Preaching Engagements – Do’s and Don’ts
November 16, 1994. I remember that day so vividly because that was when I received confirmation from God that He had called me to preach. I was 17 years old. I preached my first sermon that following month at First Baptist Church in Austin, TX (and, yes, I can recall the text and title of my sermon. But there’s no need to share that. Why live in the past, right?). Since then, God has graciously afforded me opportunities to preach His word and to learn, via experience and observation, some lessons on pulpit etiquette along the way. Here are some do’s and don’ts when you are invited to preach at a church as a guest minister. Keep in mind these are simply general rules of thumb and should, therefore, be adapted to the context you find yourself in.
Do express gratitude
Death to entitlement. Always remember that the pastor didn’t have to open up his pulpit for you. For sure, God was ultimately responsible for providing the opportunity, but he used that pastor to extend the invitation to you. So be sure to take a moment to say thanks (both privately and publicly), even if it is not your first time preaching there. Remember: you might be in demand, but you are not indispensable. If the congregation is encouraged to bring their “amens,” then be sure to bring your “thank-you’s.”
Do stay within the preaching time limit
There have been a couple of times when my pastor, Dr. Karry D. Wesley, has had to pull me aside to correct me for preaching too long. I understand the reason for this now better than I did at the time. Generally, people are accustomed to the primary preacher’s sermon time and will quickly become mentally fatigued and irritated if a guest minister exceeds that. Many will check out on you and some might even get up and walk out. It is better to leave people wanting to hear more than for them to leave having wished they heard less. So, be sure to ask how much time is allotted for you to preach, and then do your best to honor that.
Do be yourself
I’d rather be an original me than a copy of someone else. Don’t get me wrong. When it comes to preaching, it is okay to learn from, even admire within reason, those who are more experienced and developed than you. But whatever you do, don’t try to become them. There is only one [Insert Your Favorite Preacher’s Name Here], and there is only one you. The people to whom you are preaching will appreciate it too. Congregants might be flattered at first that you look up to their pastor to the point to where you seek to mimic his preaching delivery, but after a while you will grow stale on them. People can smell inauthenticity from a mile away. Find your voice. Get comfortable in your preaching skin. Be you.
Do inform the pastor of your sermon
In many cases, pastors will give you leeway to preach on whatever the Lord puts on your heart. I have recently found it to be a welcomed courtesy by pastors when I informed them of my sermon plan ahead of time.
Do dress according to the church’s culture
If the people dress formally when they attend service, then follow suit. If members don flip flops, pants or shorts, and tropical tee-shirts (shout out to Pastor Rick Warren), put some lotion on those feet, legs, and elbows and join in. If there are no preferences, then wear your normal getup. The point of you being there anyway is to declare God’s word, not to display your wardrobe.
Do steer clear from controversial matters
If while preparing your sermon, you have this thought, “Oh man. This is for sure going to be a controversial message because I know where they stand on this issue.” then it is probably best that you not preach it. If the issue is a core conviction of yours and would violate your conscience to preach at that church, then it would be better to not accept the invitation or to rescind your confirmation.
Do state the Bible version you’re using
Before you begin reading your text, it is a good practice to let the congregation know what version of the Bible you are preaching from, especially if you know the pastor uses a different one for his sermons.
Do respect the church’s worship customs
If the congregation normally remains seated while the preacher reads the text, please honor that. If it is customary for them to sing a closing doxology, or to invite the preacher back up to have final remarks before dismissing in prayer, then comply. Simply put, respect the house.
Do preach the word
Seek to make an impact, not to impress. And the only way to do that is to allow the word of God to be the road upon which your sermon travels, rather than a runway by which it takes off. Stick to the text and watch God change hearts and destinies through our finite efforts to communicate His holy word.
Don’t arrive late
Unless you have a good reason, don’t arrive just in time to preach. In my mind, you are not on time. You’re late. So arrive early. But things happen. Your flight is delayed. You get stuck in traffic or lost on the way to the church. These types of incidences are understandable. Just be sure to contact the pastor or someone at the church to inform them of your situation. Don’t leave the host pastor hanging, causing him to constantly check the time, wondering – as he begins to toss around options in his head if you are a no-show – what is going on because he hasn’t heard from you.
Don’t prolong the preliminaries
Don’t taxi on the runway too long, otherwise your “passengers” will become frustrated and impatient. Take only the needed time to appropriately acknowledge the host pastor and congregation, and those who are associated with you, and then get the sermon off the ground.
Don’t embellish your relationship to the Pastor
Don’t say that you and the pastor are close friends when you know you two are merely acquaintances. Your pretense will run the risk of creating offense. Be cordial and grateful with all sincerity and truth.
Don’t take liberties not afforded
Don’t preach for 45 minutes and then sing an impromptu invitational medley for 10 minutes. Unless you’ve been given permission, don’t extend the invitation to discipleship or salvation, or an altar call (i.e., calling people to the front of the stage for prayer). Don’t publicly ask for permission from the pastor to do something that should have been asked privately. Don’t seek to raise a love offering for the pastor. Don’t call for charismatic worship demonstrations in non-charismatic churches (e.g., encouraging all worshipers to speak to God in tongues, or to run up to the altar and place a “faith seed” at your feet, etc.). Just preach and then take your seat.
Don’t continue the sermon at the close of the service
It is tempting to try and wrap up some loose ends of your sermon near the conclusion of the service, but don’t do it. Don’t add another point before you give closing remarks. Don’t re-preach your sermon in your benedictory prayer. Trust God that all that was said was exactly what was needed for that time. No more, no less.
Don’t act grandiose
If I could borrow a title from one of John Piper’s books and tweak it for this point, let me say, “Brothers, We Are Not Celebrities: A Plea to Pastors/Preachers for Humble Ministry.” I will never forget the time a guest minister was invited to preach at my home church in Austin. Why, when we went outside to check if he had arrived yet (he was late, by the way), did we see him pulling up in a stretched limousine? Oh, but it gets better – or I should say worse. The driver gets out, proceeds to the back, and opens the door for he and his wife. His wife exists first and then he follows. When I tell you this brother looked like he took a page out of Flava Flav’s book (no disrespect to Flav), I am not kidding at all. This brother had rings on almost every finger and a few chains around his neck. But seeking in my heart not to judge a book by its cover, we approached the limo, greeted them, and quickly escorted him to the pulpit. Honestly though, I was skeptical. Well, when he opened his mouth to preach, suffice it to say my suspicions were confirmed.
Brothers, when we step on – and off – the stage, may pride be low and humility high, and may it be our ambition for Jesus to get all the shine.