New Years Day -- Behold, a New Thing!

A Watch Night Service Celebration
New Year's Eve

The Tradition of Watch Night

Many congregations see New Year's Eve as an opportunity to call the people of God back to God and to give thanks for seeing us safely through another year. Watch Night is celebrated in a variety of ways from various traditions. Some traditions, such as Methodist, have used Watch Night as a time of covenanting and rededication to God. The Watch Night service included here is based on an African American tradition that traces it beginnings to the grace of freedom experienced by the slaves during the night of December 31, 1862, and the morning of January 1, 1863. On that night, African American slaves were all declared legally free as the Emancipation Proclamation became law.

Today congregations, regardless of ethnicity, color, or culture, can participate in this service to honor God and the legacy of those who worked, fought, and died so that the Emancipation Proclamation could become law. At this time we worship to give thanks and to petition God for a change. We know, according to the book of Ecclesiastes, that, "There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens." This is the time that we can openly and freely declare to all, "You are my sister, you are my brother."

The purpose of the Watch Night Service is to celebrate and praise the saving acts of God throughout history with that "great cloud of witnesses, seen and unseen" in song, dance, testimony, praise, and prayer. The greatest thing about being a Christian is that we can have new beginnings. Once a year we make an intentional effort to choose how to approach life as Christians. Watch Night gives us the opportunity to ask God of the harvest to prepare us for faithful use of our gifts in that new beginning.

How to Explore Watch Night

Watch Night is a service of celebration that starts anytime from 7:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. and concludes just after midnight or in the early hours of the morning. These services are more than just one an hour of singing, preaching, and praying. It is as the psalmist says, "A joyful noise to God" or a sweet-sounding sacrifice. It is important for the pastor and worship leaders to work together to develop a harmonious service that will motivate and engage the participants to live a worship-filled life.

Some congregations have designed their services in such a manner that theirs is the only place of celebration some people attend that night. Concerts, musicals, and plays — in addition to the worship service — have become worshipful events that testify to and celebrate how God "made a way out of no way," and "how we got over." In whatever way you choose to worship, know that you are celebrating a God that is awesome—the source and giver of not only life but also of eternal life.

Some congregations prepare a meal, while others have refreshments. This depends on the amount of time they have for the celebration. The meal is usually eaten before the worship experience and is usually a potluck dinner. You can prepare a setting for the celebration by perhaps using a white table covering with poinsettias, candles, a cross, chalices, patens, water, greenery, broken chains, and banners that symbolize new life. Prepare the table with the colors and symbols you have chosen; participants should be able to experience the presence of God using all five of the senses—so be creative.

You may use the following poem, "Watch Night," as an introduction to the evening, as a source for dancers to interpret the evening, or as an invitation into a time of testimony. Use different readers for the poem.

Watch Night

The Lord will watch over your coming and going, both now and forevermore. — Psalm 121:8

We gather
with quiet invocations and fervent shouts
in prayer houses built by our ancestors.
it is the anniversary of freedom's eve,
the beginning of a new year;
and our voices ache with jubilee songs
our feet moving, our bodies possessed
our spirits remembering.
It was on new year's daylong ago when enslaved Africans,
their children,
and their children's children
became irrevocably free.
On the 1st day
of January, A.D. 1863,
all persons held as slaves
within any State
or designated part of a State
the people whereof
shall then be in rebellion...
The freedom words
that were woven into sweet-grass baskets,
hidden in the words of negro spirituals,
preached aloud at campground meetings,
sung to black babies in sleepy-time songs,
would become the law of the land.
Praise the Lord.

Then freedom's eve became freedom's day
(after 100 days of waiting,
three years of a bloody civil war,
more than two centuries of servitude)
as an answer to the petitioner's plea:
How long, my Lord, how long
Truly there was a reason why,
so many were gathered
on that new year's eve in 1862:
skins dark as the midnight sky,
or pale as the sand on a sea island beach.
Truly there was a reason why,
embraced by traditions from across the seas,
our ancestors had the griots
tell those wonderful stories of home.
Truly there was a reason why,
they created drum sounds with their feet,
their hand-claps, and their rhythm sticks;
spoke of a future free of shackles,
waited and watched till the morning came.
They trusted the words of Lincoln:
Shall be then, thenceforward,
and forever free.
They believed the words of Leviticus:
It shall be a Jubilee for you
and each of you shall return to his possession,
and each of you shall return to his family.
But could they really have faith
(this time)
that the righteous would truly be blessed?
for the comings and goings of life
can never be foretold.
How long, my Lord, how long?

There was no word at midnight,
nor at daybreak.
but past dusk on new year's day came a message:
tapped across telegraph wires,
spoken at great mass meetings.
the proclamation had been signed.
emancipation was forever.
God's chosen would be free.
It was written:
...upon this act,
sincerely believed to be an act of justice
warranted by the Constitution
upon military necessity
I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind
and the gracious favor of Almighty God.

Now, more than a century later,
in churches and chapels and houses of prayer,
on the anniversary of freedom's eve,
on watch night:
we gather
to welcome yet another year;
to bring in the jubilee.
Waiting anew for the midnight hour
with whispers and shouts,
singing and silence,
libations and thanksgiving.
Remembering that we were not always

This poem was written by Charyn D. Sutton of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and was used by permission. For more information about the history of Watch Night, visit online

Behold, a New Thing
Ideas for Celebrating a Service of Watch Night

Gathering Music

Call to Worship Psalm 8 or "Watch Night" poem Reader or Liturgical Dancers

Opening Prayer

Reader: O God, distant yet near, we gather as witnesses to your promises that if we seek you with all our hearts, we will find you. Be among us this night. Hear the confessions of our mouths and the yearnings of our hearts. Help us change the narrowness of our vision and the pettiness of our living. Make us new again with your holy grace. Grant us the maturity to accept your many gifts in humility and to use them with faithfulness. Grant to us your spirit that our worship may have integrity and energy, ever witnessing to your holy presence in our lives. We praise and give thanks to you, Eternal Presence; through Jesus Christ we pray. Amen

Worship in Song

"There Is a Balm in Gilead" TNCH 553,
"This Is a Day of New Beginnings" TNCH 417, or
"Go Down, Moses" SOZ 112

Time of Testimonies

(Members of the congregation are invited to witness to how they are living in the freedom of God or how God has blessed and been good to them. These may be spoken or sung. If the poem "Watch Night" was not used at the beginning of the service, it may be read before or following the testimonies.)

Worship in Song

"By Gracious Powers" TNCH 413,
"Over My Head" SOZ 167, or
"I Know the Lord's Laid His Hands on Me" SOZ 166


(The sermon might be based on Revelation 21:1–6a or Matthew 25:31–46.)

Worship in Song

"I Must Tell Jesus" TNCH 486,
"Standin' in the Need of Prayer" SOZ 110, or
"The Time for Praying" SOZ 133

Time of Praying

(The time of praying is intended to extend into the new year. A tradition is that at midnight all are engaged in the act of prayer.)

Worship in Song

"We Shall Overcome" TNCH 570,
"This Little Light of Mine" TNCH 524, or
"I've Got a Robe" SOZ 82

The Benediction

One: God has done a good and new thing! Our mission is to the world. Let us go forth boldly to proclaim the good news that is Jesus Christ; Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Amen and Amen.

The opening prayer, "Invocation," is adapted from The New Century Hymnal (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 1995), 25–26. TNCH refers to hymns from The New Century Hymnal (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 1995) and SOZ refers to hymns from Songs of Zion (Nashville: Abingdon, 1981).

This service was prepared by Vertie Powers. She is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and serves as minister of evangelism, church development, and renewal with the Evangelism Ministry Team of Local Church Ministries, the United Church of Christ, in Cleveland, Ohio.

Copyright 2002 Evangelism Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ, Cleveland. Permission is granted to reproduce or adapt this material for use in services of worship or church education. All publishing rights reserved. Designed and printed by United Church Resources, Local Church Ministries.


Rev. Susan A. Blain
Minister for Worship, Liturgy and Spiritual Formation
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland, Ohio 44115