On Saturday morning at the Amish technology conference, an Amish speaker gave a short talk on the Ordnung, key to the discussion of the Amish relationship to technology.

I was presenting at the time so was not able to hear it in person. However I was able to acquire a copy of the talk, entitled “A reflection on the nature of Ordnung and why it changes”.  I’m sharing it here with the speaker’s blessing.

It should be noted that this is a personal exposition on the Ordnung, and was delivered by an Old Order Amishman from Lancaster County.

A reflection on the nature of Ordnung and why it changes

Amish life is governed by a set of oral guidelines for expected behavior and principles known as the Ordnung which is a German word meaning rules, regulations, and order.

By applying the principles of the New Testament to daily life, this unwritten code regulates the private, public, and ceremonial behavior of the community.

The Ordnung is the way that we decide what products and practices would weaken morality and meaningful communal life and which would strengthen it.

It is a blueprint of collective wisdom that governs what is considered to be moral for the individual and necessary for the survival of the community.

And although I prefer the phrase deliberate marginality, separation from the world is a key principle of the Amish way of life.  The world along with the dark side of human nature which resides within every human being is perceived to be corrupted by vanity and vice, greed, violence and lust.  That said there are some Amish who are more worldly than the people of the world.

Therefore, the necessity of being different from the outside culture guides a lot of thinking and decision-making. This along with ideas of taking up cross and following Jesus being a light to the world and the salt of the earth, plus expecting to suffer for these efforts, are the impetus for decision-making.

In the ever-changing landscape of modern life, it often becomes a problem in deciding what modern innovations strengthen the community and which weaken it.  Or, if using a new labor-saving technology would enrich the Amish lifestyle or corrupt it.

One of the things the Amish still do while trying to decide is assume that faith, tradition, family, church and community are often sources of wisdom more than agents of oppression. The degree to which this is assumed is in my humble opinion one of the distinctives of our culture. Faith, tradition and church are most of the time not seen as impositions on our freedoms but rather as expressions of our social and communal nature.

Charles Colsom talks about shalom, the Hebrew word for peace. He refers to shalom as peace in a positive sense, with much broader connotations than simply the absence of hostilities. He means it is a state of well-being.

He captures this very well when he says that, when people live together according to God’s moral order—in shalom—there is civility and harmony.

He continues that we are inherently communal beings. Indeed we are created in the image of the One who in his very essence is a community of being—that is the Trinity.

Rick Warren talks about Worship not being for our benefit but a service to the Creator. So it is in a very real sense with Ordnung. It really isn’t for our benefit, rather it is an act of service to the Creator.

In Ephesians it says it should be our goal to present the church to Christ as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.

The ideals and realities

Those are all some really noble ideals, but do they reflect reality? Amish people like humans everywhere have good sides and dark sides to their natures. The line between good and evil runs right through the middle of their hearts the same as everyone else’s heart.

At times we forget, rebel, question and we challenge and we definitely think critically. We become pragmatic, that is, we do whatever works. We compromise in order to keep the peace. And at times we innovate and get away with whatever we can.

I will say though that in my opinion that questioning and challenging is often a matter of degree and that in our Old Order culture it tends not to be as institutionalized as in mainstream American culture. In other words these actions are not openly encouraged by cultural authority as inherently beneficial. Nonetheless these actions certainly do occur in our culture.

The reality is simply this. Circumstances change and quite often changes are beyond our total control. Things happen and changes occur around us whether we desire them or not.

The prime example of this is the occupational shift from farming to business, or as Kraybill and Nolt say from plows to profits. In the past all Amish farmed whether they were farmers or not. The family farm up until the 1970s usually was rather profitable for the majority of Amish. The ideal was to buy a farm for each of your sons. At the very least the farm was a great place to raise a family. In the 1970s the squeeze of change began. The cost of farms rose very rapidly, doubling and tripling and more in less than 15 years. Also the Amish population growth is robust. So the consequence is not enough farms for all the sons.

The ideal used to be to buy a farm for all you sons. Now you are lucky if you can pay for your own in your lifetime. You simply can’t buy a Lancaster farm and pay for it farming.

The reality remains that you must make a living. You will need to have means to support a family. Families must be fed and have clothes to wear and a roof over the place called home.

So the Amish responded in a number of ways. One very key thing to remember is that instigators of change were individuals reacting in a practical need-driven fashion. The church basically served as a governor or regulator of change.

One of the responses was to diversify in farming. Formerly most Amish were dairy farmers with herds of 20-30 cows. Growing vegetables and flowers became more common. The primary response was to take up a construction-related trade or to start a small business. Metalworking, woodworking and retail shops are examples.

Also to a lesser degree and with less approval another option was to work in local non-Amish manufacturing plants. The community consensus is that working with the family is preferable to working in alien environments far removed from a family-oriented context. Also the rise of Amish-owned businesses provided an opportunity for employment for those not inclined to owning a business. This provides work in a more familiar ethnic context for young and old.

So all these occupational changes do bring about change. The idea of using only only horse-drawn equipment on steel wheels simply doesn’t reflect these new needs. How do you keep the good things of old and encourage healthy adaptation of the new? It is of importance to a typical Amish person to leave a worthwhile legacy for the next generation. And as a marginal culture, that is, one who deliberately lives on the sidelines, it is logical that we could cling to the familiar and be wary of being swept along with the winds of change to a place we would not have thought of coming to. In other words our culture has angst about the proverbial slippery slope and the point of no return. Nonetheless the reality of the decreased economic agricultural opportunities for everyone in our culture forces us to adjust.

So we continuously have this dynamic tension between the push of change and the pull of tradition.

Description of change process

So exactly how does change occur? Well there is no exact way. As one Amish person said to some academic—Kraybill I think—change just kind of happens. And in fact the process of change is an informal grassroots from-the-bottom-up type of thing. More often it doesn’t involve dictates from the top. In other words there is really no authoritative council that meets somewhere on a regular basis with the expressed purpose to decide on proscriptions and prescriptions—Do’s and Don’ts.

There are however semi-annual ministers’ meetings where along with religious sermons, Ordnung issues are discussed. Changes seldom receive explicit or formal sanction. It is more likely that change slides in incrementally—a little at a time—and often by default.

It is worth noting that more often the emphasis from the ministry is to keep what we have, to resist or slow change. Thus the process of change could be described as an informal process of practical innovation and subtle negotiation. It is also worth noting that the process of change itself is changing. It is more complicated and more informal and more the result of pressure form the grassroots laity than before.