6 Tips for Being a Helpful Guest Speaker

I’ve had the privilege of preaching all over the world and have tried hard to learn how to be a good guest preacher. While the commands of hospitality often fall on the host, a guest must also honor those who have called him to serve—and that certainly includes being a guest preacher.

How do we honor God and the congregation we’re called to serve when we preach in another congregation? Here are some lessons I’ve learned over the years.

1. Study

Being a guest preacher means you can present the same sermon over and over again. That can be good for your soul as a passage becomes embedded within you, but it can also mean you stop studying.

I’m often asked to preach on missions, theological education, and immigration. Since I’ve preached the same sermon before, I must be wary of forgetting the Word is living and active. It’s food for my soul; I must feed and re-feed myself. Preaching the same sermon over and over can turn into performance. Be careful.

2. Engage the Congregation

One option as a guest preacher is to interact with no one but the pastor and only talk about yourself to the congregation. I used to take this route and many guest preachers do, reasoning that the pastor is my host and people want to hear about my work.

Don’t do it.

Participate in the worship service. Don’t sit in the pastor’s office until it’s time to speak. You’ll meet some amazing Christians if you wander the halls and say hello. Take time before and after the sermon to talk to people. Ask questions. Express genuine interest. My trips are always enriched when I do.

I’ve met a woman who just changed her name from Marie to Naomi to commemorate her pastor rescuing her from domestic abuse. I was introduced to a Dreamer recipient and ICE litigator, both wrestling with applying Scripture to their lives. I’ve met saints who’ve walked with Jesus for 80 years. They’re all out there; go meet them.

If you hide or spend time talking about yourself, you’ll limit your effectiveness.

If you hide or spend the time talking about yourself, you’ll limit your effectiveness. When you get to the pulpit, start with “Thank you.” It’s a privilege to be asked to preach and entrusted by the leadership to proclaim God’s Word.

3. Don’t Grind Your Axe

Every church has its own distinctiveness and varying levels of maturity. You may find some of it uncomfortable. But you’re not there to criticize and scold. There’s a temptation to diagnose something on first impression, set up a strawman, and destroy your fictitious scenario.

That’s not loving your neighbor. You’d probably never treat your family that way. Focus on what the congregation is ready to hear.

Guest preachers can also forget that members may not be wrestling with the same issues as their own church. Be careful about your assumed knowledge. Be cautious about mentioning authors or organizations no one in the church knows. Every church has its go-to people and organizations they quote and trust, so be careful when dropping names.

4. Steer Clear of Fixing Things

When I help people learn how to teach overseas, I’m wary of answering overly specific questions about potentially touchy issues. One student may be trying to get you to take a position against another student, and you won’t even know it. The wrong answer could end up splitting the class.

For example, perhaps you know the church is divided over music styles, or you’re aware of relational conflict among leaders, or maybe the missions committee is planning short-term trips that will only be harmful. You don’t have the relational capital or enough information to guide them wisely.

If you wind up in a complex situation that requires wisdom, time, and skill, listen more than you talk. If you do speak to it, tread lightly.

5. Decide Your Money Policy Up Front

There are two extremes in dealing with practical parts of making your living as a teacher of God’s Word. One extreme is to never talk about money and trust God. This usually means you assume God knows what you need, and he’ll provide without you asking.

The other extreme is leading with the money question, stating the amount you need to come or to cover expenses. Most people probably do the former, while well-known speakers seem to do the latter.

You’ll have to decide for yourself. I’ve generally taken the “don’t ask” policy, knowing I’ll sometimes lose money after factoring in travel and time. It has generally seemed to work out. If I need to ask about money, I usually start the conversation with “Can I ask you a somewhat sensitive question?” In the West that lets the person know you’re asking the money question with caution and aren’t motivated by it.

6. Be Sensitive to Cultural Differences  

For those who travel abroad or teach in diaspora churches, being a guest preacher brings an extra layer of complexity. Cultural assumptions on how to talk about money, how to apply parts of Scripture (those that deal with conflict), how to receive hospitality and express humility and thankfulness, and how to act as a leader all affect the visit.

Here are my general rules:

  • I try to learn basic cultural practices ahead of time to understand expectations—things like how to address a leader, how to answer questions, how interpersonal relationships work, or how long to speak.
  • I attempt to learn greetings in the native language. This shows I care and am trying to understand them.
  • If I’m given a gift such as money or food in the context of poor churches, I receive it with gratitude and humility.

Always a Privilege

The opportunity to preach anywhere is a great privilege—you’ve been entrusted by God to wield his sword. If you’re the guest preacher, clarifying the purpose of the trip can help serve your host well.

Think of others before yourself, ask questions, and pray you’ll show genuine interest in those you’re visiting. Use your words carefully. You’re the guest and not the shepherd, who will remain with those people long after you’re gone.

6 Tips for Being a Helpful Guest Speaker

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