Every preacher must learn how to be a good guest. Even if you are not an itinerant minister, you will inevitably engage in pulpit-swaps on Sundays or receive invitations to preach at various venues in other churches. Guest preaching is a wonderful privilege and, though I have not seen much written about it, there is an etiquette.
I spent some time filling pulpits quite regularly before my first pastorate. What follows are simply some mental notes I’ve made over the years. Some are faux pas that I have recognized in others. Some are my own blunders. Here are five “dos” and five “don’ts” as I see things.
Honor their customs.
Does their preacher normally use the pulpit? You use it too. There’s no need to demonstrate how independent you are of notes if their regular preacher is not. You may feel constricted, but take one for the team.
Other examples abound: do they read the entire portion of Scripture before the sermon proper? Accommodate that. Does the preacher normally call out the page number in the pew Bible where the passage can be found? Make a note to do the same. Aim for continuity with what they are used to in matters that are not of supreme importance.
Honor their culture.
If they dress up, you dress up. If they dress down, dress down. And, please, if they end by a certain time, you end at that time. You are expected to be professional enough to know when you have passed the allotted time for your sermon. Land the plane and respect their time.
Honor their context.
Ask some contextual questions ahead of time: What’s been their diet in scripture this year so far? What are the elders wanting to emphasize in their church during this season? Some basic demographic information might help you (age range, education levels, ethnicities and cultures represented). Do some homework on them so you can deliver a more targeted message.
It is customary and appropriate to say a few words of thanks for the privilege of being there with them. Like Paul, you’re greeting them before teaching them. Let them know you are grateful for them and for this opportunity. Say something kind about those whom you might personally know including their pastor.
Respect their volunteers.
Give their audio-visual team ample notice if you want to use slides or have them display verses on the screen during your sermon. They have a lot of work to do already and should not have to deal with too many last minute requests.
Don’t ask what the honorarium is.
If you are invited to preach and you ask, “How much?” it can really put them off. And it probably should. A worker is worth his wages but it can hinder the gospel if you make it look like your decision to deliver it is based on whether it’s worth it to your pocket.
Don’t offer critiques freely.
Don’t bless them with your insights about how they can do things more biblically without the invitation to do so. This is especially true if it’s your first time with them. Shy of anything completely unbiblical or anti-gospel, keep unsolicited critique unspoken as well.
Don’t arrive late.
It makes everyone nervous. Plan on getting there early and ask for a place to quietly pray over your message or go over your passage prayerfully. If you fall behind then you lose your buffer time, not their trust.
Don’t run out.
Unless there are special circumstances, don’t leave immediately or worse, before the service is officially over. Shake a few hands afterwards, take some questions, meet some people. Be there for them, not for the sermon.
Don’t take shots at the Pastor.
Refrain from attacking the pastor of the church while you’re filling in for him. You might do this unwittingly so take caution. If your sermon criticizes a particular approach to preaching or to pastoral ministry, be sure that the pastor of the church agrees with you. If you disagree with him enough to use his own pulpit against him, then just don’t accept the invitation.