I’ve had the privilege of speaking in many different churches—not only in these nearly five years of serving as a church ministries representative for The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry but also for a number of years in which I did a great deal of pulpit supply. This includes ministering for more than 13 years with a home missions board, IMI/SOS International.
It is now my joy and privilege to be in a different church nearly every Sunday. We’ve been with some of these congregations numerous times, so they have become almost a home away from home. We feel great freedom there and don’t need to ask basic questions. But there are many other churches that we visit much less frequently. And, of course, there are always those that we encounter for the first time.
Having the opportunity to be a guest speaker in these local churches has provided me with some amazing experiences and, honestly, many of the best Sundays of worship that I’ve ever enjoyed. On several occasions, we have seen the Lord working—and blessing—in the most unexpected ways or in the most unlikely of circumstances. Sometimes, it occurs in a very small church. Often, in my current position, we have found ourselves the undeserved recipients of the goodwill built up by The Friends of Israel over its long history. What a privilege it is to be on the receiving end of the gratitude of people who have followed this ministry faithfully for much of its eight and a half decades!
I must confess that I truly enjoy so many aspects of this kind of itinerant ministry—to such an extent, in fact, that I think I would struggle if I were to return to being a local church pastor. If I were ever to do that again, I would likely seek the liberty to take at least a few outside speaking engagements every year just to sharpen my focus.
Yes, it certainly is a place of honor—and also one of tremendous trust and responsibility (see Jas. 3:1)—to be called as a guest speaker to address the gathering of God’s people. As you might imagine, however, there are also some real challenges that come along with this territory.
In these next few articles, I’d like to explore some very practical issues that accompany the assignment of being an itinerant preacher. I may well be marching in where even angels fear to tread, but I hope that I can encourage others—both those in my position as well as pastors and local church leaders—helping us all to learn some things that may be beneficial for the ministry.
As you read my thoughts on several concepts, keep in mind the following: Before I go into a local church to represent The Friends of Israel, I always ask the pastor or church leadership at least three questions:
– Does the congregation have a strong preference regarding dress in the pulpit?
– Does the congregation have a strong preference regarding Bible translations?
– Is the congregation used to having a media slide presentation (i.e., PowerPoint, Google Slides, etc.) during the sermon, and how is that system set up?
I inquire regarding these things out of a desire to be sensitive, as a guest, to the church’s particular practices and wishes, and in the hope of making the day as great a success as it can possibly be, being prepared before we enter into it.
Now, in that light, I will share some candid thoughts on the issues involved in these questions.
I will first admit that 20 years ago I would not have written this section the same way that I am writing it now. I do recognize, however, that cultural standards—and even church standards—regarding dress have changed quite significantly during that time.
I must also confess that the two models who have taught me the most regarding itinerant teaching and preaching, Dr. John Whitcomb and Dr. Rich McCarrell (who oversaw my ministry with IMI/SOS), never needed to ask anyone about dress in the pulpit. They each simply wore a coat and tie every time they preached!
This remains my default position, but especially in my current role, I think it is important that I not appear to overstep the pastor or go outside the ethos of the church congregation with regard to dress.
Increasingly, when I ask about dress standards in the pulpit, what I hear back is, “Please do not wear a coat and tie!” While I may not necessarily adhere to that philosophy personally—and do believe that we are losing something that we will likely never get back—it does not offend my conscience to preach or teach in an FOI polo shirt or button-down collar shirt. If you’re asking for less than that, however, I’m afraid I will have to draw the line: no jeans, no shorts, no Hawaiian shirts, no sandals, etc.
I am also regularly receiving another response. More and more, the pastor will tell me that he usually wears either a shirt and tie with no coat or a shirt and coat with no tie when he preaches. In that case, I always request the freedom to wear a shirt, tie and coat. This is not a conscience issue for me at all but a very pragmatic one. Frankly, I just don’t think that I look good, or all that professional, in either of the lesser combinations.
One other practical comment: There is no excuse for the preacher to go up on the platform without first shining his shoes. There are products available today that make this incredibly simple, even when traveling. You’ll be amazed at how many people will notice.
Now that we’ve settled an easy question like dress in church, you may be ready for something a little less controversial. I say this tongue in cheek—as we’ll begin next time by looking at the issue of the use of Bible versions by the visiting speaker.
Paul J. Scharf (M.A., M.Div., Faith Baptist Theological Seminary) is a church ministries representative for The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, based in Columbus, WI, and serving in the Midwest. For more information on his ministry, visit sermonaudio.com/pscharf or foi.org/scharf, or email email@example.com.