Since I have had the opportunity to do some guest preaching lately, I thought I would share a few tips based on my experiences that may help those of you who may be given the opportunity too.
I. Know Your Audience
I think this is probably one of the most important aspects. So often visiting pastors come in with their own agenda or way of preaching that differs, or is not appropriate, to the church that they are visiting. Therefore it is good to ask questions beforehand so that you can prepare your sermon accordingly.
1. Ask what Bible translation is generally used – If people are following along in their own Bibles they like to follow in the same version that the preacher is using. People tend to lose track when following along in the ESV when the pastor is preaching from the KJV for example. The word order and style differs. Refer to other translations by all means in order to expand on the text, but it is better to use the same translation that the rest of the congregation generally uses as your main translation.
2. Ask about the demographics of the congregation – Such as how many generally attend the service, how many of them are members or regulars, ages, employment status, students, financial status, and cultural background. This will give you an indication of how your audience will respond to your message. To preach a message about life in the workplace for example, may be inappropriate to a congregation made up of mostly unemployed and retired folks. The message needs to be relevant to the life situations of the congregation. How you would address a young church would also be different on how you address a church of retirees.
3. Ask about their theological position and the general Bible knowledge of the congregation – This is something that will help you to determine if it is indeed a church you would feel comfortable preaching in and whether or not you would like to be associated with them. And to know what there general Bible knowledge is like will help you to know how much explanation you may need to do when it comes to referring to particular passages or events in the Bible and how thorough your explanations of certain theological doctrines may have to be.
4. Do the children attend the service or do they go out to Sunday School – Though you are not necessarily going to be preaching to the children, this will help you to maybe include things in which the children could relate to so that they too also leave having gained something from God’s Word. It will also help you to prepare yourself for any unexpected disruptions by a niggly child during the service.
II. Be Courteous
No one likes to be treated or spoken too in a rude manner. This is something that is especially appropriate to your calling as a pastor. There are a number of ways in which we can show courtesy to the churches that we visit.
1. Never be late, and never leave early – I was in the artillery and the motto of the artillery is “First In, Last Out,” and this has unconsciously become how I generally operate in life. Though we must not go this extreme when it comes to visiting other churches, as to do so would be rude too, it is good practice to make sure that we are not late in arriving at the church. Be there at least half an hour before the service. This allows you to speak to those running things in the background so that you can give them your Powerpoint presentation and make sure it works, or even to maybe make changes the order of the songs so that they fit more appropriately with your message (though this latter one is good to prepare before the day arrives, if possible). And, as is often the case, the elders or pastor of the church may want to pray with and for you before the service.
Also, never be in a rush to leave. To leave as soon as you finish shows that you were only there to speak from behind the pulpit and are not be interested in the people themselves. Spend some time chatting the the people. Have a cup of coffee with them and relax. Let them see that you are a person just like then and that you are not high and mighty over them behind a pulpit. As much as is possible, try to leave your calendar open for the few hours after the service too. Who knows, maybe someone in the church had planned on inviting you around for lunch afterwards.
2. Honour the host pastor and those involved in the service – Thank them for giving you the opportunity to share God’s Word with their flock. Compliment them on the church building, its atmosphere, maybe an up coming or past event. Pastors should not be blowing their own horns, but when you compliment them in front of their own congregations, it shows that congregation that you respect and appreciate their pastor. It may even give the congregation an opportunity to show that appreciation for their pastor too if they applaud or say “Amen” when you pay the compliment.
Be sure to also thank those that work behind the scenes. Thank the worship team for their efforts, the projectionist for putting up your Powerpoint presentation, the sound engineer for making your voice heard, and even those on tea duty. Show some gratitude to everyone involved in the service, whether privately or from the pulpit, it does not matter. It shows your respect for them doing whatever is necessary in making your time there effective.
3. Introduce yourself – especially the first time you preach there. Fill them in on some of the basic details of who you are and your background. Things like when you came to know Christ, your marital status and whether or not you have children (be sure to give their names from the pulpit), where you studied and when, your previous career if you had one, where you are fellowshipping/pastoring now (include greetings from your home church), and the like. Be brief, and do not boost yourself up and blow your own trumpet – No one likes a bragger behind the pulpit. All you are doing is giving yourself some credibility to speak, letting people know why you are qualified to stand in front of them and share God’s Word with them.
4. Respect the time limit – Some churches have 45 minutes allocated to the sermon, others only 30 minutes. Be sensitive to this, whether or not you agree with their reasons for it. That church has allocated those times for a reason so stick to them. If it means cutting out an illustration or two, or not covering as many details about verses as you would like to have, rather err on the side of being shorter rather than longer. But not too short. To deliver a sermon of only 10 minutes when 45 minutes has been allocated shows that you have not properly prepared and possibly do not take the responsibility seriously.
5. Dress respectfully – It is a good rule of thumb to wear a collar and tie. If the church or service turns out to be more casual than what you are used to, then all you need do is remove your tie and open the top button. Wearing a tie is a sign of respect. People will be looking up to you and how you present yourself on the day is noted. To wear a vest and shorts would be highly disrespectful, and indeed so would any dress code that is not relatively smart. Wearing a blazer is not essential, maybe a jersey or cardigan would be suitable if it is cooler weather, but it may be a good idea to carry a blazer with just in case. Either a long or short sleeve shirt is fine, and in a neutral colour is perfect. The same goes with the tie. No Mickey Mouse ties. Especially the first time you visit.
6. Honour the text or topic you are given – It is tempting to want to preach on whatever topic is your flavour of the month, but do not give in to this temptation. No matter how difficult or controversial the topic, do your best to prepare the sermon accordingly. Unless they tell you that you can preach on whatever you wish, stick to their request. And even if you are free to preach what you want, ask them if it is OK to preach a particular topic or text. They may have recently covered it and do not need to hear it again so soon, or it may be one that the congregation may not be ready for as their pastor is leading them in a particular direction in terms of their discipleship. And respect their answer. This is not an opportunity to blow your own trumpet or to jump onto your own hobbyhorse and stir, leaving them with issues that have to be addressed after you are gone.
7. Accept compliments and criticisms graciously – People will always say to you that they enjoyed your sermon even if they did not. After all, you are their guest and they do not want to upset you or be rude to you. They will tell you how good it was in terms of delivery, illustrations, tone of voice, etc, even if it was absolutely rubbish. No matter how genuine their compliments or criticisms are, accept them graciously. Do not let things go to your head – it is not about you, it is about God’s Word and its impacting and changing people’s lives.
But at the same time do not be falsely humble and reply, “It was nothing,” or “All glory goes to God.” Though the latter is true, it comes across as false humility most of the time. Simply say “Thank you” for any compliment. Nothing more, nothing less. If it is a criticism, say, “Thank you. I will certainly think about that.” Do not try to defend yourself or argue your point. This is not the time or place to do that. Especially if it happens while you are at the door greeting people as they leave.
III. A Good Habit
A good habit to get into in order to get a feel for the congregation and the style of preaching that they are used to is to try and visit the church prior to the day you are to preach, on a normal Sunday when their normal preacher is preaching. This has a number of benefits in each of the areas I have already mentioned above.
1. You will know what translation is being used without even having to ask. You will know if they use pew Bibles and how many people actually bring their own. Even how many people actually turn to and follow along as the passage is read. It gives you a feel for the church demographics, the culture, languages, ages, etc. It gives you an indication of their theological position and understanding of the Bible and the style of preaching that they are used to.
2. Visiting beforehand will give you a clearer picture of the order of service, traditions, what their projection facilities are like and whether you will be using a hands-free, hand-held or even no microphone. You will know how their pastor dresses so you can dress accordingly, the layout of the building, where would be a good place to sit do that you are free to move up to the front without hindrance, etc.
3. Finally, visiting beforehand shows the pastor and the church that you are taking the responsibility seriously. That you are genuinely interested in them and that you are going to do the job to the best of your ability.
It is not necessary to have your sermon prepared before you visit, but personally I find it does help to have already done some preparation. You already know the direction and basic flow of your sermon, and it is often easier to change, remove or add things afterwards than to try and prepare a whole new sermon based on what you have observed and learned during your visit. Another reason why I prefer to have done some preparation is if someone asks me during my visit what I am going to be preaching on. It shows the person asking that you are prepared and are not leaving things to the last minute, that you take your responsibility seriously.
IV. Follow Up
Finally follow up. Contact the person who invited you and give them some feedback on how the day went. Maybe a person came to you and sought some counselling on an issue which you encouraged them to speak to their pastor about. Depending on the issue you may not necessarily give the pastor all the details, to do so will betray that person’s trust and they may not speak to you the next time you visit, but at least give the host pastor enough information to keep an eye on, and maybe to prepare himself to be able to counsel, that person at a later stage. People may also have asked some pertinent questions on your sermon that the host pastor may need to be aware of for a follow up message.
It is also a good habit to ask the host pastor for some follow up from him in terms of your theology, delivery, people’s response, if and where you can improve, etc. This shows humility and that you are willing to learn and change where necessary. Any feedback you receive in this regard will be valuable as it will be a new pair of ears, from another pastor. All too often the people within our own congregations will not tell you what is wrong with your preaching in order not to offend you. They may try and correct your doctrine, but they often do not tell you there was something wrong in your delivery unless it was something that seriously offended them. They will be more inclined to tell someone else first. So treasure the comments from the other pastor and make changes if and where necessary.
Though these tips do not cover all aspects when preaching as a guest in another church, I hope that they give you some direction for your own ministries. By applying these few tips when next you are invited to preach at another church, you will immediately become more effective and respected as a guest pastor. Who knows, maybe you will even be invited back.
Feel free to share any further tips or comments.