“Should I quote it or should I say it in my own words?” It’s a question preachers—at least this preacher—ask frequently as we pore over commentaries and old sermons by famous preachers. As a general rule I do my own exegetical work before jumping into the work of other preachers, but I do typically read what other preachers have to say on the text with which I’m working. Commentaries are often full of little gems and if you consult the Catena Aurea or the Ancient Commentary on Scripture those resources are full of perfect little Patristic sound bites that are easy and tempting to plug into a sermon indiscriminately.
Conventional wisdom—the sort of things we all learned in English 101, if not in high school—says that if you can’t say it better in your own words, then you should quote it. That rule doesn’t quite cut it in homiletics, because there are more factors in play while preaching than there are when you’re writing a three-point argumentative essay for a composition class.
First, in the 21st Century the art of preaching seems to have more to do with content than it does with style. Since at least the 19th Century until a few decades ago well-known preachers crafted their prose not only to be heard, but also to be read. Preachers often worked from manuscripts, even if those manuscripts never made it into the pulpit. Their prose was well and often meticulously crafted. Newman is said to have sometimes gone through as many as six draughts before he was happy with his sermon texts. Not only did such care preclude carelessness in content, but it also resulted in well-crafted, memorable, but formal prose. This wasn’t just a Victorian practice; it was a common practice even into the 1970s if not later. By contrast, in today’s ecclesiastical environment that sort of finely crafted prose in a sermon is seen as too academic and lacking in “authenticity”. For that matter, sermon manuscripts themselves are often seen as problematic today; something that keeps the preacher from truly connecting with the congregation. For this reason, when reading older preachers, I often come across a few well-phrased and therefore extremely memorable phrases or sentences. Yes, I could put those thoughts in my own words, but in today’s pedestrian and informal style my rephrasing of those thoughts would likely be entirely unmemorable. Throw in a quote from a Charles Simeon, an Isaac Williams, or a Peter Marshall and people not only awaken out of that coma so often induced by pew-sitting and they take home something to be remembered. If for no other reason, the shift in the pace of the sermon draws back wandering attention.
Tomorrow morning I’ll be preaching on the Prodigal Son. I ran across the following quote regarding God’s attitude toward sinners while readings Charles Simeon’s “skeleton” on this passage:
“God longs for their salvation even while they are at a distance from him. He notices with joy the first approaches of their souls towards him. Instead of frowning on the prodigal, he receives him with joy. Instead of upbraiding him with his folly, he seals upon his soul a sense of pardon. He arrays him in robes of righteousness and garments of salvation. He adorns him in a manner suited to the relation into which he is brought. He provides for his future comfortable and upright conversation. He rejoices over him as recovered from the dead, and makes it an occasion of festivity to all the angels in heaven. Thus do even the vilest sinners find their hopes, not only realized, but far exceeded. They come for pardon, and obtain joy; for deliverance from hell, and get a title to heaven. Their utmost ambition is to be regarded as the meanest of God’s servants; and they are exalted to all the honours and happiness of his beloved children.”
Not only does inserting the quote provide a helpful change of pace from the casual way that I’ll be retelling the narrative of the parable—such changes of pace help to keep the attention of the congregation—these thoughts simply don’t translate well into today’s casual style. As I preach I’ll be making this point in a sentence or two and very plainly. By inserting the quote from Simeon, I’ll be amplifying my own statements with Simeon’s well-crafted and memorable words. The quote gives me the chance to say what I’d dearly love to say myself, but which if said in anything resembling the way Simeon said it, would come across as old-fashioned, affected, and probably pompous.
Another good use for quotes is to connect the congregation with the past. One of the single greatest problems with modern Evangelicalism (and Western Christianity in general) is that we are disconnected from our own Christian roots. The faith begins with Jesus, perhaps we remember the Apostles, but then it suddenly jumps over two millennia and goes straight from Grandma to my father and then to me. There may be a few names—Wesley or Luther, for example—that are familiar, but chances are that even names like these only bring up vague ideas about famous Christians who lived a long time ago. Interjecting an occasional quote from the past will help people connect their faith with that of the great company of saints that has preceded us. If a preacher selects these sorts of quotes well, he may even inspire his listeners to start reading the works of some of those great saints.
That said, if you’re going to quote those past saints, your congregation is also going to need to know who those saints are. Throwing out a quote and simply noting that it comes from the pen of Gregory of Nazianzus probably won’t work in most congregations. People are going to be so focused on wondering who the heck Gregory of Naziwhatever was that they’ll miss the quote itself. You need to give some context—not a full history lesson, but at least enough information that people will have some context. This of course means that you can’t consult the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture and then shove a patristic quote into every other paragraph of your sermon. (Yes, I’ve heard preachers sadly do just this.) You might only be able to insert one or two without overloading your hearers. Sometimes even that may be too much. Do this well, however, and your congregation will begin to figure out not only that they’re part of a long heritage, but that what you’ve got to say in your sermons is older than yesterday. Over time we teach our people what it means to be catholic.