I hope these questions are helpful for my friends who are called upon to preach in a new church from time-to-time.
- Which service do you want me to preach and when does it start? If there are multiple services, you need to find out which ones you’re expected to cover. When you figure out when the service starts, plan to arrive at least 15-20 minutes early so you have time to greet people, connect your media, get your wireless microphone, and calm your nerves.
- Would you like me to attend another service or Sunday School? Some churches would find it helpful if you attended a Sunday School class, but others don’t see it as necessarily helpful. Get a sense of the importance of this meeting, if it exists, and plan accordingly.
- Who will be introducing me? This question is especially important if the lead pastor is out of town. You need to know who to especially introduce yourself to and who to be watching for your queue from to go onstage.
- What’s the usual order of service? This question not only helps clarify when you’ll be going onstage, but also flags any liturgical anomalies that you may do well to be aware of.
- How much time is usually allotted for the sermon? You need to ask about sermon duration so that you can begin shaping your content for the amount of time you’ll have. I often do a practice run to make sure that I’m in the ballpark of the time that I’ve been given. As a guest speaker, I’m pretty sure that it’s a cardinal sin to preach too long. You’ll never get a congregation angry at you for letting them out a few minutes early.
- When do you usually finish? This is a slightly different question than the previous one. Sometimes an excited worship leader, other liturgical elements, or an unusual announcement prior to the preaching may eat into your allotted time. You need a method to gauge if this has happened.
- Who closes after a guest speaker preaches? How is this done? Some churches always have an altar call. Some churches never do it. Making assumptions here could lead to a major faux pas. The ideal is to be able to hand off the service closing to someone who knows the people and the process.
- What Bible version do you typically use? Even if the version is one that you don’t typically use, you’ll gain more rapport with the congregation if you’re quoting the text that most of them have in front of them. This question also needs to be asked early on because it will determine the English version that you’ll “stew” in (read, re-read, memorize, etc.).
- Do you typically use projected media? If so, how do I connect to it or where do I need to send material/links? As a guest speaker, you need to be cautious about being reliant on technology. Even if you’ve carefully asked the right questions and prepped your tech, you can still hit an odd hitch as you’re getting set to preach. Remember that you’ve usually got only a limited time to get this right. Have a backup method for deploying your media and, worst case, be capable of delivering your sermon without any technology.
- Do you use a portable microphone? If so, where will I get it and will there be someone to show me how it works? This isn’t usually too complicated, but sometimes you may be dealing with some odd mic that doesn’t work normally. Pro tip: even if the sound guy tells you that he’s not going to have your mic hot until you get up to preach, keep it off and remember to turn it on while you’re on your way up to the platform.
- How much room is on the podium for a Bible, notes, etc.? Pulpit real estate is at a premium. Some churches have tiny pulpits that are comfortable for the pastor who may preach with different pulpit material than you do. As more and more younger preachers bring iPads and other tech with them onstage, the variety of what a preacher can expect has only broadened.
- What do you wear when you preach? And don’t just take a “professional” or “business casual” category answer on this one. People mean different things when they use dress categories. Get a specific answer (i.e., “jeans and a button-up shirt untucked”) and don’t deviate from it.
- How would you describe your style of preaching? What have you been preaching on lately? Although you have your own style as a preacher, it is helpful to understand the norm at this church. Maybe if the pastor tends to do exegetical studies of books of the Bible, you could do an exegetical study of a one-off topic? If the pastor has been doing a deep dive in Romans, it may be healthy to do a narrative passage.
- What is the congregation like? Young/old, quiet/interactive, new/old Christians, jobs, backgrounds, approximate attendance? Truth preaches anywhere, but it never hurts to understand the audience you’ll be speaking to. Jesus didn’t have to study in order to know the hearts of his listeners, but Paul definitely understood the philosophers on Mars Hill. Every bit of information you get should shape how truth will be presented.
- Does your church have a missions statement? You need to know what this church is and isn’t all about. Follow up this question by asking: What are some major red flags of what you don’t want someone to preach about? Are there any practical or theological issues that you think might be important for a guest preacher to know? I try to use questions like this to draw out go/no-go zones. Regardless of how you feel about a church’s hangups or pursuits, it’s not your job to do a drive-by sermon on any of these issues. If there’s an issue that is too big for you to ignore, consider declining the invitation.
- Can we meet before I preach in order to get to know each other? Also: How can we follow-up afterward? I think this is the most frequently missed question on the list. Meeting before you speak can help you better understand the heart and philosophy of the pastor. If you’re able to meet on the church property, you can get a feel for the auditorium, platform, pulpit, microphone, etc. Following up gives you a great opportunity for a critique of your preaching and an ongoing relationship with the pastor.
I hope these questions are helpful. I’ve missed a couple of these in some instances and have learned from my mistakes. There are probably a few questions that you shouldn’t ask, the chief of which is anything related to compensation for speaking. Speak out of a desire for ministry and not for money. For some great additional insights on filling pulpits, see Dane Ortlund’s excellent article.
May God bless you as you preach his Word!