Observations on Life, Faith, Media & Technology

What is ‘Watch Night’ and Why is It A Big Deal?

I remember as a child going to church for “Watch Night” services on New Year’s Eve, but the practice of holding a vigil on New year’s Eve has all but died out in predominantly white churches, both evangelical and liturgical. 

Watchnight2008_inline The Watch Night tradition continues to thrive among our brothers and sisters in predominantly African American churches, though.  As a result, New Year’s Eve is one of the biggest nights of the year in terms of viewership on Streaming Faith as tens of thousands of believers from around the world tune in the ring in the new year with their favorite churches and ministries.  Over one hundred and fifty New Year’s Eve “Watch Night” services will be broadcast live tonight on Streaming Faith.

So what is ‘Watch Night’ and why is New Year’s Eve – a predominantly secular observance – is such a big deal in many of our churches?

The answer to that question has it’s beginnings with the Moravian Church in what is now the Czech Republic. The first recorded Watch Night Service took place in 1733 on the estate of Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf in Hernhut, Germany.  John Wesley picked up the practice from the Moravians, including a Watch Night vigil in the practices of the Methodist Church.  The first known Watch Night vigil in the United States was in 1770 at Old St. George’s Church in Philadelphia.

The scriptural basis for these services is found in Matthew 25:13: “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.”  The original idea was to hold a vigil to examine yourself, to be sure you are prepared for the Lord’s return.

The practice of holding a Watch Night vigil on New Year’s Eve has taken on additional significance in the African American church community, as they also commemorate “Freedom’s Eve.”  Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862 stating that if the rebels did not rejoin the Union by January 1, 1863, “…all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”

So December 31, 1862 came to be known as “Freedom’s Eve.”

Bishop E. Bernard Jordan of New York writes of his experience as a child with Watch Night Services: “I remember as a little boy my mother made sure the entire family would be in church, on our knees, praying in the New Year.  Today, the tradition continues.  God blesses those who honor Him for keeping them another season in a place of peace and freedom.  New Year’s Eve is a time of reflection for everyone to look on the goodness of the Lord.”

Tonight, followers of Jesus from all over the world – all races, creeds and colors – will participate in Watch Night Services.  In doing so, they will be celebrating a different kind of freedom – “He who the Son makes free is free indeed!” – and listening to their pastors and leaders share a their heart, their plans and their vision for the year 2008.

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