Shunned by Amish, pastor now pointing them to the Gospel
POLLOCK, Mo. (BP) -- Sam Burkholder was a member of the Old Order Amish Church when he noticed that some of his Christian relatives were different.
"I saw they had a peace and joy that the Amish didn't have," Burkholder said. "I knew they had something we were missing."
He found that something, the Holy Spirit, on the way to becoming an evangelical Christian and now a bivocational Baptist pastor.
Burkholder, 66, serves as a pastor in northern Missouri at Fairview Baptist Church near Pollock and operates a lawnmower repair business in Kirksville.
He and his wife Barbara were shunned by the Amish in 1998 after they made their professions of faith.
Shunning is an Amish practice in which those who leave the church are considered apostates, with Amish church members forbidden by their church to have any social contact with those being shunned. Four of the Burkholders' eight children and their families are not supposed to have any contact with him. Four of them have accepted Christ and are no longer Amish.
Both Sam and Barbara grew up in large families in Amish farming communities, making a living doing farm work and working on tractors. Ironic as it seems, Sam learned to work on tractors in the evening after the farm work was complete, using an Amish (kerosene) lantern for light. Tractors are used in some Amish communities but only for belt power, not to pull machinery.
"Different communities have rules and regulations on what the Amish can and cannot do," Burkholder said of a complex set of rules that often are confusing and contradictory.
"The bishops always warn you not to believe anything else but what they say," Burkholder said.
As a result, the Amish communities become somewhat of a theocracy, with the church preachers and the bishop making most of the decisions on what is acceptable in the community and what is not. Anything not approved by the church elders is considered sinful. A hodgepodge of rules and regulations ("ordnung" in German) dictate whether a particular sect will use telephones, have power equipment on their farms or what color of clothing the members will wear.
Almost all Amish dress "plain," meaning they make their own clothing. Women wear a bonnet. They pin their clothing together instead of using buttons or zippers. Men wear suspenders. Men also do not shave their beards, but they do not have mustaches.
"I had a cousin say to me at a funeral, 'I am counting on my Amish clothing to get me into heaven,'" Burkholder said.
Burkholder's spiritual search started when a brother-in-law visited their home. He listened to his Christian testimony and realized all he had been taught about God was not based on Scripture, but on the traditions of the church. Amish religious leaders told him what to think and believe and threatened punishment if he thought differently. They keep order by enforcing rules to read the Bible only in German. Many Amish speak "Pennsylvania Dutch" (a dialect), but do not understand much German grammar, so they trust the bishops to interpret the Scriptures.
Burkholder has a burden to help Amish people discover the truth of the Gospel and be saved.
"It is a great mission field that has not been pursued," he said.
"It is very hard to penetrate the Amish culture. You must first gain their confidence. The wrong thing to say is that they are wrong. My suggestion is to engage them in conversation and ask questions. Ask them, 'What does it take to get to heaven?'"
He added, "Be sure to answer with what you know the Bible teaches about going to heaven."
The Amish tend to believe their lifestyle and their community is the key to their salvation, Burkholder said, noting that they are depending on a "works-based" theology that is contradicted by Scripture ("... not of works lest any man should boast" Ephesians 2:9).
After the Burkholders left the Amish, they established the ministry Rays of Hope based in Kirksville where they live. Rays of Hope is a speaking and teaching ministry to support the Burkholders as they minister to the Amish, especially those curious about the Gospel but conflicted because of their Amish heritage. He welcomes calls and letters so he may dialogue.
The website is www.raysofhopeonline.org. Contact Burkholder by mail at 811 Benton Way, Kirksville, MO 63501 or by phone at 660-341-3321. He receives calls from Amish seekers on a regular basis and he often drives to their communities to visit and have Bible study.
While witnessing to the Amish can be difficult, Burkholder said it is not impossible.
"Many are searching for the truth and unfortunately they are not finding answers in their church and communities," he said.
Richard Nations is a contributing writer for The Pathway (mbcpathway.com), newsjournal of the Missouri Baptist Convention, where this article first appeared.