So you’ve just been asked to consider preaching at a nearby church. Congratulations! Preaching the Word of God is a high honor, and one that you should take very seriously. However, guest preaching is more complicated than simply showing up and preaching. I’ve put together a checklist that I use for my own guest preaching engagements, and I’m sharing it here in hopes that it will help you as well.
Before you accept the assignment, ask yourself:
- Is the date of the engagement clear on my calendar? Look beyond Sunday morning itself. Make sure the night before is clear enough so you can get plenty of rest. Plan for time after the service to talk with people. (I’ve been invited to lunch after preaching more than once!)
- Do I have adequate time available to prepare (or adapt) a sermon? If you’re revising a sermon you’ve used before, it will likely take less time that writing a new sermon from scratch, but you still need to read through your sermon notes to update any illustrations, adapt it to the congregation you’re preaching to, and pray over it. And if you’ve preached at this church before, be VERY sure you haven’t preached this sermon here before!
- Will my family be able to join me? This isn’t absolutely essential, but I’ve always found it less awkward to have my wife or one of my kids join me when I’m guest preaching. It tends to break the ice a little more before and after the service.
- Is the church theologically compatible with my own beliefs? I’m not saying that only Baptists can preach in Baptist churches, only Foursquare types can preach in Foursquare churches, and so on. But if there are significant differences between you and the congregation, make sure that the church knows that – and that they know you’ll steer clear of conflict.
Questions to ask the pastor (or whoever’s hiring you):
- What time should I arrive? Plan to arrive 20 minutes prior to the time they’re expecting you. You never know when traffic or an accident could slow you down. And if you get there a few minutes early, that gives you time to pray!
- Who will be my point of contact on the day itself? If you’re filling in because the pastor is going on vacation, it’s not a good thing if he’s your only contact! Get the name and phone number of someone who will be onsite when you arrive.
- How many services will I be preaching at? If the church has two services, it’s best to know that in advance!
- How long is a typical sermon at your church? It’s OK to be a little bit shorter or longer than what the congregation is used to, but I strongly recommend trying to be within 5 minutes of the norm.
- Is the pastor preaching through a sermon series at present? It’s usually best to select a text that doesn’t overlap a current series. If the church is in the middle of Romans, maybe go for Hebrews or Psalms. (But not Revelation. Never preach from Revelation as a guest preacher.)
- What version of the Bible do you typically use in preaching? Will using an alternate translation be a problem? If they’re used to the ESV and you preach from the ESV, you’re all set. But if they’re using (say) the King James Version, definitely ask to see if your preferred preaching translation is going to be a problem.
- Do you typically use slides in your sermons? If yes, then you need to know what program they’re using (it’ll likely be either PowerPoint, Keynote, or Google Slides). Ask if you need to send the slides in advance, who to send them to, and by when. Whether you send them in advance or not, have a backup copy on a USB thumb drive with you on the day you’re preaching. It’s also helpful to have a printout of your sermon notes or manuscripts to give to the person running the slides, with cues so they know when to advance the slides.
- What does the pastor/speaker normally wear? This is important both for more formal churches and for more casual ones. I once wore a bowtie to preach at a church where jeans and polos were the norm, and it was a mistake. If the pastor wears normally wears a suit, wear a suit. If he wears jeans and a t-shirt, skip the suit. (If you’re unable to get this info in advance, I advise going with khakis and a sportcoat, and have a tie in your car just in case.)
- Will I be expected to give an altar call at the conclusion of the sermon? If the answer to this one is “yes”, definitely ask more questions to see how they typically run it – how many verses, how are those who come forward handled and cared for, etc. (I’m not a fan of altar calls, so I try to avoid these or have an elder or deacon of the church run them, but try to be respectful of how the church does things. Remember, you’re the guest – it’s not your job to “fix” their practices!)
- Will I be expected to perform other aspects of the service? Some pastors dismiss with prayer, others with a benediction. You need to know if you’re expected to handle this, and be sure to have a benediction ready to go if needed.
- Will the Lord’s Supper be observed, and if so, will I be expected to lead the ceremony? If the answer is “yes”, get detailed information on what you need to do.
- Are there any events after the service that I should plan to attend? Skipping out on a potluck is bad form, unless it absolutely cannot be avoided.
(NOTE: I typically do not ask about whether an honorarium will be offered by the hosting church. Sometimes it will come up in conversation, but most of the time it doesn’t. Most people just aren’t that comfortable discussing issues of money. But if that makes a difference to whether or not you take the engagement, then by all means ask.)
A bonus suggestion: If the church puts its sermons online, listen to a recent sermon to get a feel for the type of preaching the congregation is used to.
On Sunday Morning:
- Make sure you have everything you’ll need to take with you:
- Sermon notes. (If you preach from an iPad, make sure it’s fully charged and the notes are on the device, not in the cloud.)
- USB thumb drive with copy of slides
- Printout of sermon notes for projectionist
- Water bottle. Coughing fits happen, and you don’t want to cause the distraction of having someone have to run get you water.
- Cough drops. See above.
- Breath mints.
- Eat a good breakfast. A rumbly stomach is a distraction you don’t need.
- Take some time to pray while you’re driving to the church. Some good worshipful music for the drive doesn’t hurt either.
- When you arrive, find your point of contact, and ask if there are any emergent issues going on with the congregation that you need to know about. Example: If a church matriarch passed away the night before, you may want to adopt a more somber tone in your sermon.
- Before the service, greet people near you. You may have a tendency (like me) to be running through your sermon again mentally right before the service, but if your face looks like a sourpuss while you’re doing it, it will affect how you’re heard. Be friendly. Smile.
After the Service:
- Many churches will have you stand at the back door to greet people as they leave. Others won’t, but people will likely still come up to talk with you. Be gracious to them – you are God’s minister to them on this day. Listen to them. Pray with them. Don’t rush.
- Before you leave, check in with your point of contact. If you’re going to receive an honorarium and you didn’t get it before the service, this is when you’ll receive it. Don’t rip open the envelope right then and there to see how much it is. Be gracious regardless of whether you receive anything. (And you’ll be surprised: the largest honorarium I ever received was from a church with about 12 people attending; Another church where I preached multiple services to over 500 people didn’t give an honorarium at all. Pulpit supply is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get.)
- Sometime during the following week, email the pastor (or whoever hired you) thanking him for the opportunity, and ask if he received any feedback that he thinks you’d find helpful.