By God’s grace I’ve been preaching now for 20 years and I’ve had the privilege of preaching for different churches (usually Baptist, Presbyterian, and Reformed congregations). While these churches have many things in common, they also have their own distinct emphases in belief and practice. For instance, they differ in the way they worship God on Sunday. Some sing psalms only, while others sing both psalms and hymns. Some still pray in “Thee and Thou,” others don’t. Some have the so-called “catechism preaching,” others don’t. Some use instruments in their congregational singing, others only sing acapella. Some have specific dress codes for their ministers, others don’t. Some are used to a lengthy service, others are not. And the list of examples can go on and on.
Now, I think we preachers should be aware of and be willing to respect these different practices, as we guest preach for these congregations. Remember, we are only invited as guest preachers; and thus, we should be sensitive and respectful to their non-essential beliefs and practices even if we don’t agree with them. In doing so, we will gain their respect to listen to us when we preach the gospel to them. Let me then suggest that we consider the following points as we guest preach.
1. Dress appropriately.
Of course, dressing appropriately in this context depends on where you preach. For some churches a black suit, a white shirt, and a black tie is the expected dress code for preaching. For others, it may be simply a suit and tie dress code, or in some cases ministers still wear a ministerial robe when preaching.
Years ago I was invited to preach in Canada for a congregation that was used to their preacher wearing a black suit and a black tie. The day before Sunday, the minister of this congregation kindly asked me if I brought a black tie with me. I said, “No. If fact, I never had one.” He then told me gently that they have some members who might be offended and thus lose interest in listening to me, if I don’t wear a black tie. Thankfully, this minister gave me a black tie, which I wore as I preached for his congregation. For the gospel’s sake I wore a black tie. As a result, I gained those people’s respect. They listened to the message.
2. Don’t preach too long, but don’t preach too short either.
Some churches are used to lengthy sermons; others are not. One day one of my friends, who is a pastor, phoned me, inviting me to preach again for their congregation. Over the phone, this pastor also told me how much he and his congregation appreciated me whenever I preached for them. However, he lovingly informed me that his congregation was not used to a long sermon and that he himself tried to preach for not more than 40 minutes. He then told me a bit of the history of his congregation. “One of our former ministers,” he said “only preached for 25 to 30 minutes.”
There are churches, however, that are used to long sermons. I’ve preached for a congregation where the average length of the message is 50 minutes (or even longer). Church members generally don’t complain listening to such a lengthy message. Children have also become used to sitting for that long.
Since some churches are used to long messages and others are not, I’ve learned to ask the congregation to tell me the average length of time their pastor preaches. If it is your first time to preach for a congregation, usually they don’t mind if you preach too long. Some preachers are, of course, uniquely gifted with rhetorical and oratory powers and thus able to hold their listeners’ attention. Charles Spurgeon was like this preacher. That being said, it shows consideration to make an effort to adjust the length of your sermon to make it comparable to what the congregation is accustomed to.
3. Pray considerately.
I remember being invited to preach and the pastor, who invited me, requested me to pray in “Thee” and “Thou.” Then he added, “We have members in our congregation, who will be offended if they hear the preacher addressing God in “You.” These members are convinced that to pray in “Thee” and “Thou” shows reverence to God and that to pray in “You” is a form of disrespect. Of course, this claim has no scriptural basis. The truth is just because you pray in “Thee” and “Thou” does not mean you are showing reverence to God. You can pray in this manner and still be disrespectful to God. On the other hand, not because one prays in “You” does it mean that he or she is not showing respect to God. I think this issue is a matter of tradition, or culture. In fact, in my first language, which is Filipino, it is more respectful to address God in plural pronouns (in old English, that is “Ye”) than in singular pronouns (like “Thou”). Filipinos use plural pronouns even if they know that there is only one God; and they do so in order to express their deep reverence to God.
Now, I did not grow up praying in “Thee” and “Thou.” But for the gospel’s sake, I prayed in “Thee” and “Thou” in this pastor’s congregation where the tradition is to pray in this kind of language. If I had not prayed in “Thee” and “Thou,” some of his members would have right away shut their minds before I even began to preach. By being considerate to their conviction and tradition, I gained their respect to listen to me as their guest speaker.
4. Use the congregation’s pew Bible.
Each church has a preferred Bible version. Some churches think though that the King James Version (KJV) is the only accepted version. One time I preached for a congregation that uses the KJV as their pew Bible. Aware of this congregation’s belief and practice, I preached from the KJV. However, as I don’t heavily rely on my sermon notes when I preach, whenever I quoted scriptural verses from my memory, I unconsciously quoted them from the English Standard Version (ESV), for this was the version I used for years in my former congregation. When this church invited me back, the pastor gently reminded me to use the KJV even when preaching. For the gospel’s sake and to respect the conviction of their congregation, I made more of an effort to not just read from the KJV, but to quote from it also. On the other hand, I also believe that pastors who prefer the KJV should also be respectful to congregations that use the ESV, NKJV, or other conservative versions. It can cause disorder and confusion if the guest pastor is reading from one version and the congregation is following along in a different one.
My point is simple: my fellow preachers, as we guest preach, let’s learn to respect other congregations’ non-essential convictions and practices for the sake of the gospel. In regard to tie and suit color, the pronouns used in prayer, or the Bible version, I am prepared to give up my Christian liberty so as not to create a stumbling block (1 Cor. 9:20–22). I am willing to adapt to their non-essential traditions and cultures, without sinning against God’s Word, in order to win them to Christ. But lest you misunderstand my point, let me emphasize that while I am willing to condescend for the sake of not stumbling anyone, I am not willing to compromise on essentials or offend God for the sake of winning people to Christ.