05 10

How to write a sermon conclusion

how to write a sermon conclusion

In the past couple of days we’ve pondered the art of sermon-stopping. We have thought about weak finishes, and then about the elements in finishing strong. It certainly is not easy to get the plane down comfortably and effectively. Now a few thoughts relating to the post-landing phase of the journey. I suppose that could apply to taxiing (i.e. don’t overdo what you say after you’ve essentially finished). Actually I’m thinking about what comes after the landing in respect to post-sermon service elements. (Tomorrow I’ll push this analogy further – perhaps beyond acceptable limits! – and consider what happens when people leave the plane completely – i.e. when the service is fully finished.)

So, after the sermon is over, but still within the confines of the service:

Sometimes it is helpful to have another person wrap things up, sometimes it can be disastrous (I can’t help but think of the “helpful” MC who undoes the impact of a global missions thrust with the typical and deeply annoying “and we can all be missionaries right where we are!” . . . thankfully no-one added that to the end of Matthew’s gospel or we’d never have read the New Testament!)

Sometimes it is helpful to have a closing song, sometimes it is helpful to have a whole set of responsive songs, and sometimes it is better not to allow the singing of a song to help people switch back into their “real world” and leave the sermon behind.

Sometimes its helpful to leave space for silent response, sometimes that is just plain uncomfortable and overkill.

Sometimes quiet music played after can help the contemplative mood, sometimes music blasting out after the meeting can switch people into a frenzied chaos of raised voice fellowship (and the journey is forgotten, I fear!)

That last one is technically post-service . . . which leads me into tomorrow’s post . . .

Yesterday I offered five examples of how to finish weakly as your sermon finishes weekly. Let’s ponder what makes a conclusion strong:

Elements required in a conclusion – sometimes it is helpful to review the flow of the message, usually it is worth reviewing the main idea and intended applications of the message. The conclusion is a great opportunity to encourage response to and application of the message. The conclusion has to include, at some point, the phenomena known as stopping. Review, encourage, stop.

Elements not required in a conclusion – standard teaching it may be, but worth mentioning nonetheless: generally it is not helpful to introduce new information during the conclusion. A concluding story? Maybe that’s ok. But don’t suddenly throw in a new piece of exegetical insight into the preaching passage, or rush off to another passage for one last bit of sight-seeing.

Finishing the journey – as someone who has flown once or twice, let me continue with the airplane analogy since there are several thoughts that can be shared here. Passengers who have had a great journey with a bad landing will leave with their focus entirely on the bad landing. Passengers want the pilot to know where he is going and to take them straight there. They don’t particularly want the pilot to finish a normal journey with a historic televised adrenaline landing. Passengers like a smooth landing, but they’ll generally take a slight bump over repeated attempts to find the perfect one. Once landed, extended taxi-ing is not appreciated. A good landing that takes you by surprise always seems to have a pleasant effect.

Haddon’s Runway – one approach that I particularly appreciate and find hard to emulate, is Haddon Robinson’s oft-used approach. It is evident after most Haddon sermons that he carefully planned his final sentence. He flies the plane until he gets there and then quite naturally the plane lands on that landing strip of just ten to fifteen words and the journey is over. Smooth, apparently effortless, immensely effective. As he teaches in class, much better to finish two sentences before listeners think you should than two sentences after!

Tomorrow we’ll consider the post-sermon elements of the service, since these also have an effect on the journey.

Yesterday I started a series of four posts on sermon conclusions with a list of weak finishes. Mike Doyle added a comment with several more examples that were so helpful I decided to include them today and make this a five-part series. I hope nobody minds two negative lists in a row (if you simply invert what is said in these lists, you already have two positive lists in respect to sermon conclusions!)

6. The “Machine Gun” Finish – wildly fire off a hundred different applications in the final minute in the hope of hitting something – no depth, very shallow, badly aimed, rarely hits the target, and often has nothing to do with the passage.

7. The “Salvation by Works” Finish – after preaching the wonders of God’s grace in Jesus Christ – undermine that grace by throwing doubt on the their own salvation because of their sin or not doing the application you suggest.

8. The “Left Field” Finish – where the conclusion and/or application has very little to do with the passage, your sermon, or anything else.

9. The “Not Again” Finish – where (for some funny reason) the conclusion is the same as every other conclusion you’ve given for the last 3 years – it also happens to be your hobby horse, and is often one of pray more, give more, evangelise more, read the bible more and come to church more.

Thanks, Mike, for adding these to the list – very helpful!

If I could just add some more to the growing list, what about…

10. The “Gospel out of Nowhere” Finish – where the preacher feels the absence of the gospel in the message and so levers it in at the conclusion without any sense of connection to what has gone before. (To a thinking listener, this may feel a little forced and intellectually inconsistent.)

11. The “Tear Jerker” Finish – which is similar to the “overly climactic” one listed yesterday, but this is where the speaker seeks to cement emotional response by throwing in a random and largely disconnected tear jerker of a story (perhaps involving a child, an animal, a death, or whatever). Strapped to this emotional bomb, the preacher hopes the truth of the message will strike home (even though in reality the truth will probably be smothered in the disconnected emotion of the anecdote).

Finishing a sermon is neither easy nor natural. There are various approaches taken, and in this post I’d like to offer a few I’ve observed in myself and others. In the next post I will try to offer some constructive alternatives.

1. The “Searching for a Runway” Conclusion – This is a common one that we fall into when we fail to plan our conclusion before starting to preach. As the sermon wears on we become aware of the need to land the plane, but have to search for a decent runway on which to land it. Consequently as we’re coming in to land we remember that we haven’t reinforced a certain element of the message, so we pull out of the descent and circle around for another attempt. Next time in we think of half a conclusion that might work better and so pull out again, circle around and turn in to another possible landing strip. Needless to say, passengers don’t find this pursuit of a better runway to be particularly comfortable or helpful. When the message drags on a couple of minutes or ten longer than it feels like it should, any good done in the sermon tends to be undone rather quickly!

2. The “Just Stop” Conclusion – There are some preachers who don’t seem to be aware of the possibility of a strong finish and so don’t bother to land the plane. It simply drops out of the sky at a certain point. Once all has been said, without any particular effort to conclude the message, its suddenly over. This is a particular danger for those who go on to announce a closing hymn, I find.

3. The “Overly Climactic” Conclusion – At the other extreme are those who know the potential of a good finale and so overly ramp up the climactic crescendo in the closing stages. After preaching a ho-hum message, they suddenly try to close it off with a fireworks display that will leave everyone stunned and standing open mouthed with barely a “ooo-aaah” on their lips. Truth is that if the message hasn’t laid the foundation for such an ending, then people will be left stunned and unsure of what to say, “uuuugh?”

4. The “Uncomfortable Fade” Conclusion – Perhaps the domain of new, inexperienced and untrained preachers, this follows the general comfort rule of preaching: if you are not comfortable in your preaching, your listeners won’t be either. So the message comes to what might be a decent ending, then the speaker, well, sort of, just adds something like, “that’s all I wanted to say, I think, yeah, so….” (like this paragraph, 20 words too long!)

5. The “Discouraging Finale” Conclusion – Another tendency among some is to preach what might be a generally encouraging message, but then undo that encouragement with a final discouraging comment. People need to be left encouraged to respond to the Word and to apply the Word, but some have a peculiar knack for finishing with a motivational fizzle comment.

In the closing stages of a message, the last leg of the journey, it is easy to lose the focus and momentum of a message. Yesterday I raised the issue of introducing other texts, which can (not always, but often) dilute the force of the ending of a message. Here’s another:

Don’t dilute by adding unnecessary new images. After twenty or thirty minutes where the overarching image has been the tender care of a mother for her child, the preacher decides to throw another image into the mix in the closing moments – perhaps the care of a shepherd for the lambs, or a coach for his team, or whatever. Often a new image, a new illustration, a new set of vocabulary, when introduced in the final leg of a sermon will undermine the strength of what has gone before, or totally overwhelm the message (such as a moving story that is so powerful it makes every other element of the message, including the Bible, mere introduction). Again, it is not always true. Sometimes a pithy anecdote, a moving illustration, a well turned phrase, may serve to close a message well…but only sometimes…and not a very big sometimes either.

The final thrust of a message is a critical leg of the journey. It’s the time to consolidate, not dilute. A time to pull elements together and drive them home, not add new information that shatters the unity of the whole.

Just a quick thought relating to the concluding movement of a message. This includes the conclusion, but might also bring in the final movement or point of the message. During the final thrust, the crescendo of the message, do not dilute the focus of listeners. It is so easy to unnecessarily add new elements to a message at a time when the need is not variation, nor interest, but focus. For instance:

Don’t dilute by adding distracting texts. It’s so tempting to refer to another verse somewhere or other in the Bible. Often, not always, but often, this is a distraction rather than a help. Evaluate carefully before redirecting the gaze of the listeners to a passage, to wording, to a story, to a psalm, to anything that has not been the primary focus of the message. You may mention one verse, but their minds may blossom out in all sorts of bunny trails, or at the very least, the new information may dilute their focus. Be wary of adding texts in this final leg of the journey. (Sometimes a specific text, painstakingly chosen, and carefully used, may serve to close a message well…but only sometimes…a small sometimes.)

Tomorrow I will bring up another source of distraction that can dilute the end of a message.

I just saw a chart showing that there are two key times in any presentation. I’ll describe the chart for you. On the vertical axis, from 0 to 100%, is the scale of attention and retention. On the horizontal axis, it reads “beginning … middle … end.” The chart consists of a U-shaped curve. Attention/retention are highest at the beginning and the end, but dip significantly in the middle.

This poses some concern for me as a preacher. If this is true, then we need to consider whether we’ve packed the best meat in the middle of the sermon. Surely we wouldn’t want to give a “meat sandwich” of a sermon if our listeners miss significant amounts of good meat, but take in all the white bread at the start and finish? Perhaps we need to give more attention to the bread of the sandwich. Too many sermons are fine steak in the middle of dry cheap white sliced bread. We need to give more time to preparing our intros and conclusions (so the bread is a higher quality homebaked wholemeal something or other).

Ok, enough of the sandwich analogy, I’m starting to get distracted by my own hunger. When we preach, let’s think carefully about how to maximize the value of our introduction – not just grabbing attention and building rapport, but also raising need for what is to follow and moving powerfully into the message in order to protect against an excessive dip in attention and focus.

Let’s think carefully about how to make the most of our conclusion – not just fizzling to a faded flop of a finish, but finishing strong, driving home the main idea, encouraging application of it and stopping with purpose.

If attention and retention are highest at the beginning and end of a message, let’s make these two key times count.

(If you want to see the chart and the suggestions given in that post, just click here.)

Haddon Robinson’s teaching and example always lurk in the back of my mind when it comes to conclusions. His teaching? “You can recover from a bad intro, but not from a bad conclusion.” His example? A consistent nailing of that last poignant and powerful line. Conclusions are easy – get to where you are going, review the journey briefly, encourage application of the idea and stop. But conclusions are hard – they are hard to give enough time for in preparation, they are hard to not modify and over-extend while preaching, they are hard to do well. The key is planning. First, plan to have enough time after preparing everything else in the message so that you can prepare the conclusion fully. Second, use that time and keep up the motivation in order to plan an effective conclusion. Third, generally stick to the conclusion you had planned when preaching, many extra thoughts become unnecessary extensions to a journey. Too many extensions will make the flight of the message uncomfortable and people will be reaching for the folded paper back in the pew in front of them!

Previously on this site – To put it simple, when you get to the end, stop. This is important, but you’ve got to know where you are going! Like flying a plane, your passengers value very highly your skill in landing the bird). The last line, as Haddon Robinson usually exemplifies is critical, so don’t miss that opportunity (although there are some opportunities to be missed). The main thing is to not short change the conclusion.

how to write a sermon conclusion

how to write a sermon conclusion

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