The Guilt Trip

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OK, if you’re involved with a church at all, and have some connection to that church on social media, you have no doubt seen the “why you need to come back to worship” posts. Pastors really do mean well when they share these but, as with a lot of things which start with the conclusion and then work backwards, they rarely express the reasons why the goal is desired in an introspective way. So, if you’ve encountered one of these and wondered, “You’re serious, now?” Here’s three of the root causes for these posts as I recognize them.

Fear for Institutional Survival

Pastors have been trained to think that “large Sunday attendance means a healthy institution.” So if folks are remaining at home, or otherwise not coming, then the institution is in danger and has to be defended. This means finding ways to drag people back to the institution by any means necessary. And let’s be honest, this impulse can emerge from a fear for the pastor’s own livelihood.

A Twinge of Jealousy

By this point in the pandemic, every pastor has had someone tell them how much they prefer to watch worship at home in the PJs with their coffee in hand. A lot of pastors can understand this appeal. After all, we’ve never had a three day weekend to just “get away” and many of us have not seen family on holidays because we’re in worship on those days and can’t travel. Yah, we signed up for that gig. It’s part of the deal, but there’s still some sadness over it all. So when folks say how much they love staying home in PJs and relaxing on Sunday mornings all those feelings get stirred up and we find that we wish we could do the same thing. But we can’t do that, so we keep schlepping to worship early every week and setting up stuff so other people can relax. Jealousy isn’t a good thing, but pastors feel it just like everyone else.

We’re lonely

This is the reason with which most folks can empathize. Worship is our time with the folks we care for, cherish, and trust. And when folks are not physically present, that absence is felt more than most folks realize. Pastors get up to preach every week and, while we are joyous over the people there, we see the vacuum of the folks who aren’t there. And so, we may try to write something to bring people back. We’ll make it sound theological if we can 1, but real goal is to have our own sense of loneliness calmed.

At Central we took a definitive “no shame” posture about dealing with the pandemic. We would not guilt people back to a place where they were at risk or felt uncomfortable and I believe this remains one of the best thing we did during this whole mess. But I am shocked at the wave of emotions I feel when I see someone in worship who hasn’t been there in a while. Easter Sunday, in fact, I almost broke down and wept to see friends I’d not been around in a while.

And, no, folks shouldn’t feel bad about my loneliness and get guilted back to worship. I’m just pointing out that if I feel that way even though we refuse to guilt people to come back to the church building, then pastors who do not have that conviction must face a huge temptation to guilt people back.

So there’s my list. Have I felt all of these myself? Darn tootin’. Does that make them good or healthy? Nope. Is writing an article to create a theological justification the healthiest way to deal with these feelings? Not in the slightest. We pastors really need to stop passing them around.


  1. I’m shocked by the number of writers who are incapable of this, but that’s another topic.  ↩