Church to hold Watch Night service

Published 8:29 am Thursday, December 31, 2015

In some churches, the largely secular holiday of New Year’s Eve is an opportunity to give thanks to God and is celebrated with a Watch Night service. One church in Brookhaven will open its doors to host a celebration through midnight and into 2016.

Darryl Hilliard is the pastor at Rhema Word Worship Church, located at 1034 South First St. in Brookhaven. The congregation there will celebrate New Year’s Eve with a Watch Night service.

“Of course it’s about going out of the old year into the new year, but it’s really more about the celebration of what the Lord has done and certainly to celebrate what he might do,”  he said.

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Hilliard said the service will consist of praise music, worship, testimonies and fellowship. The Watch Night service will start at 10 p.m. and continue through the new year, ending right after midnight. After the service, a breakfast meal prepared by the men’s ministry will be served.

Many churches hold Watch Night services like the one at Rhema Word Worship Church, with the practice in this country coming from the founder of the Methodist movement. John Wesley picked the practice up from the Moravians. Methodist Watch Nights were held once a month and on full moons, with the first such service in the United States taking place in 1770 at Old St. George’s Church in Philadelphia. These services survive to the present day in that denomination’s worship manuals as “Covenant Renewal Services.”

As to what was being “watched over” in those earlier services, it was one’s covenant with God. These gatherings were a time for people of the church to reflect on their state of grace – were they ready to meet their maker if the call were suddenly to come? As the 13th chapter of Mark instructs, the faithful need to be ever vigilant because the hour of the Lord’s coming is not known. (Watch ye therefore: for ye know not when the master of the house cometh.)

Watch Night services hold a second layer of meaning for many black churches after what is known as “Freedom’s Eve.” On Dec. 31, 1862, Watch Night and New Year’s Eve services took on a special significance with the impending Emancipation Proclamation, which would become law Jan. 1, 1863.

In September 1862, President Lincoln issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which stated: “[O]n the first day of January … 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.” Lincoln subsequently issued the Emancipation Proclamation itself on January 1863. While the proclamation did not end slavery the moment it was issued, it did proclaim some slaves free, and the anticipation set a hopeful tone for the New Year.

Hilliard said this history isn’t recognized with Rhema Word Worship’s service, and that nowadays the freedom comes from knowing the Lord.

“We’re already free, you don’t have to have an eve for that. To say we’re celebrating that would be to be bound and we are not,” Hilliard said. “So we just celebrate what he’s done and our expectations for the new year, and we begin to cast vision for what the Lord is going to do and celebrate what the Lord’s going to do in 2016.”

Hilliard said he knows not every church has a Watch Night service and invites anyone to come celebrate at Rhema Word Worship Church tonight.