The Amish Church: Worship Service, Beliefs, Customs & More
The Amish are a Christian group with roots in Europe going back centuries. While they share common beliefs with other Christians, their church practice is quite different in certain ways. At-home worship is just one aspect that sets them apart from other Christian denominations.
Let’s have a look at how the Amish church works. Who leads the Amish church, and how are they chosen? What happens at Amish church service? How accepting are the Amish of non-Amish outsiders – and other religions? Read on for more on these and other Amish church topics.
Amish Church – Basic Facts
Amish Church Structure
Church Leaders (Bishop, Ministers & Deacon)
What happens at Amish Church Service
Amish Church Singing
The Amish Church Meal
Church Rituals, Customs & Special Services
Outsiders & The Amish Church
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 (approximately one hour)
- Males lead the Amish church – the Amish do not ordain women, though women may nominate and vote for candidates to the Amish ministry
The Amish Church (Structure)
The Amish church structure is different in several key ways from other Christian denominations. For example, Amish do not build church buildings, and they intentionally keep their churches a small size.
The Amish do not have church buildings
If you ask an Amishman where his 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.
Amish worship in the home and do not build separate church structures. The Amish feel the basis of a church is its people, rather than a building. The benches used in church service are transported from home to home using a large church wagon (see photo below).
As an exception, a few Amish do build and worship in meetinghouses. Examples of such communities are in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, and Oakland, Maryland.
The Amish Church District
Amish communities are divided into church districts typically made up of 25 to 35 families. This is dictated in large part by geography, meaning districts are usually made up of close neighbors. Since Amish hold worship services in the home, each family must be able to reasonably travel by foot, or by horse-and-buggy, to the furthest home in the district.
Each church district has separate leadership, though individual districts, especially those of the same affiliation, typically cooperate with one another in various ways.
“Being in fellowship”
Different Amish churches are said to be in fellowship when they are like-minded on what are considered important matters in the church, allowing them to cooperate on various levels. Ministers from churches which are in fellowship are typically allowed to preach in one another’s services or help settle disagreements when outside intervention is needed or desired.
Intermarriage may be more likely between members of churches in fellowship. Churches may be in “full fellowship” or “partial fellowship”. Amish use the term dien to mean to fellowship with another congregation. Read more in our article on Amish affiliations.
When do Amish create a new church?
Amish divide a church when it grows beyond a certain size, usually once it exceeds 35 families or more. The Amish practice of home worship physically limits the size of Amish congregations. All attendants must be able to fit inside a pre-existing structure at the home of each member, whether it be a room of the house, basement, shop, or in some churches, a barn.
A new district will be carved out of the old, taking into account geographical boundaries and member families, among other factors. The Amish will also ordain a new set of ministers for the new district.
Amish Church Leaders
Each Amish church district is led by a bishop, two to three ministers, and a deacon. Ministers are selected by a process combining nominations by members and the drawing of lots. In some communities, such as Lancaster County, one bishop oversees two districts. Read more on Amish church ministers and the process of ordination.
How do Amish choose church leaders?
Deacons and ministers are chosen from among the lay men in the congregation. Each man promises at his baptism to serve as minister if so chosen. Each member of the congregation (men and women) casts a secret vote for their choice. Those who receive a certain minimum are placed in “the lot”.
The men in the lot typically draw from among a selection of hymnals, one of which contains a slip of paper with a Bible verse. The man who selects the book with verse is ordained. Bishops are chosen in a similar way from among ordained ministers.
Unlike in other Christian denominations, Amish people do not seek to become ministers. For one, it is seen as out of their individual control (in God’s hands), and such an aspiration might also be viewed as arrogant or presumptuous. Frankly, for most Amish men, a position in church ministry is not seen as desirable (one Amishman commented that he “dodged a bullet” after being passed over at a recent ordination). Amish see it as an important responsibility, but also a burden, though one which is borne with help from the man’s wife, family, community, and God above.
Do Amish bishops control their people?
A common trope suggests that bishops control the lives of their church members. While some Amish bishops can be more heavy-handed than others, the job of the bishop is not to invent arbitrary rules or unilaterally punish members on a whim.
Rather, bishops are meant to serve as guiding voices for their congregants. Bishops can decide whether an issue–such as adoption of a new technology–comes up for vote, or whether the church should vote on disciplining a member. But actions are taken with the input of the lay members, and a unanimous vote is required to excommunicate a member, for example.
This does not mean that “bad bishops” do not exist. The Amish are human, and in some church groups, leadership may hold greater sway over their congregations than in others.
The Amish Church Service
What is the Amish church service itself like? Let’s have a look at where it is held, how often and how long it lasts, what the service and preaching look like, and more.
When do Amish go to church?
Unlike most Christian churches, the Amish gather to worship every other Sunday. The Sunday in-between is an “off” Sunday. On these days families may visit another church, have devotionals or Bible reading and study at home, and also spend the day visiting family, friends, or engaged in other social activities.
Amish church is held at members’ homes, typically in a basement, shop building, barn, or any other space which can accommodate up to 150 people. A very small minority of Amish (typically from the New Order Amish affiliations) worship in meetinghouses.
Why do Amish have 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.
How long is an Amish church service?
Typically, 2 1/2 to 3 hours, including opening and closing singing. In some groups, church can last as long as 4 hours. Church may close with a member’s meeting in which outstanding issues, such as financial needs or disciplinary matters, are addressed.
What happens in an Amish church service?
Amish church begins with 20-30 minutes of singing from the Ausbund hymnal. It includes two sermons, one shorter (20 min) and a second longer (one hour, each delivered by a different minister), Bible readings, kneeling prayer, and closing singing. Read an in-depth account of Amish church service.
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.
The Holy Kiss
The Holy Kiss is exchanged in some churches (New Order Amish churches, for example) when male members greet one another before the church service. It is also given by the bishop to newly baptized young men, and from the bishop’s wife to the women. Women may also exchange the kiss amongst themselves in some communities.
The Holy Kiss is based upon Scripture, including II Corinthians 13:12 (“Greet one another with an holy kiss”), Romans 16:16, and other passages. Read more on the Holy Kiss.
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
Amish church service opens with song. Singing is done from the Ausbund, and ancient Amish hymnal. Songs in the book can be traced to early Anabaptists imprisoned in Germany. The Ausbund book lacks musical notes, and Amish pass down the tunes from one generation to the next. The Ausbund is the oldest song book in the world in continuous use. More on the Ausbund.
Do Amish sing from other song books?
Besides the Ausbund songbook, some Amish use other hymnbooks, such as the Unparteiische Leidersammlung or the Unparteysiches Gesang-Buch. Amish may sing English-language songs at singings outside of church or on other occasions.
Church service begins
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 Amish 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 Rituals & Customs
In addition to the usual bi-weekly church service, Amish churches will celebrate special church events regularly during the year. Rather than having a special service for each of these, they are typically held on the same church schedule (once every two weeks).
Amish Council Meeting
This is an important congregational meeting which takes place in the spring and autumn, the goal of which is to affirm unity in the church and resolve any outstanding issues within the church, in preparation for the twice-yearly Communion service. Read more on Council service in the Amish church.
Amish Communion Service
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 (in the spring and autumn), 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.
What happens at Amish Communion?
The Communion service is the longest service of the year, and can last eight hours. During the Communion service, ministers preach, reviewing the Biblical story and Jesus’ life, death and teachings. It also includes congregational affirmations of unity, footwashing, and Communion for church members in the form of bread and wine.
Footwashing is an integral part of the twice-yearly Communion service. Congregants take turns washing each others’ feet in a reminder of service and humility. Amish derive this practice from the Bible, namely passages including John 13: 1-17. More on footwashing in the Amish church.
Communion as renewal
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. Communion is the most important church gathering of the year for the Amish. It is a time to reaffirm church unity and a commitment to living a Godly life within a Christian brotherhood.
The Amish do not baptize infants or children. To become a member of the Amish church, an Amish young person will make the choice to be baptized. They are not required to be baptized, though they may experience pressures (from family and peers) to join.
Amish typically are baptized between the ages of 18 and 22, though some may be baptized as early as 16, or well into their 20s. Baptism is a very significant event in a young person’s life, signifying a commitment to God made with the church to uphold church standards and lead a Christian life. More on Amish baptism.
Weddings are joyous events which traditionally happen during a “wedding season” – usually the autumn months (October – December) in places like Lancaster County, PA. However, due to changing occupations among the Amish, the wedding season is not as strict as it once was. In other communities, traditions may allow weddings throughout the year.
For a couple to be married into the Amish church, they must both be baptized members of an Amish church. Read more on the Amish & marriage.
Funerals can be some of the most heavily-attended of all Amish church events, with even 1,000 or more attendees coming from the local area and from outside the community. At a funeral the Amish remember the deceased and express hope that they attain heaven in the afterlife. The Amish will also hold a viewing prior to the funeral. Read more on the Amish and death customs.
The Amish Church & Outsiders
What do Amish think about other faiths?
Though many Amish have strong convictions about their own faith, they are also generally tolerant of other religious paths. Asserting one’s faith as superior to others would not be considered humble, as Amish do not claim to know God’s will. “Bloom where you’re planted,” summarizes one Amishman’s beliefs on the matter. More.
Do Amish proselytize?
Generally, no. Amish are not mission-oriented in the sense of actively seeking to convert outsiders to their faith. In this way they are different from many evangelical Christian denominations. Amish believe in living their faith and hopefully being a good example of Christianity in practice.
Amish do participate in some mission activities, however, such as charity auctions, relief projects such as hurricane re-building, mass meat-canning for the poor, and other outreach projects.
One group worth noting is the New Order Amish, a small collection of horse-and-buggy churches who are more actively mission-minded and vocal about their faith than is typical for Amish. However they also refrain from seeking converts, though some seekers have found New Order churches to be more amenable to outsiders joining.
Can I go to an Amish church service?
Yes. An outsider attending Amish church services is not unheard of. However, you would need to know someone in the church and receive an invitation. Some congregations are more open to this than others. Also, don’t expect to understand a lot, unless you understand Pennsylvania German or High German, the two languages used in the Amish service.
Do people ever join the Amish church?
Occasionally, outsiders do join an Amish church. However, converts often end up leaving the Amish as well. Barriers based on differences in daily language, technology, lifestyle, and worldview present obstacles for would-be converts. One Amish convert’s story can be read here.
Amish churches demonstrate Christian values
Amish see the church as existing in the body of believers and not in a physical institution. They emphasize small church communities made up of like-minded believers. The Amish church service reflects key values of the Amish approach to Christianity. Amish worship 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, as well as in everyday life – in their behavior towards fellow church members. Baptism is chosen by young Amish people upon reaching adulthood, after which they become full members of the church. The Amish recognize that their way of church and worship is not the only way to get to heaven, and are generally respectful of other religious denominations. Read more on common Amish religious beliefs.
For more information, see:
The Amish Way: Patient Faith in a Perilous World, Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, David L. Weaver-Zercher
Amish Society, John A. Hostetler