The Outsiders: Teens Caught Between Freedom and Faith

Rare look behind the scenes: Teens make tough choices and face the consequences.

ByABC News
June 18, 2008, 2:43 PM

June 24, 2008 — -- Adolescence is typically a time of experimentation and testing boundaries, but if you're an Amish teenager, you're faced with a confounding choice between family or isolation, tradition or the modern world, faith or uncertainty.

For the past year, ABC News has had unprecedented access into the lives of a group of Amish adolescents at a crossroads, as they come of age and decide their future.

ABC News' Jay Schadler profiles four teenagers in central Ohio during the Amish rite of passage known as rumspringa that usually begins at age 16. This period of discovery, loosely translated in the Amish's Pennsylvania Dutch language as "running around," gives Amish teens the chance to explore the usually forbidden modern world before deciding whether they will forever commit themselves to the Amish way of life.

That way of life means living according to a strict set of religious rules, with no electricity, no cars, no music and no education beyond the 8th grade. The Amish wear traditional clothes and stay away from the outside, which they call the "English" world.

The Amish believe that only adults can make informed decisions about their own salvation. Baptized once as children and then as adults, the decision to join the church means they consciously take on the responsibility of following the "ordnung" -- unwritten rules -- that have sustained the culture for several centuries.

The challenge is that if the outside temptations prove more powerful than the world they have always known, the teens will spend the rest of their lives severed from their families. It's a high stakes choice between the enticement of freedom or returning to the faith and comfort of family and community life.

"If you don't grow up in the Amish then you don't know what it's like," said 18-year-old Danny.

ABC News was there as Danny ran away from his Amish family by jumping from the second floor of his father's farm house late one night. He negotiated his way through a series of first encounters with the modern world, including remote controls, text messaging and drunken nights, to find that he had escaped one set of rules for another he didn't understand. Danny's internal conflicts about the decision to be or not to be Amish landed him first in trouble, and then in jail.

"They think I'm lost," Danny said. "If I were to die, they think I can't go to heaven. I mean, I might not go to heaven, but not every Amish is going to heaven."