I’ve been preaching for over twenty-four years, and have had the opportunity to stand as a guest in another pastors pulpit hundreds of times. Looking through the rear view mirror I still wince over some huge mistakes I’ve made as a visiting preacher. Along the way there have been five basic guidelines I try to walk in when it’s time to preach in another person’s church:
1. Speak as a Barnabas, not as a Jeremiah. Unless the Lord makes it abundantly clear, your default as a guest preacher is to encourage the people, not to beat them up. Tilt towards tenderness, not toughness. These people don’t know you. They have no context for your words. They hear what you’re saying, they just don’t know your heart. Encourage. Now don’t hear me as saying don’t be truthful, just make sure you wrap your words in love. Your posture should be one of placing your arm around them, not pointing a defiant finger.
2. Be gracious. When you stand let the host pastor and the church know you are grateful for the opportunity to serve. Thank the pastor and the people. I’m not talking about flattery- which is saying something to a person’s face that you would never say about them behind their back (gossip is the reverse- it is saying something about them that you would never say to them). Find something you genuinely admire about the pastor and let the people know. There’s something redemptive that happens in me when I stand and go on notice that I’m just thankful for the privilege of preaching.
3. Time. Always, always, always ask the host pastor, or whoever is running the pulpit, two questions. The first is how long does the pastor normally preach. This is key because like working out, the audience has been cardiologically conditioned to listening for a certain period of time. Going beyond their conditioning will result in the people’s fatigue. Secondly, ask how long you have to preach, and don’t go over that amount. Remember, it’s always better to leave the people wanting more, than waiting for you to sit down somewhere.
4. Subject. I like to find out what the host pastor has been preaching on and to steer as far away as possible from that specific subject. If he’s been in a series on the gospel of Matthew, then I ain’t preaching Matthew no matter how bad that sermon might “kill the house” (I hate that phrase by the way). You never know what angle the pastor might be taking, or where he’s trying to lead the people. As the old folks used to say, “Stay in your lane”.
5. Don’t counsel someone elses members. Once you’re finished preaching you’ll probably shake hands with the people. Inevitably, my experience has shown me, that someone will want you to counsel them, and I’ve found it most helpful to point them to their pastor. Remember, that person is under that pastor’s authority, not yours. So I will offer a compassionate prayer, and keep moving.