This year, the calendar gives us the opportunity to gather for Sunday worship on New Year’s Eve. Though some communities, particularly those in the Black church tradition, gather for New Year’s Eve every year, many other communities do not, even though historically New Year’s Eve has held great significance for Methodists. Thus, this Sunday offers an excellent opportunity for churches that are not used to gathering on New Year’s Eve to live into a piece of our heritage.
Beginning in 1755, John Wesley encouraged gathering for worship on New Year’s Eve for a Covenant Renewal Service. Central features of this service are remembering the past year—something of a communal examen—as well as recommitting to following Christ, often using the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer (United Methodist Hymnal, 607), and participating in Holy Communion. If you plan to use some or all elements of a Covenant Renewal Service, be particularly attentive to the balance of reflection and hope in all areas of the liturgy.
In the Black church, Watch Night was first observed on December 31, 1862, as enslaved and free African Americans gathered to worship, pray, sing, and wait for January 1, 1863, the day the Emancipation Proclamation became law. Also called Freedom’s Eve, this first Watch Night led to a yearly worship gathering to mark the turning of the old year into the new. Today, Watch Night services may include remembering the story of slavery and freedom, reflections on faith, the celebration of the community, confession and pardon, and covenant renewal.
For those communities that do not have a Watch Night tradition, particularly in the United States, this New Year’s Eve Sunday offers a significant opportunity to name the troubling history of slavery and the ongoing reality of racism in U.S. society. What might it look like to include this history in our confessions, to repent, and to recommit ourselves to the work of antiracism? What about committing ourselves to be like Simeon, to listen to the Spirit and to our neighbors whose suffering calls us to act with mercy and justice for the least, the last, and the lost? What if Covenant Renewal or Watch Night also meant returning to the questions we answer in our baptism as we renew our covenant with God and one another to reject evil, resist injustice and oppression, put our whole trust in Christ’s grace, and nurture one another by teaching and example? However you choose to approach this service, may it be a time of coming together in communal commitment to following where God leads, supporting one another in love, and serving the community so that all can know and live in God’s abundance.
To learn more about Watch Night and the Covenant Renewal Service and see examples of liturgies, visit:
- “The Historical Legacy of Watch Night,” Smithsonian, https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/stories/historical-legacy-watch-night.
- “Watch Night of Freedom,” Discipleship Ministries, https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/watch-night-of-freedom.
- “Watch Night Vespers and Vigil,” Discipleship Ministries, https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/watch-night-vespers-and-vigil.
- “Watch Night Owlah Service,” Discipleship Ministries, https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/watch-night-owlah-service.
Dr. Lisa Hancock, Director of Worship Arts Ministries, served as an organist and music minister in United Methodist congregations in the Northwest Texas and North Texas Annual Conferences, as well as the New Day Amani/Upendo house churches in Dallas. After receiving her Master of Sacred Music and Master of Theological Studies from Perkins School of Theology, Lisa earned her PhD in Religious Studies from Southern Methodist University wherein she researched and wrote on the doctrine of Christ, disability, and atonement.