The typical image of New Year’s Eve is a group of revelers with party hats and noisemakers, ringing in the new year with champagne and “Auld Lang Syne.”
But on that same night, churches, including a growing number of United Methodist churches, welcome the coming year in a different way — with a Watch Night service.
Methodism founder John Wesley originated Watch Night services in the mid-18th century, sometimes calling them Covenant Renewal services. The original services were spontaneous prayer services designed to deepen the spiritual life of Methodists.
The service is loosely constructed with singing, spontaneous prayers and testimonials, and readings, including the Covenant Renewal service from The United Methodist Book of Worship (pp. 288-294).
There may be preaching or not, and the ritual may conclude with a candlelight procession from the church. Volunteers may take turns continuing quiet prayer in the sanctuary until dawn.
“In Methodist tradition, Watch Night was considered a time for recommitment,” said the Rev. Cynthia Wilson, an Atlanta-based worship leader. “The unity of the congregation was renewed, the covenant with Christendom was renewed, folks testified and sang.”
Wilson noted Watch Night services have special significance in the African-American community, where they date back to the days of slavery.
At the end of the year, owners tallied their property and often sold slaves to pay debts, Wilson said. “They didn’t know after tallying if they’d be separated.” New Year’s Eve was often the last night a family of slaves would be together.
Watch Night took on even more significance during the Civil War. When President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, it was to take effect Jan. 1, 1863. Slaves sat up the night before, waiting for their freedom to arrive at midnight.
Today, it’s a time the church comes together to celebrate life itself. “As we say in the black church, it’s celebrating surviving dangers seen and unseen,” Wilson added.
“The service is always upbeat, folks rejoice in making it to the end of another year. There’s a time of testimony and sharing how we’ve progressed and been blessed.”
— Adapted from an Interpreter Magazine article (10/2006) by Joey Butler, United Methodist Communications.