Sermon Stuff, Part 2: You Probably Don’t Need That Quotation

Back in the 90s, Leadership Journal published a book titled Quotes & Idea Starters for Preaching & Teaching, and it was a must-have. Filled with a cataloged list of sayings from well-known people, past and present, it was a go-to resource for filling those empty spaces in a sermon. “Oh look, Alexander Graham Bell said this one thing about hope. I’ll throw that in there.”

Today we just Google things like, “that line where Steve Jobs said something about work and passion” and within seconds, we’re digging around Goodreads for the quotation.

I recently sat down with our summer intern to walk her through some sermon writing tips. She’s preaching in July, and I wanted to offer some tools to help her feel confident in her preparation and delivery. On the field guide I gave her was a list of miscellaneous tips for sermon crafting, and one of them was: “You probably don’t need that quotation.”

It’s not a prohibition against using quotations, but a warning of a certain kind. I have found that we most often use lines from books or theologians or philosophers or, heaven help us, from interviews with celebrities, as a way to simply restate what we just said. This may come from a need to have someone outside ourselves (usually famous or smart or both) to confirm our thoughts and ideas, but it’s not necessary. Our time in study and reflection can yield meaningful words and ideas for our people, and we can learn to trust that this is possible.

It’s better to incorporate a quotation as a way to push the sermon forward. Instead of using that C.S. Lewis line to confirm what you’ve already said, find one that serves to help the sermon move into its next phase. Think of it as a means of transition, as way to help you make the turn from one section to the next. Quotes make good closers, too. But again, think in terms of moving the sermon and the congregation forward instead of just recapping the sermon.

Some quick hits on using quotations:

  • They’re not as memorable as we might think.
  • That Friedrich Nietzsche line was great, but let’s be honest: you’ve never read anything by that guy (most of us haven’t). Stay in your lane.
  • Instead of using a quotation in your sermon, just print it on the bulletin somewhere and let people discover it on their own.
  • Have the quote on the screen pre-service as the welcome slide and let people make the connections as you preach.
  • Don’t read long passages from Heschel. Been there. It’s rough.
  • Beware of the trap of saying something simple and then complicating with a follow-up quotation from a smarter person and then overcomplicating it by having to explain what you just quoted. This is the homiletical car pile-up.
  • Similarly, if have to explain the quotation, don’t use it.

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