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.