I’ve been fortunate enough to be invited to Amish church services close to a dozen times.
As an outsider, you naturally notice things that are either like or unlike the services you’re accustomed to.
And if you don’t speak Pennsylvania German, you don’t really have the preaching to keep your mind occupied. Thus my senses naturally hone in on other aspects of the service.
I put together a list of a few things you usually don’t see at an “English” church service–but you stand a good-to-guaranteed chance of seeing at an Amish one.
Amish Church Basics
Before we get to that, the quick basics of Amish church service:
- Amish hold church once every two weeks.
- Congregations are typically 25-35 families in size, around 100-150 people.
- Church is held in the home. “The home” may mean literally a room or basement of the home, or maybe a shop, or even a barn. This keeps the focus on the community. As the authors of 1001 Questions and Answers on the Christian Life observe, “In the Bible…church always refers to people, not to a building.”
- Holding church at the home means a lot of preparation for the host family. Read about what goes into that here.
- Service consists of singing, preaching, prayer, testimony (Zeugniss), and then a members’ meeting (sometimes), and fellowship meal after church concludes.
If you want to know more about Amish church services, here is one article.
Five Things You See in Amish Church
1. Children eating a snack
Amish services are around three hours long (and sometimes longer, in plainer groups). I don’t know of many other denominations’ services which are as long as an Amish church service.
It’s hard to sit still for such a long time, but the small children are usually quiet and well-behaved. They may come and sit on a parent’s or grandparent’s lap, and drift off to sleep for awhile. Other times they get a snack to keep them occupied.
When I’m in my own church, I see small children with toys and books, but not snacks. A snack not only gives you something to do but also a little energy to get through sitting still for so long.
2. An hour-long sermon
And you will probably need the energy, because Amish sermons are long. At least, the second sermon is. In fact, at around an hour duration, this sermon by itself might be longer than some other churches’ entire worship services.
As noted in The Amish Way, Amish ministers use the scripture reading from the lectionary calendar as a starting point (examples from one community: Matthew 8-9; Matthew 4-5; John 17-Ephesians 4; John 17-Romans 12), but often incorporate the Psalms, the Old Testament, and examples from daily life.
Amish preachers and sermons can be engaging or, as as accounts have it, not so much.
Of course, Amish ministers do not seek the job, and they’re not formally trained in preaching. “Most sermons are patterned on a style of preaching that they have heard since they were children” (The Amish Way, p. 66).
So it’s not like Amish men are attracted to the ministry because they have a talent or desire or gift for talking about Scriptures in front of a crowd.
Another thing about the preaching: the person offering the sermon on a given Sunday may not be your regular preacher.
You’ll often have visiting preachers in a church (something that is probably more common in larger communities where it is easier to travel to another congregation). You will hear Amish people comment that they enjoy the preaching of such-and-such a preacher.
3. Someone sleeping
So, doesn’t it make perfect sense that this follow the point on long sermons?
Truth be told you might actually hear this before you see it, if some unfortunate snoring happens. A seat in the back corner of the building is ideal (Amish church benches don’t have backs, but the back rows are usually pushed up near the wall).
I’m sure Amish people aren’t excited to think that church members occasionally snooze, but I can’t blame them if they do. This might be the youth who was out late the night before or the fellow who had a bit too heavy a breakfast that morning.
I don’t write this to suggest that Amish people are sleeping through church every Sunday, but with 100+ people over a 3-hour service, especially if a preacher maybe isn’t the most engaging speaker, you can see how you might drift off (it actually happened to me one time too).
Some Amish might abstain from breakfast or eat lightly to avoid going to church on a sleep-inducing heavy stomach. In the end it is just more evidence that Amish people are human, too (news flash!).
4. The Holy Kiss
Amish ministers greet one another with the Holy Kiss. This is a kiss on the lips as ordained in numerous books of the Bible, including Romans, I Thessalonians, I Peter and others.
In some churches (New Order, for example), all members exchange the kiss (males with male, females with females). It’s also given to newly-baptized members following the baptism ceremony.
When you arrive at an Amish church service, the men who are already there are usually standing around, forming a circle or semi-circle by or in the barn. The women go into the house.
Each new arrival walks around the circle and greets the others present. This is when the Holy Kiss is exchanged, either by the ministers or between members if such is the custom (visitors don’t get one).
Truth be told it might surprise you if you don’t know it’s coming. But Amish can give plenty of Scriptural backing for the practice.
As one doctrinal pamphlet explains, “It is a token of love and fellowship with one another and with the Lord. It is to be practiced regularly by all Christians as they meet and fellowship together, as a brotherhood” (see The Truth in Word and Work, p. 57).
5. Amish peanut butter
This technically isn’t a part of the service, but of the fellowship meal which follows.
I’ve been to Amish church in communities in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana. The fellowship meal varies a bit in my experience, but there are some things that stay pretty standard.
Black coffee, breads and cheese spread, some pickled beets, cheeses and pretzels. Sometimes you’ll have some lunch meat, other times no meat. I’ve had a hot noodle soup before too. I hear plainer groups have a traditional bean soup, but I’ve never been in those church services.
It’s a tasty but pretty modest meal. But you’re often so hungry after the service that you gobble it up and grab seconds–if you have time before they switch out the table for the second seating.
I’ve probably seen the most variation in desserts offered–cookies and dessert squares in some churches (in Ohio), snitz pie in Pennsylvania (a Lancaster County tradition).
Amish peanut butter seems to be standard everywhere. It’s a characteristic staple of church Sundays. I don’t know if it’s technically considered a “dessert”, but it sure tastes like one to me.
Made of a combination of peanut butter, marshmallow creme, and other sweeteners, you don’t need to add jelly to this peanut butter. Tastes great on a piece of bread, nothing else required.
A sweet ending to a day of fellowship. And even though you might not understand all that is said during Amish church, you still can get a lot out of the experience. At the least, your hosts will fill you in on what you missed during the fellowship meal.
Have you attended an Amish church service? What stood out to you?
Image credits: Pretzel snack- Windell Oskay/flickr; Bible- Sarah Nichols/flickr; Alarm clock- Ninian Reid/flickr; Amish farm- ShipshewanaIndiana; Peanut Butter- Das Dutchman Essenhaus
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