What’s it like to attend Amish church as an outsider? In previous posts, we followed Don and Pam Burke as they made their first trips to the Amish in Ohio and in Pennsylvania. In this third post in the series, Don and Pam take us along to a Lancaster County Amish church service*.
If you’ve never attended an Amish church service, Don and Pam do a really nice job of bringing the experience to life – the awkward feelings at being the only non-Amish there; feeling welcomed in various little ways; fellowship at the after-church meal. And if you have attended Amish church before, you might find yourself nodding along.
*Differently from other posts in this series, the photos here are not from the day of the service, but were taken on other days in Lancaster County, or in other Amish communities and used for illustration purposes.
Don: As you may recall from the first article in this series, this whole get-to-see-the-Amish trip was for Pam, and came from her long-time interest in Amish fiction. I was glad to go along with it so that she could realize her dream, but I had no real interest in the Amish myself.
However, as she began planning, I did made one small request. I am a pastor, and as such I am interested in how other groups “do church.” So my one request was to see if we could possibly attend an Amish church service to see what it was like.
Pam: My response (based on the reading I had done) went something like: “Do you realize what an Amish church service is like – three hours on hard backless benches in a barn with everything spoken in German?”
Don: Okay, but I still wanted to experience it.
Pam: Since that didn’t dissuade him, I took the request to Miriam (the Amish hostess at our lodging place, see previous article). I have to admit that I was a little reluctant to ask because I didn’t know if English visitors were welcome in Amish services. (We have since learned that allowing non-Amish visitors to attend a church service varies from district to district.)
Miriam responded in almost identical words to what I had said to Don, and I told her we understood but still would like to attend if possible. She said they occasionally took guests to church with them and could probably work that out for us. Checking her calendar, she found that the Sunday we were in Lancaster was an “off Sunday” for their own district, but her daughter and son-in-law (in another district) were hosting church that Sunday and we could all visit there.
Don: So fast forward, and we’re in Lancaster County on Sunday morning. Since we had to leave immediately after church to begin our trip home, we drove our car over to the Amish farm where service was held. As we started down the driveway there was something unsettling about being in the only vehicle in sight with more than one horse power <ha>. I looked over at Pam and her expression mirrored my own feelings: It wouldn’t take much to talk us into turning around and getting out of there!
Pam: As the Amish church-goers walked or drove their buggies down the drive, here we came in our Honda, the only car anywhere around. We received lots of questioning stares from people who moved to the side of the road to let us through. But we continued down the path and parked near the barn (as Sam had told us to do). As we got out I was very happy to see Miriam come out of the house and invite me to go inside with her.
Once inside, Miriam introduced me to the ladies who were already present. As others entered, they would work their way around the room, greeting each other with words, hugs, and kisses. Miriam introduced me several times, explaining why I was there. The arrangement of the ladies began to take shape of oldest-to-youngest in preparation to move to the barn when service time arrived. At some point, just before time to leave, three or four ministers came through and greeted the women, again in order from oldest to youngest.
Don: As Miriam and Pam went into the house with the ladies, Sam and I headed to a smallish room in the dairy barn where we joined the men. As men entered into the barn they greeted one another – sometimes with a handshake, and on more rare occasions with what I assume they would call a “holy kiss” (I’m not sure, but it’s possible that this was done only by the ministers in the group). After greeting those who were already there, the men would take their place in a line that eventually made a giant “U” around the room – like Pam mentioned, pretty much arranged oldest to youngest.
I felt more than a little out of place, with many of the men offering a pleasant brief greeting but obviously surprised at this non-Amish stranger among them. Eventually an older gentleman who was the bishop stepped over and started up a conversation. Apparently Sam had mentioned to him that I was a pastor, and because of that my interest in joining them this morning. After we had talked a few minutes he invited me to step outside with him. Without a break in our conversation we stepped out and began a slow stroll, followed by the other men (ministers first, then the other men, from oldest to youngest), to the larger barn which had been set up for church service.
The wooden-bench seating was arranged in three sections. The men sat (by age) on the left side, and the women (also by age) on the right – both groups facing each other. The two center rows where these sections met were the seats of honor, using folding or other portable chairs. This is where local and visiting ministers were seated. Benches were used for the remaining seating in these two sections. Then a third section of benches faced the front (perpendicular to the other two sections), and this is where the younger adults and youth sat.
Our plan had been that Pam would sit with Miriam on the women’s side, and I would sit with Sam. That way we would each have someone to guide us and explain (if necessary) what to do and what was going on. Well, now all those plans were out the window for me, for the bishop walked me up to the special seating reserved for the ministers – right in the very front and center of the whole congregation! Let’s see, how did Pam describe what was about to happen? – three hours, all German…, now with no Sam and all by myself!
Pam: When we made our way into the barn (where the men were already seated in their section) I sat with Miriam and her daughter at the very back in a straight-back chair, rather than on the backless benches. We sat there because they needed to slip out a little early for lunch preparations. I looked across the way to find Don and was quite surprised to find him right up front with the other ministers. I did not envy him that conspicuous position at all!
Don: In case it hasn’t been clear, I do not know any German. So when the service began and the song leader called a hymn number, I didn’t know what he said, and had no way to find the hymn in the hymnal. The gentlemen next to me was kind enough to find the page and point out the starting place to me. And I soon discovered something: While I do not know any German, I could recognize many of the individual letters since they are similar to English letters – so I could actually follow along!
But that wasn’t all. Amish hymns are sung without musical instruments, so the song leader gives the tone at the beginning of each line and everyone else immediately joins him. The meter of the songs is somewhat like Gregorian chant – slow and intentional. So, you put together a very slow-paced song, with pitches given in advance by the song leader, using letters I can sound out (even if I don’t know what the words they form meant) – and within minutes I found myself singing right along with the rest of the congregation! As I told folks about the experience later, hooked-on-phonics works in German, too! <ha>
Pam: It was pretty funny during lunch time to have several of the ladies come up to me and ask if my husband spoke German, as they had observed him singing along with the congregation.
During the service I was very happy to have Miriam beside me, as she quietly led me through much of what was going on. The schedule began with singing out of the Ausbund, the hymnal used by many Amish which contains only words in German.
Don: The songs in the Ausbund remind me of the Psalms (which was the hymnal of the ancient Jews). There are no musical notations, just words. Most songs are made up of many verses, and are written out much like we would find the verses in the Psalms.
Pam: As Don mentioned, the songs are sung slowly, and with numerous verses sung for each song it took about 40 to 50 minutes or so to sing three songs. We didn’t know this at the time, but have since learned (from a conversation with other Amish friends) that the second song in the service was significant. It was hymn #131, Das Loblied (Hymn of Praise), and is traditionally the second hymn in most Old Order Amish church services.
After the songs one of the ministers spoke to the congregation. Although he spoke in Pennsylvania Dutch (an informal form of German), he briefly used English to welcome the “strangers” to the service. After this “first sermon” (as Miriam told me it was called), we all knelt against our chairs or benches and had a time of silent prayer.
When we stood, we faced away from the central area for a fairly lengthy scripture reading. This reading is normally done totally in “high German” (what we English would consider regular German), but on this occasion the deacon also read John 3:16 in English, apparently out of consideration for Don and me. Then we sat for the main sermon given by another minister. Like the deacon he included an English statement or two along the way for our benefit. The service concluded with some additional brief comments related to the sermon from a couple of other ministers and/or deacon and then a final song.
As the service was winding down, I returned to the house to be with Miriam as she helped with serving lunch. I sat and watched as a group of women very quickly and efficiently fed several shifts of women and children inside the house and others took care of serving duties for the men in the barn.
Don: With surprising speed, the worship benches in the barn were moved around and stacked to make tables and seating for lunch for the men. Lunch here was done in two shifts, with ministers and older men served first, and the remainder of the men served in a subsequent sitting. The ladies spread the table with the various foods and fixin’s, and after a prayer offered up in silence we began to eat. Conversations were about most anything, and had an open and friendly tone. Lunch was unhurried, but sufficiently paced so as not to make the second shift have to wait too long. After our lunch was through, concluding with a second prayer (also in silence), our group of men left the tables to make room for the second group.
Pam: At the appropriate time in the rotation, Miriam told me it was our turn to eat, so I enjoyed the food and fellowship with the friendly ladies who filled the table. The meal consisted of homemade bread, peanut butter church spread, shmear cheese, cold cuts, pickles, and applesauce, followed by snitz pie and another type of apple pie. While all the preparation and eating was going on, I enjoyed observing the work and fellowship with groups chatting and visiting, sometimes in English and sometimes in their Pennsylvania Dutch language. At one point one of the ministers’ wives sat down beside me and asked if I was understanding much that was going on. I told her it was just like any other gathering when a bunch of ladies get together and start talking all at once and no one can understand what’s going on – no matter the language!
Don: Following lunch, with freedom to move about and hold casual conversations, a number of the men approached me at various times asking me typical guy-type of questions – where I lived, my job, etc. I found it surprising that many of the Amish men here in far-away Pennsylvania took note when I said I lived near St. Louis, and were particularly interested in the St. Louis Cardinals. I quickly realized that while the Amish may be plain, they are certainly not uninformed.
One of the Amish ministers walked up and we began to talk about pastoring. Unsurprisingly, this minister of plain folks shared the same heart and concern for his flock as I did for mine. The conversation turned to the Amish and their exposure to technology. Farmland in Lancaster County is hard to come by with so many Amish in a relatively small area, and the land that does become available is quite expensive. So, many of the Amish have had to take jobs in the English world. While this in itself wasn’t an issue, it had brought them more and more into regular use of technology (cell phones, computers, internet) so that it was becoming more and more difficult to know where to draw the technology line in their own culture, and was hard to enforce it. This minister even expressed a concern about whether the technology issue might undermine the Amish culture altogether before too many years.
For me this Amish church service was the highlight of our whole trip – and in many ways has remained one of the high points of all my Amish experiences. And somewhere in those three or four hours that Sunday morning, I too became a fan of all things Amish. And I’ve never been the same since.
A special thank-you to Don and Pam for this First Visit to the Amish series. If you missed them, check out their first visits to Lancaster County and Holmes County. And find more of Don’s photos at his Plainsong Facebook page or on Flickr.