A View from the Pew: Watch Night Services

We could use a Watch Night service right about now.

If ever a New Year’s Eve called for a Watch Night Service, this is it.

The tradition is said to have originated in 1733 with the Moravian Church, known for their candlelight Christmas services, Lovefeasts, and delicious buns. Other Christian denominations adopted the practice, and the New Year’s Eve service became known as a “Watch Night Service” in many traditions.

It had special meaning for African American Christian churches, which held Watch Night Services on New Year’s Eve in 1862 when Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation would take effect the next day, freeing slaves.

When John Wesley started the tradition in Methodism in 1740, he called it a “Covenant Renewal Service.” I like that interpretation, particularly coming on the heels of Christmas as a proper response to the birth of the Savior.

I can remember participating in only one Watch Night Service. When I was a teenager in the mid-1980s, our church in Central Florida hosted a Watch Night that began with food and games before shifting to worship, singing, and preaching. As the clock reached midnight and the amateur fireworks exploded in the neighborhood around us, we knelt in prayer to usher in the New Year.

Our church offered the service as counter-programming to a night of drunken revelry, but it turned out to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience that has fascinated and inspired me throughout my life. With an older congregation, driving at night, particularly a night when there would be an increased chance of encountering impaired drivers, Watch Night was deemed too great a risk to repeat.

I have been reflecting on this memory more than usual this year, and I think it’s a tradition worth reconsidering. For the last several years, we have reached the end of the year with hope subdued by dread from all manner of personal, national, and global problems, not the least of which is the seemingly never-ending pandemic. Praying rather than toasting strikes me as the right response to our present circumstances.

And if you rationally conclude it’s not safe to go out, I don’t blame you. In fact, I doubt I’ll be out celebrating, though this is the night I got engaged to my wife of soon-to-be 25 years. If we can’t gather as congregations to experience Watch Night, perhaps we can observe the practice as individual Christians. Here’s what I would include in my order of worship for Watch Night worship:

  • Prayer of gratitude
  • Reading from Psalm 147
  • Prayer of intercession
  • Reading from 1 Kings 3:1-14
  • Prayer for wisdom
  • Reading from James 2:2-8
  • Prayer of commitment
  • Hymn “It is Well with My Soul”

I may not even still be awake at midnight, but this private worship experience can be tailored for any time of day on New Year’s Eve. No matter how you choose to enter into 2022, I pray you will find joy, meaning, and purpose.

Happy New Year!

Lance Wallace is a Baptist layperson and member of Parkway Baptist Church in Johns Creek, GA. He earns a living in higher education communications and writes a blog at newsouthessays.com.

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