John Wesley is widely credited with instituting a tradition known as the “watch-night.” The concept behind the event can be hard to explain to people (especially students), but essentially, it’s prayer, just prayer, in anticipation for what God will do in the new year. Most watch-night events took place from sundown until sunrise, sandwiching that midnight moment. Perhaps those in prayer could hear the merriment of song and “Happy New Year” greetings in distant homes or bars.
I remember my childhood youth minister telling me that a great preacher named Spurgeon wanted to add a little twist in the early 1800’s by preaching through these dark, tiring hours. I’m not sure if he ever actually attempted it, or if anyone came to gut out a 12-hour message. I also remember wondering if enough caffeine existed back then.
African-American churches revived the tradition in 1862/1863 in the United States, as they waited patiently and emotionally for January 1-the day that the Emancipation Proclamation would be signed. The promise was kept. This was certainly an extended season of expectation for them, a season of anticipating a new year and a time of legitimacy and God’s goodness.
Truly, it’s deep in our tradition to wait patiently and prayerfully, similarly to how we wait patiently for the Lord, in the season of Advent. That attitude of expectation extends into the calendar change, as we think about what God will do, in the coming 12 months especially.
In God’s youth ministry at Christ Church, where I serve, I wholeheartedly hope that students adopt an age-old mission statement at the outset of each new year, and that they pray extensively for their parts in it, as well as the part of God:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Isaiah 61:1-2, Luke 4:18-19)
Just as the old prophet Isaiah was sent to do these things, Jesus Christ continued the work in His few years of ministry. I believe we have this same anointing of the Spirit in our youth groups. This acceptable year of the Lord can be proclaimed in so many ways through the myriad interests and talents of our students.
In this past year, we have known many who have been poor, imprisoned, sick, and oppressed. We have tried to live in the Spirit and recognize them, offering them the love of Christ in tangible and intangible ways. I can’t help but think of how this mission is externally focused, but also acknowledges the times of distress of those within our closest circles of friends. In the new year, I hope that our youth will seek out those in their communities who need the proclamation of a year of God’s goodness.
This is what we pray for, and anticipate eagerly, knowing we have a part in it. Even if we don’t bring in the new year with prayer (which is a great idea, by the way), we should expect wonderful things from God. With these in mind, we go out and minister, because we too are anointed. In some way, let’s bring in this new year with prayer for what God will do in, through, and around us and our youth.
by Ryan Langeland
Christ United Methodist Church, Independence, MO
Loving God, Loving Neighbor