Rotating Header Image

karen spoelstra: the questions to ask

As a lay preacher every sermon I preach is normally to a different congregation, a congregation about which I know very little. So getting a decent briefing is pretty important to me. The most thorough I’ve ever received was when I was asked to preach on the “Songs of Songs” as part of a series on smaller Old Testament books. It was good to know what other books they’d covered and that their 7pm service was largely attended by youth. It wasn’t so good to be told the book was to be interpreted as an allegory for Christ’s relationship with his bride the church. While I recognize the allegory, I think the songs also celebrate sexual love within the context of whole-hearted commitment. I felt this brief limited my ability to do justice to the text and talk to young people about important themes such as sexual desire and self-restraint.

It’s more common however for me to receive a general theme or subject which I can interpret in many, many different ways. My attempts to narrow the scope of the brief or to have a specific text are not always very successful. Sometimes I’m tempted to pursue my latest hobbyhorse, (I’ve had to accept that not everyone’s interested in finding the contemporary parallel to the counterfeit cult in Amos) but I would rather make a meaningful connection. I want to be part of God’s work with that congregation or group, use a style that catches and holds their attention and tell stories that relate to them. Even when I’m given a biblical text to work with, I need that context. I discovered in the ‘nick of time’ recently that the church that had asked me to preach on Amos was already very active in the area of social justice and didn’t need the ‘heavy’ from me. There are other themes in Amos that God may want to address and I need to listen for them.

When you are a guest preacher, what do you want to know about a church/community before you preach? What questions have worked for you? Often guest-preachers are asked to relieve an overworked Vicar or Pastor and the last thing they want is the ‘first degree’ from a zealous guest preacher. If you could only ask four questions, what would they be?

Let’s turn this on its head and approach it from the perspective of the inviting church or organization. What has your experience inviting guest preachers taught you? When you are asking a guest preacher what do you brief them on? What do you want when you give a guest preacher the broadest of briefs?

* * *

Karen is a lay preacher, bible-teacher, trainer, mother and mentor – currently working for Anglican Youth Ministries in Auckland helping young leaders reach their potential. She is a member of St George’s Anglican Church.


  1. Joseph Collins says:

    I am not a preacher, but if I were, I would start with the original audience and then get right into how Christ is revealed – in any part of the Scriptures. Song of Songs has great depth in regards to the metaphors and allegories from the representative spices used to the intimate love chamber, drawing people closer in their relationship with their lover and Lord. Each to their own.

  2. shaun hutson says:

    I am not sure if I get our meaning Joseph.

    when I had someone from outside our faith community speak last week, first I offered them the passage I had in my series, and then gave them the freedom to speak on whatever they wanted.

    it was a respected national baptist leader, so I allowed them more space than may be the case in future.
    they did a passage of their own choice, and it was fantastic!

    I think I will give thought to what you said karen, as i do believe that knowledge of the hearer is important to the act of preaching.
    so thanks

  3. Geoff New says:

    When a guest speaker comes to the church I’m pastoring – I love to give them a “free-shot.” I’ve been preaching to this congregation since 1997 and so really value a fresh and unfettered voice speaking into our context. Usually the guest speaker will give me an overview of what they will speak about – but even when they choose something I have addressed – I rarely if ever ask them to change topics. Invariably the subject matter will be presented in different coloured hues and tones. So I favour giving the guest speaker a free-hand so as to increase the surprise/prophetic factor at the hands of the Holy Spirit.

  4. Robyn Mellar-Smith says:

    I’m with you Geoff on allowing the speaker a free hand & trusting in the Holy Spirit, although I have only been with this congregation for 2 years so I’m not vastly experienced.

    Yesterday we had Dr Chris Marshall speak at Epuni Baptist Church. I am preaching through the beginning of Luke, so I asked him to speak on any passage in Luke after Luke 6. That was all the criteria I set.

    He spoke on Luke 17: 20-37, which I was thrilled about as it’s not a passage I’d naturally warm to preaching 🙂 It was a very good biblical message that did rattle a couple of people but that led to some good conversations and probably will in the next week or so.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *