Christmas Highlight: New Year's Eve Watch Night Service

by D. Marion Clark December 27, 2013

What are you doing for New Year’s Eve? Have you considered spending the last night of the year in church? The New Year’s Eve Watch Night Service is a long tradition at Tenth, and a rare one in the Philadelphia area. It may have borrowed from the tradition of our African-American sister churches, which began on the eve of 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation was to take effect.

Charles Spurgeon held a watch night service at the endof 1855. He writes: “If it be enquired why I held a Watchnight, let the answer be—because I hoped that the Lord would own the service, and thus souls might be saved. I have preached at all hours the gospel of Jesus, and I see no reason why I may not preach at midnight, if I can obtain hearers.” He sounds a bit like Liam Goligher.

Perhaps Presbyterians borrowed from the Methodists. John Wesley started watch night services one hundred years earlier in 1755. They would also be called Covenant Renewal services. The custom of holding a watch night service on New Year’s Eve was started in America by St. George’s Methodist Church inPhiladelphia in 1770.

I don’t know when or how it started at Tenth. It at least goes back to the Donald Grey Barnhouse years, so that would take it at least to the 50’s and most likely earlier. The earliest year of bulletins I can consult is from 45 years ago in 1968, the first year of James Boice’s tenure. Sunday fell on December 29 that year. Listed in the bulletin is an announcement that the Watch Night Service “will be one of joyful thanksgiving for our Lord’s faithfulness to us throughout the year.” The service began at 9:30 with a reception at 10:30, then followed by a communion service. The announcement adds: “There is no better way for a Christian to end the Old Year and start the New Year than to praise and worship God in fellowship with others.”

What does a watch night service at Tenth look like? From 9:00 to 10:30 is the testimony and hymn singing portion. We sing a couple of hymns and then people go up to microphones in the aisles and share what the Lord has done in their lives. Someone might read a Scripture passage and share how it impacted them. Someone might speak of a lesson that the Lord taught them during the year. Another person might share their testimony of coming to faith in Christ, whether it was this year or years ago. It is a time to do what the worshippers at the temple would do.

I will tell of your name to my brothers;

in the midst of the congregation I will praise you

(Psalm 22:22).

You have multiplied, O LORD my God,

your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us;

none can compare with you!

I will proclaim and tell of them,

yet they are more than can be told

(Psalm 40:1-5).

Come and hear, all you who fear God,

and I will tell what he has done for my soul

(Psalm 66:16).