How active are Amish in mission work?
As touched on in “So you want to join the Amish“, Amish have traditionally looked more inward than outward, focusing spiritual energies on their own rather than seeking converts. But that doesn’t mean they shun all mission-minded outreach.
There has been historical interest in mission work within the Amish. The New Order Amish movement grew, in part, out of an interest among Amish in mission activities beginning in the years after World War II.
Today, Amish involvement with missions varies. In An Amish Paradox, Charles Hurst and David McConnell describe how not only New Order but also Old Order Amish have been open to mission work. However Amish have generally been more active in relief and charity work rather than trying to actively gain converts.
Some work in missions that help both domestically and internationally. Christian Aid Ministries (CAM), headquartered in Berlin, Ohio, is one example. CAM is involved with overseas relief projects as well as domestic disaster cleanup. To date, CAM has distributed $1.3 billion of donated goods across the planet (see An Amish Paradox, p.64).
Involvement with CAM may take place right at home, with Amish giving time and resources. Amish volunteers might spend an afternoon helping can meat to be sent overseas, for example.
In Holmes County, Ohio, these are primarily New Order and Old Order Amish. As Hurst and McConnell note, involvement by the more conservative Andy Weaver and Swartzentruber Amish is much more limited (Paradox pp. 65-6).
Iron Curtain Ministries is a relief organization founded during communism by the New Order to assist in Eastern Europe. Despite the fall of the Iron Curtain, interest in the region remains. Amish aid continues to parts of Eastern Europe today as well as to harder-hit places such as Haiti.
It’s not hard to find Amish, particularly youth, who have helped clean up after disasters such as hurricanes and tornado strikes. A friend’s son just returned from a couple weeks in Mississippi helping with the ongoing Gulf Coast rebuilding process.
In some cases, Amish may even travel internationally. A New Order adolescent spent time doing work in Southeast Asia, for example. It’s not only limited to the youth, however, with groups such as Illinois’ Amish Disaster Service sending adult volunteers, hammers in hand, to places needing help.
In comparison to relief work, proselytization is more limited. Unlike most Amish, New Order Amish print pamphlets outlining their beliefs, and even give them out to non-Amish (I’ve received a few over the years). New Order Amish will also deliver parts of church services in English when visitors are present.
Despite these signs of openness, it would still be a long stretch to say the New Order Amish are “active” in seeking converts in anywhere near the same sense that some evangelical Christian groups are.
Hurst and McConnell note that some Amish leaders cleverly characterize their mission involvement as “light that makes no noise”. The researchers call it a “metaphor for a nonintrusive approach that focuses on setting an example and providing relief services without seeking to reconstruct the indigenous church” (Paradox p. 67).
Despite the potential benefits of shining a “noiseless light”, some Amish remain wary of mission work. As G.C. Waldrep observes, some Amish look at the New Order Amish missionary enthusiasm with a skeptical eye.
Part of this has to do with lower retention rates. Hurst and McConnell found only 60% retention among New Orders, vs. 86% for mainstream Old Order Amish. Waldrep notes that “The problem of “keeping the young people” has been paramount in recent New Order self-criticism.” (see “The New Order Amish and Para-Amish Groups”, MQR Jul 2008 p. 408).
Some see the mission orientation of the New Order as part of the problem. Even the New Order, Waldrep points out, have become more cautious towards missions. He quotes a New Order publication: “Many people who ambitiously promote mission programs are creating a mission field at home. Their own children and grandchildren go astray.” (“Para-Amish” p. 407).
The question Amish face here is a common one for many churches–to what degree should we focus spiritual efforts “at home” vs. “abroad”?
Reflecting the diversity in their society, Amish have reached different conclusions in answer to that question.