Thursdays with Todd: 7 Thoughts about Quoting Others in the Pulpit

Quoting others when we preach may help our sermons–or harm them. When is it right to quote other people, and what is the best way to do so? Here are 7 rules to remember when quoting others in our sermons:

  1. Use quotes sparingly. Using too many quotes in our sermons gives the impression we have not thought deeply about the biblical text ourselves. And, because our listeners hear the thoughts of so many others, our sermon can sound more like a research paper and less like a message.
  2. Avoid lengthy quotes. Even when they’re projected on a screen for congregants to read, lengthy quotations can be difficult to follow. Because listeners don’t have much time to process the information, shorter quotations tend to keep them more engaged.
  3. Don’t quote someone too frequently. When our listeners hear quotes from only our favorite two to three preachers or scholars, we limit their exposure to other helpful commentators. We may also give the impression we are not reading or studying beyond those two to three persons. 
  4. Use only striking quotes. Rather than quoting general information or common ideas, try quoting persons only when they have said or written something uniquely. From a sermon on Zacchaeus, for example, rather than merely saying Zacchaeus was a short, wealthy, tax collector, consider the following: “Frederick Buechner describes Zacchaeus memorably as ‘a sawed-off little social disaster with a big bank account and a crooked job.’”[1]
  5. Quote those you want your listeners to study. By quoting sound preachers, scholars, and commentators, we are providing our listeners with a helpful collection of names they can trust. And, quoting them adds credence to our own conclusions about the text.
  6. Be careful quoting controversial figures. When we refer to politicians, celebrities, or even particular theologians, we must anticipate what our listeners will think or feel as they hear the names of such persons. When we quote someone without qualification, many of our listeners may assume we agree with their behavior, worldview, or theology. It is often helpful, therefore, to preface quotations with necessary limitations. For example, “While our theology differs greatly, Ghandi wasn’t wrong when he said, ‘a man is but the product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes.’”[2]
  7. Keep a record of sources. Sourcing quotations during sermon delivery is distracting and unwieldy. Few hearers expect us to give exhaustive documentation while preaching. At the same time, however, we must keep a record of sources somewhere. This is especially important when we wish to avoid using a particular name in the sermon: eg., “As one commentator notes…” or, “A pastor friend described it this way…” Should one of our listeners ask later for more information about a particular quote, we will always be ready to give a full accounting of the original source.

Preachers: What other rules would you add?

Be sure to check out Dr. Linn’s website, Preaching Truth


[2] In Ethical Religion (Madras: S. Ganesan, 1922).

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