New Year’s Eve Watchnight services are quite popular in many Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches. Church members are encouraged to come to the service so they can pray in the new year. What better way is there to start the new year than fellowshipping and praying with fellow Christians? the pastor asks. This is a rhetorical question because church members are expected to be in attendance no matter what.
Typically, in the churches I pastored, the New Year’s Eve service started around 9:00 pm and lasted until just after midnight. Families with young children were expected to bring their youngsters to the service. If the children were too tired to stay awake, parents were encouraged to let them sleep on the pew. Imagine being a parent of children who normally went to bed at 8:00 pm. On this one night, you were expected to keep your children up so they could “experience” praying in the new year. Needless to say, there were plenty of cranky children (and parents) at the service.
While each New Year’s Eve service was unique, there was a program of sorts. Following the food, fun, and fellowship methodology, each service would have a time when church members shared a communal meal. Usually, this meal was a potluck. After eating we would gather in the church auditorium to watch a movie. One year we watched the Bob Jones classic, Sheffey. Another year we watched the rapture thriller A Thief in the Night.
After the movie was over, it was time for the fellowship part of the service. Church members would give testimonies about what God had done for them over the past year. Often, these testimonies were quite emotional, as church members focused on the wonders of salvation and how merciful and kind God had been throughout the year. While no one was “required” to give a testimony, not giving one meant that you didn’t have anything for which to thank God. Most church members, even those who rarely spoke in public, gave a testimony.
Around 11:00 pm, I would preach a short sermon, exhorting church members to do great exploits for God in the coming year. One year, I had every church member write down spiritual goals for the upcoming year. These goals were then put in a sealed envelope, only to be opened at the following year’s New Year’s Eve service. Once I completed my sermon, we would sing songs to prepare our hearts for praying in the new year. A few moments before the clock struck Midnight, every able-bodied church member would kneel at the altar and silently start praying. After fifteen minutes or so, I would begin to pray out loud, signifying that the prayer session was over. We would then arise from our knees, embrace one another, and wearily return to our homes.
Once the Gerencser family became larger, it became increasingly difficult to deal with our children during the New Year’s Eve services. Other families were facing similar troubles, so I decided to do away with the service. Not one church member complained about us NOT having a Watchnight service. In later years, we would invite church members to our home on New Year’s Eve to play games.
Do you have any stories you would like to share about attending a New Year’s Eve Watchnight service? Please share them in the comment section.
One reason for having a New Year’s Eve service was to keep church members from ringing in the New Year in the manner of the “world.”
Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
For those of us who came of age in Evangelical churches in the late 1960s and 1970s, we remember countless sermons about the rapture, the coming second of Jesus, and the Great Tribulation. The classic Evangelical horror flick, A Thief in the Night, was released in 1972. Wikipedia explains the plot of A Thief in the Night this way:
A young woman named Patty Myer awakens one morning to a radio broadcast announcing the disappearance of millions around the world showing that the rapture has occurred. She finds that her family has disappeared and that she has been left behind. The United Nations sets up an emergency government system called the United Nations Imperium of Total Emergency (UNITE) and declare that those who do not receive The Mark of the Beast identifying them with UNITE will be arrested.
Several flashbacks occur to times in Patty’s life before the rapture has happened. The flashbacks also show her two friends and their different approaches to Christianity, one who considers Jesus Christ her Only Lord and Only Savior and the other, Diane, who does not take it seriously. Patty considers herself a Christian because she occasionally reads her Bible and goes to church regularly, where the pastor is really an unbeliever. She refuses to believe the warnings of her friends and family that she will go through The Great Tribulation if she does not accept Jesus Christ as her Only Lord and Only Savior. One morning, she awakens to find that her family and millions of others have suddenly disappeared.
Patty seems a strange breed of person who both refuses to trust Jesus Christ as her Only Lord and Only Savior and also refuses to take The Mark. Patty desperately tries to avoid the law and The Mark but is captured by UNITE. Patty escapes but, after a chase, is cornered by UNITE on a bridge and falls from the bridge to her death.
Patty then awakens, and the entire film’s plot is revealed to have been a dream. She is tremendously relieved; however, her relief is short-lived when the radio announces that millions of people have in fact disappeared. Horrified, Patty frantically searches for her family only to find them missing too. Traumatized and distraught, Patty realizes that The Rapture has indeed occurred, and she has been left behind. In the ensuing plot the questions are whether or not she will be caught, as she was in her dream, and whether or not she will choose to take The Mark to escape execution.
The 1970s featured prophecy-themed sermons from the books of Revelation and Daniel. In 1976, the Walking Bible, Evangelist Jack Van Impe came to Findlay to hold a city-wide crusade. Van Impe’s sermons were filled will warnings about the imminent return of Jesus and the Great Tribulation. I attended a Bob Harrington crusade (Please see Evangelist Bob Harrington: It’s Fun Being Saved) that featured several sermons about the soon return of Jesus. The widely-read Sword of the Lord ran regular articles and sermons about the pretribulational rapture of the church and the horrors of the soon-coming Tribulation.
Much of the evangelistic frenzy in the 1970s was driven by the belief that Jesus was preparing to come back soon — maybe today! Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches, in particular, grew quickly, so much so that many of the largest churches in the United States were IFB congregations.
Of course, Jesus did not return in the 1970s. The 1980s saw Hal Lindsay’s book, The Late, Great Planet Earth, first published in 1970, which renewed Evangelical fervor with its prediction that the rapture would take place 40 years after the 1948 establishment of Israel as a nation. Lindsay’s book, The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon, continued to stoke the fires of Evangelical zeal. (By 1990, The Late, Great Planet Earth had sold 28 million copies.) In 1988, Edgar Whisenant released a publication titled 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will be in 1988. (88 Reasons sold 4.5 million copies, and 300,000 free copies were mailed to pastors.) Whisenant predicted that the rapture would take place between September 11 and 13, 1988. Jesus, of course, was a no show in 1988 and has yet to make an appearance to this day.
By the time the 1990s arrived, rapture-mania had pretty well died out. Oh, Evangelical pastors and evangelists still preached eschatological themed sermons, but the fervor that drove churches previously was gone. While preachers still preach about the imminent return of Jesus, such sermons no longer motivate congregants to busily win souls before Jesus comes again and it is too late.
Officially, most Evangelicals believe in the pretribulational rapture of the church. However, if you let their works testify to what they really believe, it is evident that Evangelicals no longer believe that Gabriel is fixing to blow his trumpet and Jesus is returning in the clouds to catch away his chosen ones. TV preachers such as con artist Jim Bakker continue to preach up the could-be-tomorrow rapture, but tomorrow never comes and their bank accounts continue to grow.
Evangelicals have traded a soon-coming Lord for megachurches, fancy AV systems, praise bands, relational preaching and, most importantly, political power. Evangelicals seem far more concerned with expanding their kingdoms on earth than they do evangelizing the lost and building the kingdom to come. I don’t know of one Evangelical preacher, church leader, or congregant, for that matter, who lives as if Jesus could split the eastern sky today. I told Polly last night that Evangelicals sure do talk and sing a lot about Heaven, but none of them seem to be in much hurry to get there. The vast majority of Evangelicals not only are indifferent about their own souls, but they also couldn’t care less about the souls of their unsaved, heathen neighbors. Evangelicalism has become that which it stood against decades ago — institutionalized. It has become little more than cultural religion. The only reason any of us should give a thought about Evangelicalism is that it continues to have a dangerous anti-human hold on the Republican Party. Unbelievers now outnumber Evangelicals in the United States, but we have nowhere near the political and cultural power Evangelicals have.
Evangelicals can continue to preach up the soon return of Jesus, but it’s evident to anyone who is paying attention that they no longer believe what they are preaching. In fact, I suspect many Evangelicals hope Jesus isn’t in any hurry to destroy the world with fire. Deep down, most Evangelicals wonder if they really want to trade the good life of the here and now for an eternity of prostrating themselves before a narcissistic God.
About Bruce Gerencser
Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.
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This is the one hundred and eighth installment in The Sounds of Fundamentalism series. This is a series that I would like readers to help me with. If you know of a video clip that shows the crazy, cantankerous, or contradictory side of Evangelical Christianity, please send me an email with the name or link to the video. Please do not leave suggestions in the comment section. Let’s have some fun!
Today’s Sound of Fundamentalism is the movie A Thief in the Night, produced by Russell S. Doughten. Released in 1972, A Thief in the Night was used by thousands of Fundamentalist churches as a tool to scare and evangelize the lost. According to Wikipedia, over 300 million people have viewed A Thief in the Night. I saw this movie when it was first released, seeing it several more times in the 1970s and 1980s.
It’s been 40 years since the release of a film that wrecked havoc on the sleep of millions of souls in America and around the world, a film that combined religious themes with the chills of a horror film. No, not The Exorcist. But a year before that: Long before millions of readers were getting worried about being left behind, scores of viewers fretted about the ramifications of A Thief in the Night.
The film told the story of a young woman, Patty Myers (played by Patty Dunning), who wakes one morning to find that her husband has suddenly vanished, along with millions of other people throughout the world. The film brings to life the dispensational view of Matthew 24:36-44—one will be taken and one will be left—assuming the Rapture of believers takes place before seven years of tribulation … coming without warning, like a thief in the … well, you know. Patty faces the nightmare of a one-world totalitarian government that will usher in the coming of the Anti-Christ.
At the time, it was a radical new way of making a Christian film. There had been Christian movies before, particularly from Billy Graham’s World Wide Pictures (usually about a troubled teen who considers smoking a cigarette before being converted at a Graham crusade). But Thief was different, using the conventions of science fiction and horror—everything from the “It’s Only a Dream … or is it?” device (from every other episode of The Twilight Zone), to the paranoid “Are They With Me or Against Me?” questions (replace the Pod People of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with the Mark of the Beast people), to the End Credits with a Twist (The End??? from The Blob becomes The End Is Near). (Not coincidentally, Thief’s executive producer, Russell Doughten Jr., worked on 1958’s The Blob.)
A Thief in the Night also introduced new audiences to the budding Christian rock music scene, featuring Larry Norman’s “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” sung in the movie by The Fishmarket Combo. (Check out the groovy/spooky video of the song here; they’re also featured in the film’s trailer.)
The film’s budget was $60,000, a paltry sum compared to today’s indie films, rarely made for less than $1 million. Thom Rachford, one of the actors in Thief and now a vice president at Russ Doughten Films (RDF), said that to raise the money, the filmmakers prayed and asked people to invest $5,000 apiece.
A Thief in the Night has reportedly been seen by over 300 million people around the world. Pirated copies appeared in communist countries during the Cold War, and it since has turned up on YouTube. Upon its initial release, the production company developed a program to share the gospel with viewers; RDF records show six million people made decisions for Christ through their ministry.
(video removed from YouTube)
I Wish We Had All Been Ready by Larry Norman. This Norman tune was the theme song for A Thief in the Night.