"The majority of them do come back after rumspringa. Maybe a bit marred, but they come back."
SHIPSHEWANA, Ind. -- A brown-haired, 15-year-old girl paces, gossips and giggles on a cell phone. She switches deftly from English to a German dialect, as she asks about friends, guys and Saturday night parties. After the call, Sarah Lambright jumps into her horse-drawn buggy and rides home.
During a recent visit to Shipshewana, a Y-Press team discovered stark differences between how Amish teenagers live today compared to about 10 years ago. Shipshewana is in LaGrange County, which has the largest number of Hoosier Amish in the state -- 13,798, according to a 2006 Census estimate. This makes it the third-largest Amish community in the nation, according to Chamber of Commerce studies.
The Amish are supposed to lead a simple life, beginning work at age 14 after eight years of education. Their homes don't use electricity, and they don't drive cars.
"If we are true Amish or Christian, we try to be content with what little we've got and try to live the simplest life," says a bearded Gary Weaver, 26, dressed in black overalls and a straw hat.
Yet the surge of technology has had a startling effect on Amish people, especially the youth. In part, that's because most Amish men now work in businesses -- primarily at recreational vehicle factories for those living in LaGrange County -- instead of farming.
"Sixty years ago, 80 percent of our people were farmers," says Lewis Hochstetler, 72, an elder in the Amish community. "Today it's at 31 percent."
Those in business often use cell phones so they can keep track of clients' work schedules.
"If you have a carpenter crew or mason crew or a business, you have to have a phone. . . . (The Amish) don't want you being hooked up to the (landline phone) grid, which is how everyone else is," says Joseph Yoder. He is the director of Menno-Hof, a nonprofit information center that teaches visitors about the faith and life of Amish and Mennonites.
Rules like these aren't written down. "They're oral, they know them. It's a thing of integrity and honesty," says Yoder.
Amish youth are forbidden to use cell phones until the age of 16. So why was Sarah using a cell phone?
"Oh, this is not actually my cell phone. It's my sister's. But, I mean, I can use it," she says, standing outside her job at the Wana Cup Restaurant.
Sarah's two sisters are experiencing "rumspringa," which means "running around" in Pennsylvania Dutch.
Beginning at age 16, Amish teens are allowed to "explore the world," according to Joe Wittmer, an Amish scholar and formerly Amish himself, who is now retired in Florida. "It's a time when your parents tend to look the other way. You can experiment."
In Amish society, a person isn't officially Amish until after baptism. "Baptism is a tremendous rite of passage," Wittmer says.
The Amish believe people need to decide for themselves whether to be baptized and join the community. Rumspringa allows them to experiment with what they call the "English" world before they make a decision.
Cell phones and increasing contact with the outside world have altered how the Amish live.
"The trailer factory changed our lifestyle quite a bit. We're buying more of our stuff. We don't raise everything like we used to," says Weaver, baptized at 19. Those changes have created a generation gap in the Amish community that is similar to the one many other American families experience.
"Increasingly, Amish kids have jobs in factories, stores and restaurants. They have ample spending money," says Hochstetler.
The elders cite rumspringa as increasingly dangerous to the Amish culture because of out-of-control parties that include alcohol, drugs and sex. Drunken driving is a concern, too, because many Amish, especially young men, get cars during rumspringa.
"The Devil's Playground," a documentary, focuses mostly on Faron Yoder, the son of an Amish minister in Shipshewana. Faron is a young man who went too wild during rumspringa, getting addicted to drugs, specifically methamphetamines, struggling unsuccessfully to get clean so he could rejoin the Amish community. He is now incarcerated for burglary.
Joseph Yoder (no relation to Faron) says the young man is one of the brightest people he's ever met and would have done well in college. Instead, Faron's addictions and crimes have created great heartache for his family.
Yet the documentary provides a service -- it's opened the eyes of Amish parents, Joseph Yoder says.
"They started realizing what's going on. They couldn't deny the film 'cause it was their own kids."
When Sarah talks about rumspringa, she says that teenagers use different words among themselves to describe the type of running around that they want to do. The slang for a radical rumspringa is "Topeka," referring to the town 11 miles south of Shipshewana, which is also Faron's hometown.
The majority of Amish teenagers don't go to wild parties, writes Tom Shachtman in his 2006 book, "Rumspringa: To Be or Not to Be Amish." For most, rumspringa is simply playing a lot of baseball and attending sings -- a social gathering -- with other Amish young men and women.
While Shachtman observed plenty of wild teen Amish parties firsthand in his research, he says rumspringa helps young people figure out their future.
"(Rumspringa) gives (youth) a little space, so they'll be with people their own age and find a partner."
Weaver remembers his rumspringa with some regret: "I was at a lot of parties. . . . But I'm not really proud of it anymore. I did a lot of alcohol. Never did drugs, glad I never did."
Sarah looks forward to a few years of parties but can't imagine staying in rumspringa forever.
"I'll just go out and have fun. I plan on like dressing up and going English till maybe like 19 or something."
Sarah is like most Amish young people. According to research by Thomas J. Meyers, a Goshen College sociology professor, more than 80 percent of Amish youth eventually become church members.
The reason Weaver came back was the simplicity of the Amish culture. Returning from rumspringa made him more devout, he says.
Joseph Yoder, who was Amish until age 10, recognizes the attraction.
"It's a powerful pull," he says. "There's some really good teaching for small kids; they've been taught in the Amish schools; they've been taught in the home and going to church, they know what's right, and the majority of them do come back after rumspringa. Maybe a bit marred, but they come back."
REPORTER: Utah Davis-Kinsey, 13.