And Now, Introducing . . .

Last week I wrote about how we can best conclude our sermons. I thought it might be helpful to consider introductions.

As a freshman in Bible College, I was introduced to John Milton Gregory’s The Seven Laws of Teaching. This is an older book (and by the way, you can get the Kindle copy for 99 cents!), and it had, uh, seven laws for communicating life-changing content within a Christian teaching context. It’s not about preaching, but it is certainly relevant to preaching.

Gregory’s first law was one that I have kept in mind for decades, and applied it not only to the classes I taught and the groups I led, but to preaching. It went something like this: “Gain and sustain the attention of the student.”

Wouldn’t it be great if we got up to preach, and every ear was open and people were leaning forward with anticipation? But that’s not how it works. In most cases, anyway. Our people lead highly distracted lives, and when the sermon begins, they know they are a good part of the way into the service and what they have planned for the afternoon is not far from their minds. In addition, people aren’t used to someone standing in front of them doing a monologue for 30-45 minutes. That our people are willing to listen is commendable! So we need to gain and sustain their attention. That’s the purpose of the sermon introduction.

What makes for a good sermon introduction? Different preachers may have different opinions. For example, I think a good introduction is usually short. But there have been rare occasions where my introduction was up to one-third of the sermon. In cases like that there was something about the topic or about the passage that needed explanation. But that shouldn’t be the norm.

Some pastors feel free using videos or music to introduce their sermons. I’m not going to pass judgment on that, but I like to lean away from anything that is entertaining. People who are entertained expect more entertainment. That’s just the way we are. While I think humor has a place in our preaching, my preference was not to tell a joke during the sermon. I preferred other kinds of humor that were quick and not likely to distract. So for me, the classic joke seemed out of place. And entertainment for the sake of entertainment shouldn’t be a part of your preaching repertoire.

Generally, though not always, an introduction will be a story. Jesus was a master at using a story to set up his points. So let me make some suggestions that will not only help with introductions, but may help with illustrations you use during the sermon.

First, make sure your introduction connects with the subject of the sermon.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s possible to have a great story or some other content that connects only tangentially. You don’t want your congregation wondering why you said what just said while you’re moving on with your sermon. Make sure the introduction leads into what comes next. Similarly, illustrations should be clearly connected to what you’ve just said or what you’re about to say.

Next, don’t write your introduction first.

It’s just best if you wait until the sermon is finished or you at least have your main points down before you come up with your introduction. You want the sermon content and application to guide both your introduction and conclusion. If you develop these before you write your sermon, you may find that the reverse is true. If that happens, you may fudge on how you communicate the content of the passage because you have what you think is such a great introduction.

Third, write your introduction out in full, even if you preach from an outline.

I always wrote a manuscript, either in paragraph form or as a developed outline. Then I condensed it onto several 9×6 sheets (so they fit inside my Bible) and preached from that outline. I found it most helpful to write my introduction and conclusion out in full. If used a story, which I did often, I wanted to be precise in how I told it. If you hem and haw while you’re trying to open your sermon, you’ll lose people. The same is true for illustrations during the sermon and for the conclusion at the end.

Fourth, don’t be afraid to tell stories about yourself or your own experiences, but NEVER be the hero.

The longer you live, the more opportunities you have to mess up or to do dumb things. In no way did most of my sermons start off by telling a story [about me], but I wasn’t afraid to share an experience I had as a way of connecting with the congregation. But what I said about not making yourself the hero is so incredibly important. You want your congregation to relate to you, not view you as a superstar who gets it right all the time and loves to tell about it. They’ll be playing tick-tack-toe with the person sitting next to them before you get ten minutes into your sermon. Or maybe hangman.

In 40 years of pastoral work, plus just living as long as I have, I’ve had some funny things happen. I’ve met some unusual people. I’ve experienced some great and some not-so-great moments in life. And the longer you live, the same will be true for you. So if you have the stories that don’t distract, use them.

An example:

I remember several years ago when I had stopped at a grocery store to get ice cream and a few other things, and the couple in front of me were debating the price of a bag of Hershey Kisses with the cashier. They were on sale after Christmas, and the customer obviously had the right to get their item for the right price, but they were debating pennies. PENNIES!!!!!

I stood there watching my ice cream melt and finally said, “How about I pay the extra dime so I can check out my ice cream before it melts?”

Moment of silence.

The wife said, “You’re rude. Why don’t you go to the 7-Eleven if you’re in a hurry?” Then, while the cashier was calling the manager for help, the husband came up to me and said, “It’s not about the money for us. What if some little old lady wants to buy them and she has to pay more?”

I’m thinking “Right.” But I said, “I’m not trying to be rude. You have every right to get the correct price. But this has been going on for a bit and I just want to pay for my stuff and go home. So I’m willing to pay the difference.”

Apparently the sale price of Hershey Kisses was a big deal, because by the time they moved out of line and I had paid for my stuff, they were still going at it with the manager. And the fact that they were going on and on about this made me all the more satisfied that I had dropped my killer line.

Now before you judge me, you KNOW you’ve always wanted to say something like that. Go on, admit it!

I felt a wonderful sense of satisfaction as I left the store. I got to say what most people in the store would have wanted to say. In fact, I had stood up for every poor soul who had ever had to stand in line because someone was being dopey. I was their champion! The day was mine! So I got in my car and started to drive away.

And then it hit me. “What would happen if they showed up in church tomorrow?”

Now I had no problem telling that story during a sermon. It was a little longer than I might normally prefer, but it connected with a point I was making; it drew people who had drifted back to listening, and it underscored what should be obvious – their pastor could blow it too.

If you’ve got a story where you learned a lesson that applies to the passage, tell it. Write it out, keep it brief, and don’t be the hero.

Sometimes the best introduction is just a statement, carefully composed, of why the passage is important.

Sermon-crafting is very personal. We each have our own methods and procedures, though we learn from others (sometimes without realizing it). You may want to start your sermon with Scripture and then explain the relevance or the reason the theme of the passage is so important. You don’t always need a story, of course. Depending on your personality and life experience, you may not have a reservoir of personal illustrations.

That’s cool. But a good sermon introduction will draw your people into the sermon and give them the sense right at the start that what you have to say is worth listening to.

Someday I’ll tell you about the time when I . . . .

Avoiding the Out-of-Control Funeral

It was well over an hour into the funeral. The memorial service, as we called them, was being held in our church. I would be giving the funeral message, and I was hoping to do it before midnight. But it was not looking good.

I was being victimized a dreaded beast: the Open Mic.

I don’t know who had this idea and why it caught on in our churches, but somehow it began to appear in more and more funerals, usually to no one’s benefit. (In fact, there’s a little-known quote from around the 5th century that says, “Ain’t nothin’ good came from an open mic.” I’m unable to find the source, but you can take my word for it, ok?)

A friend of the deceased was waxing eloquent. But not about the deceased. She was telling stories that largely revolved around herself. I remember walking across the back of the auditorium to where the funeral director was sitting and telling him, “Joe, two things: if you’re still doing this when I die, I want you to care for my funeral. And if anyone in my family says they want an open mic, tell them I said absolutely not.”

See, I have a love/hate relationship with the open mic. I don’t love it. I do hate it.

Now lest you think I’ve popped a gasket, let me explain.

I wanted a funeral to accomplish three things: appropriately honor the deceased, bring comfort to the family and friends, and preach Christ.

The first two depend on a variety of factors relating to the spiritual lives of the family and their loved one. After all, if the person who had died was not a believer, and/or the family are not believers, there’s not a great deal of comfort to give. But the third was always possible. A funeral was a great opportunity to explain the Gospel, and I was always grateful for the opportunity.

Since we don’t have a procedure for conducting a funeral laid out for us in the New Testament, there would seem to be some latitude for what we do when we gather to remember someone who has died. So this is what I came up with, and it served me well.

My goal was to keep the service to between 30 and 45 minutes.

The grieving family may not think of this, but people who come to funerals or memorial services often drive a distance, take off from work, or give of their time in some other way. That sacrifice should be respected. People may care deeply for the family, but it’s easy to spot when an audience starts to get restless.

If the family wanted people to give a word of remembrance, I asked them to choose the speakers, asked that there be 3 or 4 at the most, that they keep their comments to 3 or 4 minutes, and that those who spoke would write out their words beforehand.

You can’t control what people say or how long they speak, but I found by asking those who would take part to follow those guidelines we kept the service length under control and people felt better being prepared as opposed to getting up and trying to wing it. I honestly can’t remember anyone getting bent out of shape over this.

In addition, if the deceased was a believer from a Christian family, the family could choose people who would support what was I would say later in my message.

Ban the Open Mic!!

Be strong and courageous!


How often I wished for one of these . . .
How often I wished for one of these . . .

Seriously, why do I make such a big deal about this? A lot of families may think it’s a wonderful idea.

If I was speaking at the funeral of someone who was not a believer (I occasionally was asked to do the service of someone from outside of our church), I explained that people tend to wander when they speak off-the-cuff. I suggested that they ask a couple of people to speak who would be prepared. I also reminded them that the cemetery was expecting us at a certain time and that we didn’t want to incur an extra charge. Those explanations always were accepted.

If I was speaking at the funeral of someone from a Christian family, I would explain that having an open mic made it very possible that someone would say something that could undercut the Gospel message that the family wanted me to bring. That, and the factors mentioned above, were usually accepted without objection.

(By the way, I never worked with a funeral director who thought the open mic was a good idea.)

If you feel you’d get some push-back or because of your youth be viewed as autocratic, ask your Elders to develop a policy on this.

Do your best to be the last person who speaks.

I began each service by reading the basic biographical facts of the deceased: birth date and place, death date and place, surviving relative, etc. Then I continued with Scripture and prayer. When it came time to speak I spoke briefly about the deceased. Where honor could be paid, I did that. Where there was a question about their relationship with the Lord my comments tended to be biographical. I never spoke as if the person was in heaven unless I was sure they were true followers of Christ. Then I read another portion of Scripture and presented the Gospel. I spoke for 15-20 minutes. If I knew the testimony of the deceased, I’d work that into my comments.

Last words are generally the ones most remembered. You don’t want to have presented the Gospel and the urgency of putting faith in Christ for the forgiveness of sins, only to have some well-meaning guy get up and say, “Well, I used to bowl with Harry every Friday night and I can tell you that right now he’s probably up there bowling with the angels.” Or (and I’ve heard this) “Bill was quite a character. I will miss him, but knowing Bill he’s probably got heaven in an uproar right about now.”

What are people going to remember if that’s what they hear?

There is usually a meal or refreshments after the service. Invite people who had special memories or stories about the deceased to tell them to the family at this gathering. I never did this, but in retrospect I think it would have been a good idea.

This is the most appropriate time for people to tell their stories. It respects the time of the guests, it allows people who have something to say to say it, and it doesn’t provide an opportunity – at least during the service – to contradict the Gospel.

I’ve often been asked by younger pastors or other people in ministry who have little opportunity to conduct a funeral what they should do. Again, this is an opinion, but it’s worked for me, and I think it would work for you, too.

If you have suggestions you’d like to add, go ahead and put them in the comment section at the end of this post. Comments are moderated, but I try to get to them the same day they are posted. Let’s learn from each other!

Tools of the Trade for August 19, 2019

A Weekly List of Links and Resources for Pastors

Lots of things to share with you today.

If you’re reading this blog and find it helpful, or if you have an idea for something you’d like to read about, please feel free to contact me at pcbogert@gmail.com.

Here are today’s links:

If you’re a younger pastor, well, it’s good to be prepared. Mid-life issues affect pastors too. If you’re approaching or already in mid-life, this article from May by John Piper may be worth reading and saving.

Here’s another article by John Piper in which he reflects on a statement once made by James Denny, a Scottish preacher from over a century ago. Denny said, “No man can give the impression that he himself is clever and that Christ is mighty to save.”

Every aspect of pastoral ministry involves leadership. We always want to lead well, but as Clint Eastwood once said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” We can’t – and won’t – do everything well.

A few weeks back I wrote about time management and recommended the Bullet Journal system as a simple but helpful way of keeping track of what you have to do. If you prefer computer apps over pen and paper, this article may be of help.

Our churches are busy places. Stephen McAlpine has an idea for slowing down, at least for a season.

“Why Pastors Burn Out (And How to Avoid It).” Enough said. Read it.

What’s the difference between a lecture and preaching? Here’s an opportunity for self-check.

Back in June, Dr. Brian Chapell asked and answered a question about avoiding a preaching rut. I’ve had them, and you probably have too. Or will. Here’s good counsel.

I’m copying these right from the newsletter of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Both of these books should be of interest to pastors of all ages:

The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart (Lexham) by Harold L. Senkbeil. Harold Senkbeil helps remind pastors of the essential calling of the ministry: preaching and living out the Word of God while orienting others in the same direction. And he offers practical and fruitful advice born out of his five decades as a pastor” that will benefit both new pastors and those with years in the pulpit. In a time when many churches have lost sight of the real purpose of the church, The Care of Souls invites a new generation of pastors to form the godly habits and practical wisdom needed to minister to the hearts and souls of those committed to their care. (Note from me: The Kindle price is half of the paper price)

Saint Peter’s Principles: Leadership for Those Who Already Know Their Incompetence (P&R) by Peter A. Lillback. Laurence J. Peter argued that competent employees are promoted until they reach positions where they are incompetent. Any wise leader, then, can learn from Saint Peter, a man who knew his own incompetence, trusted in Christ, and met his deficiencies through the insights of God’s Word.


That’s all for this week. May God bless your efforts to serve him throughout these next days.

When Hurt Hangs On

At the ripe young age of 59, I had my left knee replaced. My doctor wanted to wait until I was older, but I got tired of dealing with the pain and the limitations. (And by the way, I hope this is bringing a tear to your eye). I was in the hospital for several nights and then went home where I did my rehab and PT with the aid of my loving wife.

In case you’ve never had your knee replaced, I can testify to the fact that when it’s over and you begin your recovery, it hurts. A lot. And the PT hurts. A lot. But it wasn’t too long before I was up and around, walking a mile each morning to strengthen my knee, and within a few weeks the pain was gone, as expected.

When it comes to pain, I wish it was that easy all the time, but it’s not. Pain, whether physical or emotional, doesn’t always go away quickly.

I’ve been thinking recently about how Christians deal with people who have what I call “long-term pain.” What I’m referring to are situations where the hurt hangs on for a long time, even months or years. For example, consider the impact of a job loss, a financial reversal, a relationship failure, or some other kind of disappointment that has life-altering consequences. I’m not including illness here because while long-term or serious illness is certainly life-altering, we tend to do pretty well with this category. But it certainly could be included.

I’ve found that at first we give people room to process their grief and disappointment, but only so much room before we forget that their hurt still lingers (because of the way in which their lives have been changed). Or we lose patience because we don’t feel they’re processing their hurt the way we think they should. But imposing our timetable for people to move beyond their pain is simply not reasonable.

May I offer a few suggestions on how to deal with people with long-term pain? These are suggestions not only for those of us in ministry, but I believe they should be taught to the congregation as a whole.

First, don’t expect people to follow a template for “recovery.” We’re all different, and what rolls off of one person’s back may not roll off another’s. A lot depends on our makeup and how much of an impact the loss has had on our lives.

Second, we’re commanded to weep with those who weep (Romans 12:13). R.C Sproul, in his commentary (Romans: The Gospel of God) writes:

This is another of those injunctions, however, that is much easier said than done. It takes real sensitivity, real grace and discipline to listen and watch for the moods of other people, and to express empathy. Empathy means to feel with another person. Paul is not referring to sympathy, but empathy, where we enter into the feelings of others.

Empathy is more than merely acknowledging that someone is hurting. Empathy means that we work to gain an understanding of why the person is “weeping.”

There are some situations in which we may look at someone and wonder, “What’s their problem? Why haven’t they gotten over (fill in the blank)?” Empathy finds out the answer to that question, asking it in a way that is not judgmental. Be willing to listen to the person’s story, even if it sounds like the same thing they’ve been saying for months (years?).

Third, point people to the Psalms of lament. There are so many places where David tells God about his pain. And in each case David concludes that God is his source of strength. And it’s good for people to see both. It’s good for them to pour out their hearts to God without any shame for telling God the same thing over and over. It’s also good for them to realize that God is with them in the midst of their pain.

For example, there isn’t a hurting Christian alive who can’t relate to the words of Psalm 69:

1 Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck.

2 I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.

3 I am weary with my crying out; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God. – Psalm 69:1-3 (ESV).

Fourth, don’t ever, and I mean ever, tell someone “Well, at least you don’t have it as bad as so-and-so.”

Has anyone ever said that to you? How did that make you feel? Right! That’s why we shouldn’t ever say it.

No matter how well-meaning we are, we’re minimizing how someone feels, almost telling them they have no right to their pain. And if we stop and think about the logic behind that statement, there’s really only one person in the world who has any “right” to hurt because person “A” doesn’t have it as bad as person “B” but person “B” doesn’t have it as bad as person “C.” Oh and person “C” doesn’t have it as bad as person “D.” And so on . . . .

Not only that, when we minimize someone else’s pain in this way we minimize God’s work in their lives. If suffering is part of the process God uses to sanctify us (Romans 5:2-5, for example) then we have no business telling someone that what God designed to be used in their life is comparatively insignificant to what someone else is going through.

Finally, I would recommend that everyone who works with people read Ed Welch’s superb book Side By Side: Walking With Others in Wisdom and Love. It’s one of the most helpful books I’ve read.

Yes, there are times to gently call people to put aside self-pity. But before you take that approach make sure that you understand why whatever loss or disappointment they have had has led to their sorrow. And do that without passing judgment.

If you are a younger pastor, learning how to lovingly deal with the hurts of your people can have a great impact on your ministry. It is likely that, as a younger man, you’re going to be ministering to people who are older than you. Sometimes two or three times older than you. And one of the best ways of building a connection is a sincere interest in their well-being after they’ve gone through hard times.

Let’s do a better job dealing with those who have long-term hurt and pain. Let’s not run from them, but let’s engage them, bearing their burdens, and leading them to see God as their refuge as he displays his love through our caring.

So I Said To My Brother-in-Law . . .

I was sorting through some computer files and came across a brief challenge I gave to my brother-in-law, Brian, 14 years ago this month. Laura and I had flown from Philadelphia to Florida late in August for his installation service, and I was privileged to be able to give the charge to the new pastor. (Note to self: Don’t go to Florida in late August without an air-conditioned body suit.)

It was a great day. Two things made it great for me. The first was that my brother-in-law is a first rate, class act guy. He retired a few years after many years of effective and faithful ministry in three different churches. But the other thing that made it great was that down in heart of Florida Marlins territory, I presented him with a Philadelphia Phillies T-Shirt.

Anyway, I re-read the words and thought I’d share them here as a challenge for all pastors, young or old.


Please open to 2 Timothy 4.

Brian, I have no doubt that you want to have an effective ministry. But how does that happen? We have seminars and books by the score that tell us what to do, how to be successful, what we need to focus on. I had several pieces of mail waiting for me when I got back from vacation the other day that claimed that my ministry could be revolutionized if I bought their product.

But how do we decide what makes us effective? The more I think about the church and about what is important, I am convinced of this: Scripture must define our ministry priorities.

When we look at the pastoral task in Scripture, our primary – not our only, but our primary – priority must be the communication of God’s Word.

I have no doubt that we think alike on this issue, but the climate in which we minister today is moving further and further away from this view of ministry. But I want to challenge you to commit yourself to an view of ministry that is not merely part of a passing and antiquated evangelicalism, but rather is rooted in the inerrant Word of God.

Read 2 Timothy 4:1-4: I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.
(2 Timothy 4:1–4 ESV)

I wish I had time to develop this passage in more detail than I do. What Paul says in chapter 4 comes out of his discussion in chapter 3 on the nature of Scripture. Because Scripture is God-breathed and because it is the means God uses to change lives, Paul prefaces his commands to Timothy in words that are clearly not just friendly counsel – they are divine edict (read again vs. 1). Out of this comes the command that forms the heart of this passage:

Preach the Word.
This is not preaching about the Word or preaching from the Word, but preaching the Word. There is a difference between preaching the text of Scripture and using Scripture to support our own ideas.

Our ideas don’t bring life. God’s words do. Our ideas don’t change the heart. God’s words do.

Preach the word persistently.
“In season and out of season” relates to the climate of the times. Whether it is trendy or not, whether it is popular or not does not matter.

How do we stay on track here? The best way is to come to the text for the message, and not to the text to support our message.

So preach the word persistently. Preach the simple and preach the profound. Our “climate” is one in which there are numerous appeals to lighten up avoid topics that are deep. Personally, I resent the insinuation that our people cannot or will not learn. Luther taught the doctrine of justification by faith to peasants. What makes us think our people cannot learn doctrine?

Preach the word to the heart.
“Reprove, rebuke, exhort” (correct, rebuke, encourage – NIV) are words that clearly tell us that we need to speak to more than just the mind. These words tell us that we need to speak with authority to values, behavior, the way people think, how they behave – because the Word does.

Everyone wants to be relevant. You will be relevant if you preach the Word and preach to the heart.

Preach the word with urgency.
A good pastor guards the souls of his people. A good shepherd knows that there is a real enemy who seeks to devour. A good shepherd knows that a verbal profession of faith does not guarantee genuine conversion. So we preach the word with a sense of urgency. We care that our people hear it and that they learn it, and we do all that we can humanly do to enable those things.

If we are not living in the climate Paul describes in verses 3 & 4, we must be very close. This is a day of doctrinal shallowness and compromise, a day in which God’s nature and his priorities are distorted and sometimes even attacked. And you will compete with highly visible people – on TV, radio, and in print – who are considered credible because of their celebrity, and yet offer your people nothing more than spiritual candy.

Never take this pulpit without reminding yourself of the awesome responsibility of your task and of what is at stake, and preach the word with urgency. You do not know how long people will listen.

You may be accused of being old-fashioned and out of touch. Some people will visit and never return because you preach more than a feel-good message. Even some who are sitting here today may urge you to lighten up, which means to dumb down.

You pay that no heed.

You determine at the start of your ministry here to preach the Word, to preach it persistently, to preach to the heart, and to preach with urgency, and when God brings this chapter of your ministry to a close, you will have fulfilled your responsibility to lead these dear people “into paths of righteousness for His name’s sake,” and you will have nothing for which to apologize when you stand to give an account “in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus.”

Preach the Word!

Tools of the Trade – August 12, 2019

A Weekly List of Links and Resources for Pastors

Mondays are for odds and ends that I find helpful. I scan some key blogs and newsletters each week and will link to articles or announcements that are relevant for pastors. But occasionally I’ll toss in a story or something else. I’ve done that today.

This Week’s Tools of the Trade

Tim Challies linked to my blog post on “We Shepherd Sheep, Not Beasts of Burden” from the middle of last week (August 7th, 2019). I had over 1200 hits and hope that some of those who visited will come back again. Tim has been uniquely used by God to “inform the reforming” (his tag line), and has been blogging every day since the Reformation. Or thereabouts. I normally won’t link to his page, and I try not to link to articles he’s already linked to, but his daily column from Friday, August 9, contains reference to several links that I had planned to list here. So rather than duplicate his work, let me just point you to Tim’s site. In addition, he had an article on ten new books for August. Some of them are very relevant to pastors.

In my August 7th post I referenced an article I had read. Logos Bible Software’s blog asks the question “Do your sermons make your congregation think you’re angry?” Worth the read – and some reflection.

My friend Glenn Jago sent me a link to an article that was in Christianity Today that dovetails with what I was trying to say in the post on “We Shepherd Sheep . . .” Tim Challies linked to it, but don’t miss it.

Michael Horton wrote a great piece on mental illness, which is something that we will likely have to deal with as we minister to others.

Here’s another article on how we view our church: “Pastor, Your Sheep Are Not An Accident.

It’s possible to preach a narrative passage and never get to Christ. But it’s also possible to preach a narrative passage and force it to say something it doesn’t. This article speaks to preaching from the Old Testament without preaching mere moralism.

Some of you may be just starting out or in the early years of ministry. But how will you finish? Here’s something worth reading by two veteran pastors.

Ligonier Ministries (R.C. Sproul) posted an article by Sinclair Ferguson on whether it is right to be discouraged. It’s worth reading.

When the Plane Didn’t Land

My wife, Laura, has a sneeze that can raise the dead. When we were first married it was a point of contention between us because I couldn’t imagine a person not being able to sense a sneeze coming on and then somehow mute it. But I soon realized that she can’t.

Some of her sneezes are epic. We were in a Best Buy one time and she came out with one of her “greatest hits.” As the sound of the sneeze rattled off the corrugated steel ceiling, someone on the other side of the store called out, “God bless you!” Laura taught 6th grade for a number of years and it wasn’t too far into the school year before she scared her class by a sudden sneeze.

Some years ago we were vacationing at a Christian conference center. We went during a week that was convenient for my schedule and also for hers since she was teaching. On occasion the conference would have a family week with a speaker who would focus on home schooling. We have nothing against home schooling, but our kids were grown, so it wasn’t the most relevant topic. But we’d attend several sessions.

One night we were listening to a talk that was going on way too long. In addition it was all over the map. The speaker was clearly excited about his topic, but he was plucking random Bible verses out of the air to support his points. We were ready to leave but he wasn’t.

And then Laura sneezed.

It was one of her all-time best. And what made it have an even greater impact was that her sister, who was sitting next to her, was so startled that she screamed.

Loudly.

The speaker stopped. I’ll never forget his “deer in the headlights” look. People laughed, Laura and her sister were semi-horrified, but after what seemed like a good 15 seconds (which is a long time), the speaker resumed his talk and kept going for another 15-20 minutes. I have no recollection of the topic, but I will always remember the sneeze and the poor woman behind us, about 8.999 months pregnant, who was laughing (quietly, thankfully) so hard that she was crying.

I honestly believe that the speaker should have wrapped things up. But he didn’t land the plane. The voyage continued.

Now I’m not saying that if our preaching gets interrupted we should shut things down. But sometimes . . .

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You Have To Know How To Land the Plane

It was very early in my ministry. My father-in-law, who was the Senior Pastor, was away, and I was given the opportunity to preach. We were not a large church – perhaps about 325, but we had two morning services, and of course I was preaching at both.

I have no recollection of what my topic was on that Sunday morning. But after the worship service was over, a friend passed me in the hallway and said, “Had a little trouble landing the plane, didn’t you?”

She was referring to how I brought the sermon to a conclusion. And she was right. I circled the airfield countless times before I finally set down. I knew I had to fix it for the second service, but I had to teach Sunday School. I remember rushing to my office before and after Sunday School and doing my best to work out a better ending to the sermon. I think I did. At least I hope I did.

(As an aside, I have a notebook of my early sermons, and the people who listened to them deserved some kind of medal. But I was young and learning and they were patient and encouraging.)

I’ve found over the years that the introduction and conclusion are two of the most difficult parts of sermon development. You don’t want either to be too long, and you want both to dovetail with the heart of the message. While the introduction is important, in some ways the conclusion is even more so, as it is the last thing the congregation hears.

What makes for a good conclusion? Let me suggest a few things:

First, a good conclusion always contains a call for a response. Some guys like to mix the application in along the way. Others like to address the passage and then conclude with application points. I preferred the former, but I used somewhat of a hybrid and often varied my approach.

Since we want our preaching to impact the thinking and behavior of our audience, we should provide specific ways in which the passage does that. It may be an action they need to take. It may be an attitude or perspective they need to adopt. Or it may even be something they need to remember.

Second, a good conclusion should not introduce new material. Our conclusions should summarize the main point of the sermon. I don’t mean a repeat of your outline, but a short paragraph that, if possible, summarizes and puts an exclamation point on the sermon.

Third, keep the conclusion brief. I always preferred to use stories or illustrations in my introduction or during the sermon itself. Your experience may be different, but for me, telling a story at the end risked distracting my people from the point of the text.

Finally, consider making the conclusion the very last thing your people hear before they leave church.

Maybe this sounds a bit radical to some of you. But let me explain. We visited a church in our general area a few weeks back and the pastor closed his sermon, prayed, and dismissed the congregation. I thought it was pure genius.

“You mean they didn’t have a closing hymn?” No, they didn’t. And you know what? It was fine. Now you might face some resistance from people who feel that a closing hymn is prescribed somewhere in the minor prophets, but it worked. If I was preaching regularly again, I’d arrange the service so that those things we often hold to the end of the sermon (offering, announcements, Lord’s Table, hymn) would take place before I preached. Conclusion, prayer, benediction. Adios!

Why? Because there are many voices calling for your people’s attention, and they’ll encounter some of them before they even leave their seats. If our sermons are the most important element in our worship service (and I believe they are) why distract from the sermon with other things – even very good and necessary things?

Let me close with an example from my own ministry.

A few years back, I preached a series from selected Psalms. One of those I chose was a favorite of mine, Psalm 121. Psalm 121 is “A Song of Ascents.” It was one that pilgrims traveling to worship in Jerusalem would sing as they passed through dangerous territory. Robbers and wild animals inhabited those hills, so the Psalmist starts by saying,

“I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.”
(Psalm 121:1-2, ESV)

I explained the Psalm from the standpoint of where we turn in times of trouble. Then I brought it to a conclusion in this way:

So look up at the hills. They are filled with danger, hurt, disappointment and grief. How are you going to make it? Ultimately our help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. And the one who made me and who made you. God may use a wise doctor, a capable counselor, or some trusted friends. But God’s help will also come from his Word. So let’s do what Calvin said. Let’s gather from Scripture every promise concerning God’s providence, until the truth of his faithfulness is deeply rooted in our hearts. When you walk through darkness, you’ll be glad you did.

Father, be our constant companion, and bring others alongside of us to walk with us through good times and bad, people who will point us to Jesus. And may we find that your Word is our strength and help. When we wonder where to turn, help us to turn to you. I pray this in Jesus’ name, Amen.

I highlighted the main point, introduced nothing new (I had referred to the Calvin quote earlier in the sermon), and I wrote my closing prayer so that it would tie in with the sermon.

Again, I make no claims for being anything more than an ordinary preacher. But this kind of closing worked for me. It resonates with how we think, what we believe, and how we act.

As I said, preaching is hard work from start to finish. Introductions and conclusions are vital parts of making our sermons effective. You’re a pilot taking your people on a journey. Work on your skills so that when it comes time to land the plane, you land it smoothly.