If you live in an area where the Amish reside, you are very aware of their simple lifestyle. The Pennsylvania Amish, who now live in many states, are a people who believe that God called them to this simple life – strong in faith, discipline, humility and dedication. They believe that God is personally interested in each and every one of them and this faith binds them together.
When we think of churches, we think of a building, of many sizes, that is air conditioned, padded pews, possibly a choir and an altar. The Amish church is different as is their service. They meet to worship yes, but they also keep their long-standing traditions before them. Many of their services are held in a member’s home and are conducted every other Sunday. Each family within a district is expected to host their neighbors about once a year. Many services are held in a barn if the family home is too small with benches being brought in. The congregation might number well over 100 so each church district owns a bench wagon which carts the benches to whatever location the service will be held in.
Men and women sit apart during services, including married couples. The services are normally three hours long. The “song service” as we commonly call it, is from the Ausbund. This is a special hymnal used by the Amish. The sermon can consist of anywhere from three to seven preachers and/or bishops. Sitting quietly on wooden benches with no backs can become uncomfortable! None of the preachers or bishops have had formal training; no graduations from a theological institute. But they preach with vigor and with emotion. Some of the ministers might not preach but chant in rather a sing-song manner in the German dialect. Scripture reading is in High German. The messages are concluded by the minister praying, more praying and more songs.
After the service, everyone clears out of the room and the benches are converted into tables where soon a light lunch will be served. Since there are so many people there, serving and eating is done in shifts; normally the men and women again are separated and eat in a separate room or area. The meals are prepared by the women and usually consist of coffee, bread of some sort, jam, apple butter, red beets, dried apples (called snitz), pie and “church spread” (peanut butter and marshmallows.).
Taking another look at the music in the service; some of the hymnals are over 900 pages long. The Ausbund was first published in Germany in 1564 soon after the Reformation. It is thought to be the oldest Protestant hymnal in continuous use. Some of the hymns were written by German Anabaptists in the 16th century while imprisoned in castle dungeons for their religious beliefs. This is why many of the hymns express sorrow or loneliness. There are no musical instruments in the services; there is no harmonizing as we know it. Everyone sings in unison and each verse can be quite long. It is said that singing through a hymn with 3 verses could take 15 minutes! The men who are the most familiar with the old hymns and take the lead in singing are called “vorsingers” or song leaders as we know them.
Baptism is different also. Depending on our church upbringing, some churches baptize by sprinkling, some by immersing. Some denomination will baptize infants, some believe a child should be old enough to make the choice on his or her own in faith.
In the Amish faith, youth decide if they want to join the church – normally they are in their late teens or early twenties. If they chose to be baptized it is a solemn promise that they are submitting themselves to the “order of the church” for the rest of their lives. The individual makes a confession of faith and agrees to comply with the order of the Amish community which is called the Ordnung. The Ordnung is a confession of faith that spells out how the candidate is to behave and other church regulations. If the person breaks their promise and refuse to repent, won’t confess their sins – they are excommunicated or, as is more commonly known as “shunned.” Once shunned, the individual is banned from fellowship in order to “preserve the purity of the church.” They cannot engage in any social activity, cannot be with friends.
Those selected attend classes and meet with church leadership for 18 weeks. During this time, they review the founding document of Amish belief, the Dordect Confession and also read their individual church’s Ordnung, or its regulations. The day before the baptism ceremony, candidates have a final chance to change their mind. The ceremony itself takes place after the regular church sermon. The church deacon asks the candidates to denounce the devil and the world, and to commit to Christ and the church’s Ordnung. Then, the deacon pours water through the bishop’s hands onto the candidate’s head. Then he or she is given a holy kiss by the bishop. Baptisms normally occur only in the spring and fall.
Who are the ministers? Each district has 2-3 ministers, one deacon and one bishop. These may be shared between districts if necessary. Rather than being “called into the ministry” among most denominations, Amish ministers and deacons are chosen by the congregations; the bishop is chosen from among the ministers. The ministers don’t revel in their position; they carry a heavy weight on their shoulders. In most Amish communities, a young man can’t be baptized unless he is willing to become a minister if called upon. Ministers are married men.
When a new minister is needed it is considered a most solemn occasion. The announcement is made two weeks before the communion service and members are expected to pray and meditate. After the communion service there is a vote by the congregation and the man who receives three or more votes is named. Each one has to take a hymnal in which there is a slip of paper hidden. The one who finds the slip of paper in his hymnal with a Scripture verse written on it is the new minister.
Next week we’ll look at Amish weddings and funerals.