By now, if your church is planning worship on New Year's Eve or Day, you have at least marked the date on the calendar. However, it may be that the plans have not actually been made. This article offers some perspective on what such a gathering might be and some resources and suggestions to consider.
First, why would you gather the faith community on New Year's Eve? The competition is stiff. Most folks have already got parties planned or have set some other way of creating a connection to the world's hunger for festivity. Or they have concluded that the best place to be on such a night is at home, safely tucked away from the crowds and drunk drivers.
Indeed, why should the church try to compete?
Well, perhaps competition with the world's party is not the point. Maybe the point is that Christians, too, mark time; and New Year's Eve (or Day) is a good time to look back and forward with eyes of faith in company with one another and with God.
What will be the character of such a service? covenant making or prayer for the new year?
Methodists have a long tradition of making covenant with God at the new year, although most do not currently practice covenant making in the rigorous way of the early Methodists. Our hymnal has the vestiges of the covenant service in the prayer that begins, "I am no longer my own, but thine." ("A Covenant Prayer in the Weleyan Tradition," 607, The United Methodist Hymnal) Wesley's journal entries give us a glimpse of the size of gatherings and the sense of the powerful work of grace.
Sun. JANUARY 1, 1775. — We had a larger congregation at the renewal of the Covenant than we have had for many years; and I do not know that ever we had a greater blessing. Afterwards many desired to return thanks, either for a sense of pardon, for full salvation, or for a fresh manifestation of his grace, healing all their backslidings.
— John Wesley's Journal, Works of Wesley
Sun. JANUARY 2, 1780. — We had the largest congregation at the renewal of our covenant with God, which ever met upon the occasion; and we were thoroughly convinced, that God was not departed from us. He never will, unless we first depart from him.
— John Wesley's Journal, Works of Wesley
Sat. JANUARY 1, 1785. — Whether this be the last or no, may it be the best year of my life! Sunday, 2. A larger number of people were present this evening at the renewal of our covenant with God, than was ever seen before on the occasion.
—John Wesley's Journal, Works of Wesley
Covenant Service or Intercession?
Covenant making: At the heart of Christian devotion is a sense that we are not our own, but that through God's claim upon us in Christ through baptism, we are God's servants. From time to time, Christians need to make a solemn renewal of the covenant, lest we hold back from God what we once gave to God but over time have hoarded for ourselves. The early Methodists adopted a form of covenant renewal and found that New Year's Eve or Day was a very suitable time for this. The introductory material in The United Methodist Book of Worship (288) suggests that, ideally, the service of covenant renewal should be held only once in the year.
I take that to mean there may be other times for the church to celebrate and renew the baptismal covenant (Baptism of the Lord, Easter, Pentecost, and so on); but that a thoroughgoing, "in-your-face" (I mean that respectfully) kind of covenant renewal called for in the "Covenant Renewal Service" (UMBOW 288) has such gravity about it that Christians cannot and should not do it more often than once a year.
This is one approach to the New Year observance in Christian practice. Another approach is that of holding the whole creation before God in prayer.
St. Paul calls the church to "make the most of time."
Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:15-20, NRSV)
Intercession for the world: We believe that all time is God's time and that we are to intercede for the world. The ministry of the church in holding creation up to God is at the heart of what it means to be a priestly people. In the services of the baptismal covenant, the congregation welcomes each neophyte/newly baptized person "to share in Christ's royal priesthood' ('Baptismal Covenant I,' The United Methodist Hymnal, page 37.) As the world turns from one year into the next, we remember and know of the bane and blessing of the past year and anticipate the hurt and hope of all peoples for the coming one.
I invite spiritual leaders to make a distinction.
New Year's Eve or Watch Night services may be covenant renewal of the Wesleyan sort, or they may be gatherings for prayer and observance of the passing of the year and intercession for the world as it begins a new chapter. Covenant renewal is rigorous and requires preparation of the people, as well as means of sustained support and accountability afterward. There is no such thing as "covenant renewal lite." To do that is to demean the heart of our tradition and to render it pabulum for the soul. A covenant renewal service is not a seeker's service. A lot of people can play touch football on Thanksgiving afternoon. Only the physically conditioned and fully accountable can play professional football on Thanksgiving afternoon. Lord have mercy on those who go the way of George Plimpton!
The other approach — a service of prayer for God's creation —is a gathering worthy of Christians, but it does not require that we engage in the same kind of soul searching, total self-giving to God that the covenant-making service requires. The service of prayer is an expression of our sense of living out our covenant for the life of the world, and it might consist of a weaving together of song, Scripture, and prayer. This is not to suggest that churches should choose the latter as a less costly option. I simply want to suggest that your church should do what it is prepared to do. (See Luke 14:25-33.)
Planning for Covenant Renewal:
- Read the "Covenant Renewal Service" (UMBOW, 288) through aloud and listen to your heart's and mind's responses to such powerful ritual and "dangerous" prayer. Consider inviting other church leaders to share in this reading/listening experience. If you and they say, "Whoa! That is pretty stout brew! We can't just go through that and go on as usual. Such total self-giving is something we need to prepare our people for," then taking a year to get ready for it may be the best way to go.
- If your congregation has a practice of holding the "Covenant Renewal Service," then move forward with plans for giving support to those who "renew their covenant with God." Covenant Discipleship groups, Walk to EmmausReunion Groups, or some other means by which those who make covenants can support one another in moving forward and not slipping back is essential.
- See resourcesbelow for planning a "Covenant Renewal Service."
- In all cases, prepare the people for a service that has roots in a time when sin was taken seriously, as was the atonement, and is potent in Christ's call to obedience and discipleship. Such services are the meats that demand good spiritual teeth and a hearty constitution rooted in disciplined living.
For a service of intercession for the church and the world:
- Consider the resources you can bring to such a service. Will you have musicians? Do you have digital artists who can enhance the environment with sound and sight?
- How do you want to engage the people in prayer for the world? Will you use formal or informal approaches? Will you make use of media, such as the projection of photos of people and places that are hurting, war-torn, economically or socially traumatized? How will you use music? Will you assemble a worship planning team so that you use a range of gifts and skills?
- Plan the service. Make use of the Book of Worship's suggestions (294), the hymn suggestions on page 937 in The United Methodist Hymnal, and the suggestions on page 156 of The Faith We Sing: Worship Planner Edition.
- Invite the congregation to make this prayer service a key event in their New Year's observance.
- For United Methodists, the official source of the "Covenant Renewal Service" is The United Methodist Book of Worship, 288. This service follows our "basic pattern" of worship and updates the language from the earlier texts of the service.
- For online worship ideas, see the following possibilities: A service prepared by Leila M. Geist called the "Owlah" Service.
This service is a covenant renewal service focused on the Ten Commandments. It leads to praying "A Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition" (The United Methodist Hymnal, 607).
- Found at the Wesley Center Online of Northwest Nazarene University:
• Covenant Renewal Service adapted by George Lyons from the Pamphlet Written by John Wesley and First Published in 1780 (pdf)
If you use this service, be alert to the language and adjust it for inclusiveness.
• Wesleyan Covenant Service Adapted from John Wesley by Jeren Rowel
This service, too, should be adjusted for inclusive language.
Vigil or Intercession Service
- Watch Night Vespers and Vigil by Dwight Vogel
- "A Celebration of John Wesley in Word and Song on the 300th Anniversary of His Birth" by Steve Manskar
This service of hymns and readings is based on Wesley's sermon on the Scripture Way of Salvation