We begin with strangers. Seminaries and church communions vary in terms of how they prepare young men and young women to become preachers, but in most cases seminarians begin by serving as guest preachers (or “pulpit supply” as it has rather inelegantly been put in my denominational tradition) in local congregations. In my case, I was licensed to preach following my first full year of academic study at seminary. Looking over my record book, I see that from the time of my first sermon until I formally became a pastor in a congregation, I preached almost 200 times in a total of about fifty different congregations.
Back then that was all I knew. The routine had become, well, routine. On a Sunday morning (and often once again on a late Sunday afternoon) I would get in my 1984 Ford Fiesta, follow the driving directions to the church du jour, meet up with an elder in the narthex, and then proceed to lead people I had never before met in worship, a key component of which would be the delivery of the sermon I had brought with me. On any given Sunday the odds were good that this was a sermon I had preached before–indeed, the paper copy of the sermon I took with me into the pulpit was likely to be the exact same sheaf of paper I had used on one, two, three, maybe even four or five occasions before in other congregations. It would never have occurred to me to revise a sermon better to fit a given congregation (and I would have had nothing on which to base such tailoring in the first place). The sermon was what it was and if it seemed to have worked at Trinity Church, then it would surely suffice for Fourth Church and Covenant Life Church as well.
All of that ended, of course, upon my becoming a pastor. For the next fifteen years I would have to write new sermons every week. After spending just less than three years in my first congregation, I then spent twelve years at Calvin Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. By the time I finished my time as their minister of preaching, I had written and delivered just under 900 different sermons. In all that time, I had only rarely occupied any pulpit other than the one in the center of Calvin Church’s chancel.
But then I left. An opportunity to become the director of a new preaching center came along, and I knew it was both the Lord’s will that I seize the opportunity and also that it represented the very change-ofpace for which I myself had been pining for several years. Not long after getting settled into my new post, the invitations to be a guest preacher in area congregations began to come in. Soon I had several preaching opportunities per month appearing on my calendar. Initially I thought, “This will be like old times, like a return to my seminary days when I was an itinerant preacher working the local circuit. It was an enjoyable experience then, and it will be now, too.”
I did not anticipate the pain. Standing once again in front of strangers even as I had done a couple of hundred times while in seminary was not at all the same experience I recalled. I felt less joy. I felt unsure of myself, almost as though I needed to learn how to preach all over again. And it wasn’t simply that these other pulpits were physically laid out differently from the Calvin Church pulpit I had come to know and love. Yes, like most preachers I can get thrown off kilter if I cannot shuffle my sermon pages unobtrusively because on a particular pulpit the microphone is in the way–little things like the placement of the water glass or getting used to wearing a headset microphone really can make a preacher feel “off.” But these logistical matters were not what accounted for my feeling out-of-sync with how I had been preaching for a decade-and-a-half.
The real source of my discomfiture was that I missed my people. I missed the subtle rhythms and the warm rapport I had forged and established by preaching to the same people week in and week out. Preaching in an unfamiliar congregation made me feel uncertain and vulnerable in ways I had not experienced in a very long time. Midway through a sermon, I had absolutely no way of telling whether I was connecting at a deep level with these people or laying an egg. At Calvin Church, there were certain bellwether people to whom I could look– people whose very facial expressions could convey a lot and let me know if I was on track. What’s more, I knew that after the service I would likely hear from key people who were good barometers on how the message had been received. But now…where could I look? How could I know how this was going during the sermon, and who (if anyone) would be honest with me after the service? Upon returning home, I would get asked by my wife, “How’d it go?” to which I’d reply, “I have no idea.”
Additionally, in preparing to go to these various congregations, I began to review even fairly recent sermons in my files only to discover that what had made most of those sermons seem like “good” sermons at Calvin Church could not be seamlessly transferred to another congregation whose people I did not know personally. What I am about to claim is difficult to specify–I’m not even certain I could give an example that would make sense to anyone. Preaching in an unfamiliar congregation made me feel uncertain and vulnerable in ways I had not experienced in a very long time. But I came to the realization that sometimes the poignancy of a given sermon (or section within a sermon) stemmed only partially from the actual words I had written in the manuscript and then delivered in the sanctuary. Often what gave a sermon its punch at Calvin Church was the fact that it was fraught with background–specifically the background of the relationship the congregation and I had established across many years. Absent that relationship–and the cloud of memories and emotions it evoked–the same words delivered in the same way in another congregation would not take wing the way they had in my “home” congregation.
Of course, there are other specific items that could be mentioned. The role of humor in a sermon is always a dicey matter. But as most preachers could testify, the best humor emerges not when a preacher cracks a joke (in fact, such overt attempts to be funny often fall flat) but rather true humor emerges through the interaction of pastor with congregation. In families there is often a shared history of inside jokes–well-worn anecdotes or stories that are so familiar to everyone, the merest allusion to one such story is enough to send everyone into paroxysms of mirth. So also in a congregation: a shared history means that the preacher can evoke alternately laughter or tears with no more than a slight nod in the direction of something everyone already knows about. Not only is this not possible when standing before comparative strangers, even statements in a sermon that are objectively humorous (or meant to be anyway!) in their own right may evoke a tepid uncertainty among the congregation. “Is it OK to laugh a little?” you can almost hear them asking themselves. “Did he mean that to be humorous?” they all-but say aloud. No one is sure (and by the time they are finished wondering about that, the sermon has moved on!).
None of this is to say that being a “guest preacher” is an unhappy experience. Indeed, the longer I have been doing this again, the more I am establishing new rhythms–patterns that help me to discover fresh ways to get a message across to people who do not know me very well (if at all). Contrary to my experience while in seminary, however, I now realize that any given sermon does need to be tailored for a given congregation. Rewrites are the norm now–I almost never carry the same manuscript from one pulpit to another as I once did. Sometimes revisions involve looking for ways to translate what had been easily understandable to my home congregation into phrases that can resonate with most anyone. Sermons often need to be revised to explain certain ideas that had been un
derstandable to my home congregation on account of past sermons in which I had developed those ideas at greater length. But since the congregation in a guest preacher situation lacks that ability to hark back to any past presentations, some elaboration is needed if the overall sermon is to gain traction, and sometimes a certain point needs to be left out altogether since there simply is not time to expand on it. In fact, some sermons really cannot be preached at all outside a home congregation setting–or if they are to be preached elsewhere, you have to do so much re-working of the material as to arrive at virtually a new sermon in the end.
On the other hand, when you as a preacher sense that an “old” sermon is getting better as you have time to refine and refresh and hone it, there is a sense of excitement in bringing this message to ever more people in various congregations. For myself, however, I find that I cannot preach the same sermon too many times–if it starts to become stale to me, that will show through. One of the great joys of preaching in the same congregation week after week is precisely the fact that every Sunday morning you bring something that is, as it were, “hot off the press.” This is the immediate fruit of the past week’s worth of work, and although not every such effort leaves one brimming with enthused anticipation, often it does. Even among strangers we will preach God’s Word best when we pastorally remember that despite all we may not know about a given congregation, we do know that they are the people of God who are perpetually hungry to feed on the living bread of the Word. The proverbial “fire in the belly” that all excellent preachers convey comes not just from the conviction that this message is true and vital but also from the sense that it’s new and fresh for even the preacher himor herself. I find that one way to keep that enthusiasm going while serving various congregations as a guest preacher is regularly to revise “new” old sermons the week prior to going into a different pulpit. This is still a different experience from starting a sermon from scratch and so having, in the end, a genuinely new product. However, there is something to be said for staying homiletically nimble through updating and refreshing many sermons across the course of a year rather than relying on the same two or three messages over and over again.
But the truth is that a key component in all effective preaching is the fact that the pastor-in-residence knows the individual members well enough to be able to use the Sunday sermon as a source of extended pastoral care. Sometimes personal knowledge of the congregation influences what topics get broached in the first place–for instance, the closing of a local factory may mean that the preacher will thoughtfully weave in themes about the loss of job security, financial fears about the future, grieving over the loss of meaningful employment. At other times pastoral knowledge of people’s situations may influence the way a certain topic is handled–for instance, knowing that a couple of women still regret and mourn the abortions they had years ago will have (properly) a shaping effect on how the pastor approaches that and related topics. Pastoral awareness and knowledge both set the homiletical agenda by introducing themes unique to the congregation’s situation and such knowledge nuances the handling of topics that would routinely come up anyway by tailoring those themes out of sensitivity to the past history and present circumstances of various members of the church.
To state the merely obvious, however, guest preachers never have such intimate knowledge. But I would assert that any preacher/pastor worth his or her salt will have learned something about all congregations and all people in the course of dealing pastorally with a given congregation for some years. Can you as a guest preacher know for certain that someone in the pews at Second Church lost a child to SIDS at some past point? No, but pastoral wisdom suggests that probably someone out there may well have experienced such a loss at some point and so you address that congregation assuming this is so. Just by looking out over an unfamiliar congregation, can you know for certain which women are widows? No, but past experience has taught you a thing or two about the grief that never fades even after many years and so you tailor your public prayers and your sermon in ways that will touch those in such situations. You may not know who they are but you certainly know that they are out there. Granted, this more generic exercise of pastoral care will still lack the vital, living connection with the people that was once the case in a home congregational setting. But even in guest preaching situations, pastors who display sensitivity and the urgent conviction that the Spirit can minister to hurting souls through the sermon may be able to avoid the “visiting fireman” syndrome in which the preacher comes across as merely imparting information without regard to the living, breathing (often hurting) hearts and souls who hear that sermon.
The apostle Paul was at once the early church’s most famous preacher and one of its first itinerants. Paul never stayed in one place long enough to establish the kind of relationships that longer-term pastors achieve with their people. Yet when Paul wrote to local pastors like Timothy and Titus, he knew that each pastor’s ministry would be shaped by local circumstances. Titus needed to deal with a flock made up of people who were notoriously lazy in moral matters and so in need of a series of sermons on the topic of self-control. Timothy was a young man vulnerable to being brushed aside by those a bit longer in the tooth (not to mention those who were embracing myths and the proverbial old wives’ tales). So Paul tailored his advice for each local pastor. Each pastor had to take Paul’s more general theological musings and bring them home to a very specific people. To be able to do this over a long period of time with the same people is a great gift–like many of life’s best gifts, it is something many of us may come to appreciate the most keenly only after we no longer have it. Attempting to do a similar work among people you know less well presents a peculiar set of challenges. But as has perhaps become clear, even among strangers we will preach God’s Word best when we pastorally remember that despite all we may not know about a given congregation, we do know this: they are the people of God who are perpetually hungry to feed on the living bread of the Word. As a guest “cook,” we may get to dish up just one meal. Whether or not it’s the most memorable meal they’ve ever savored doesn’t matter. What does matter is that we whip up this cuisine with all the due diligence and skill we can muster. We may not personally know the people who will feast on this meal but we know they are hungry and that they are precious in the Lord’s sight. Remembering that helps us to realize that guest preaching is also a gift from God, and like all divine gifts, we handle it with holy care.