The church service reflects values key to Amish Christianity
Home worship is one aspect of Amish faith that sets them apart from other Christian denominations. If you ask an Amishman where their church is, he may give you a puzzled look, point to his shop, or explain that the Amish church is not found in a building, but in a body of people.
Basic facts about Amish church:
- Amish church takes place at Amish homes-Amish use basements, shops, and barns to hold service, reflecting both practicality and an emphasis on the body of believers as the true church
- Amish services last a long time-three hours is the typical length of Amish church
- Singing is an important part of Amish church-Singing from the Ausbund hymnbook opens and closes the Amish service
- Amish services are simple-Amish church relies on few rituals, and consists of song, prayer and preaching
- Preaching is a key part of Amish church-Amish ministers preach two sermons, one shorter (approx. 20 min) and one longer (approx. 1 hr)
- Males lead the Amish church-Amish do not ordain women, though women may nominate and vote for candidates to the Amish ministry
Why do Amish hold church at home?
Early Anabaptists, fearing persecution from the State authorities, were forced to meet in secret, in forests and in caves. Churches of the State Catholic church were seen as symbols of excess and worldliness. Anabaptists at the time—as well as Amish today—did not see much practical value in constructing a church building to be used only occasionally. The informal nature of church meetings continued as persecution died down and the Anabaptists were able to worship more openly.
Amish also take a literal Biblical view of church not as a physical building, but as the people that comprise it. Holding church service in a variety of changing venues emphasises the importance of the body of believers as the church and diminishes the importance of the structure itself.
Preparing for church
Amish church occurs every two weeks, rotating among members of a given church district. An Amish family will prepare well ahead of time for church, cleaning the home and getting together food for the after-church meal. Visiting and viewing a member’s home for church is also an informal means of helping to uphold church standards. Amish housewives in particular will take pains to present a tidy home. A large enclosed wagon, known as a church wagon, will bring the benches and song books the Amish use to its latest destination.
On the day of church, the man of the house or his sons serve as hostlers, helping guests stable and water their horses. Men will meet typically in the barn, and go around the line shaking hands. Men will chat while waiting for others to arrive. In some districts all male church members will walk down the line of men in order to exchange the holy kiss. In others only the ministers will exchange this Biblical greeting (mentioned in Scriptural passages such as I Peter 5:14 and I Corinthians 16:20). Women meet separately in the home.
A little before 9 am, men will begin filing into the structure where church will be held, commonly a basement, shop, room of the home, or sometimes barn (particularly in more conservative affiliations). Women are already seated when men begin to enter. Ministers and older men enter first, followed by younger married men, and finally, unbaptized youth and boys. Men sit on one side of the room and women on the other, facing each other.
Amish church singing
Singing is done from the Ausbund, and ancient Amish hymnal. The Ausbund book lacks musical notes, and Amish pass down the tunes from one generation to the next. To start service, an Amish man will lead off, carrying the first few notes before all others join in. Singing is especially drawn out, and a single line of a few words may last 30-45 seconds or longer, with a few seconds spent on each note. Groups vary in the speed that they sing, with more conservative Amish singing slower.
The second song sung at all church services is always the Loblied, or literally “praise song”. Shortly after the start of singing, ministers file out to a room of the house to discuss who is to preach that day. They will also use this time to deliver instructional classes to any candidates for baptism. After around a half an hour, they return, and as the last verse finishes up, the first preacher rises to begin his sermon.
Preaching in Amish worship
Amish services consist of two sermons, one long and one short. The first sermon takes around 20 minutes, with the second lasting about an hour. Preachers preach without notes or any assistance. They typically base sermons on readings from the New Testament.
Amish follow a set schedule of readings for the year known as a lectionary. Amish preachers have different styles of delievering a sermon. Even if a person does not understand Pennsylvania German, it is clear that some Amish preachers become quite emotional about the messages they are trying to convey.
Amish service also includes readings from the Bible and prayers, recited by the deacon. The service is long, typically lasting three hours. Services of more conservative affiliations, such as the Swartzentruber churches, may even last four hours. Occasionally members may nod off. Children sit silently, and may play with a toy, eat a snack, or doze off on a parent’s lap. There is little interaction by the members and often individuals sit with face buried in hands. Most do not make eye contact with the preacher or with one another.
Amish church service wraps up with more singing, and then if there are any church issues to attend to, a Members’ Meeting, during which any visitors and unbaptized individuals present are dismissed. During the Members’ Meeting, Amish discuss any outstanding issues, such as matters of discipline.
The after-church meal
The after church meal follows a set menu which may vary slightly from community to community and district to district. Typical foods include bread, pickles, beets, cheese, pretzels, sometimes a hot noodle soup, cookies, pie, and a standard favorite, a peanut butter spread sweetened with marshmallow creme and corn syrup or molasses.
Amish eat in shifts, segregated by sex, and sitting at the same benches used for church which have been rearranged to form seats and table. Older adults eat first, on down to the younger ones and youth in later shifts. Amish women make the rounds pouring out black coffee and ice water. The after-church meal and visiting which follows is a much-anticipated social time and opportunity to share and catch up on news.
Amish church values and Communion
Amish emphasize Scriptural values of unity, humility, and submission. The church is seen as one body, and maintaining the purity of that body is paramount. Amish will hold Communion services twice a year, a very important ritual which is an opportunity to work out any contentious church issues, reaffirm commitment to the Ordnung, and which generally serves as a “symbolic cleansing” of the church body.
Communion service lasts all day, and includes the consumption of bread and wine, as well as the rite of footwashing. Amish values of humility and unity are fully evident in this bi-annual event. Coming together for Communion is meant to be a joyous occasion of renewal.
Amish church worship demonstrates Amish Christian values
The Amish church service reflects key values of the Amish approach to Christianity. Amish see the church as existing in the body of believers and not in a physical institution. Amish services are simple and emphasize Scripture. Amish song gives praise to God and acknowledges the suffering of their Anabaptist martyr predecessors. Amish values of brotherhood, unity, and humility are all exhibited in preaching, prayer, and kneeling during the church service.
For more information, see:
The Amish Way: Patient Faith in a Perilous World, Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, David L. Weaver-Zercher (to be published Sep 2010)
Amish Society, John A. Hostetler