lord. I am blessed to have been involved with several members of this large extended family when they lived in Indiana, and have watched their growth and the freedom and power they have found in Jesus. They truly are servants of the Lord, living as true "New Testiment Christians" not leaving anything out of the scriptures, and they are truly the hands and feet of Jesus.