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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?

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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.