Sometime ago I wrote an article on sermon introductions. The guiding and driving metaphor I used there was a front porch. Essentially as front porches are to houses, so introductions are to the sermon body. Creating a great front porch therefore is essential for allowing and actually drawing people into the house of our sermon. Introductions then are about gaining a listening.
In this entry, I want to look at the other end of the spectrum. By this I am referring to sermon conclusions. Often sermon conclusions are not only the main thing your audience will remember, sometimes it is the only thing they remember specifically. This is not a matter of value, exalting the words of man over the Word of God, nor devaluing biblical content. It simply is an observation. If sermon introductions are about gaining a hearing, then sermon conclusions are about leaving an impression.
This week, I am not giving you a “how-to” for writing a conclusion. My aim is not a step-by-step guide. Nor am I attempting to be exhaustive. I am not suggesting that this is a list for everything that a conclusion must contain. However, I like to simplify processes. My goal is to be as biblical, rich, and as concise as possible. Therefore, this article is designed to give you the three simple goals that I try to accomplish in the conclusion every sermon I preach.
First, I do not create a verbal contract that I do not keep.
I rarely talk about homiletics in terms of “always’s” and “never’s.” The reason is I believe in most areas preaching is an art more than a science. The area of creating verbal contracts may be the closest exception to my own rule. What I mean by this is transitioning into your sermon conclusion by previewing or sign posting. Often a pastor does this by saying “in conclusion,” “I’ll end with this,” or something similar to one of these.
Whether we know it or not, this type of transition does a couple of things in the minds of our hearers. Some of them hear, “I’m done! You have heard everything I have to say. Nothing else is important, so you can begin to pack up your things now.” On the other hand, however, practically everyone hears, “I will wrap this up in five minutes or less.” So, whether you have intended to or not, you have created a verbal contract. In people’s mind, this contract is just as valid and expected as one that is written and notarized. And breaking a verbal contract is more damaging and aggravating than breaking a written one.
Therefore, I rarely if ever preview my conclusion. To do anything else is either to give permission to stop listening or to create an expedition. I think a better option is “never” to create a verbal contract. Instead, just transition into the conclusion naturally. And when you end, end!
Second, I do not preach a new mini sermon.
By this I mean to use the conclusion as an opportunity to bring up new information. I have heard pastors do this by making additional points, or offer “one more thought” that is not in this text or they didn’t have time to unpack earlier. I have done this before. Quite frankly, I have broken my own rule here more often than I would like to admit and even more than I probably realize. My natural tendency may be to bring up new information and fail to end.
So, in my conclusion I make a concerted effort not to preach a new separate mini sermon. Here are a few steps for accomplishing/avoiding this. Be concise. Summarize your text. And drive home the one main biblical truth that you found in the passage and, hopefully, built your sermon on. We call this the big idea, proposition, or homiletical idea. If it does not relate to this content or concept, I refuse to bring it up in the conclusion. I have found this is the best way not to preach a new mini sermon when concluding my message.
Finally, I give clear final appeals from the text for both the redeemed and those needing redemption.
I have mentioned previously in other blogs that I am not only a major proponent of preaching the meaning of the text but also preaching the major intent of the text. Passages not only have meaning; they also have intent. Words not only mean something; they also do something. I believe after you summarize the text’s content and drive home the one main biblical truth of the sermon, the last goal of your conclusion is to make a final appeal.
Leaving an impression in the audience’s mind and calling them to respond is the best way to conclude. So, based on the intent of the author that is communicated by the truth of the text, I always make two direct applications. First and foremost, I show the redeemed exactly how this teaching is relevant for and in their lives and call them to respond accordingly. I am specific here. I share with them appropriate responses they can make during the ending portion of our worship time that I often refer to as the “time of response.” This specific appeal is unique to the text and will differ from week to week depending on the content. It may range anywhere from godly relationships and anger to our place in the body of Christ and disciple-making.
Second, I tell those who do not know Christ how the text I have finished expositing applies to and matters for them. Regardless of the passage, this appeal is static. I may vary in my presentation of it but the basic call remains the same. It is that this truth is telling them they need Christ. I genuinely believe that this is the original intent of the divine author, God, for every lost person that hears any portion of His Word. What ever standard that is set, what ever description of God that is held up, or what ever action is called for, those who do not have Christ cannot obey. The point, even if implicit, is that they be driven to Christ to whom all of the Word points and in whom all of the Word is fulfilled.
Therefore, essentially here I am attempting to do likewise in any text. I want to model the intent of God as I preach every text. So, regarding the unbeliever, I conclude by persuading them to repent and trust Christ. For the believer, I explicitly show them why God gave this passage to us. I believe both of these are worthy and biblical goals. Giving specific appeals for the redeemed and those needing redemption is a great way to end any message and an impactful way to make a lasting impression.
Recently, I preached the Matthew 5:21-26 passage from the sermon on the mount. Thematically the text appears to be about murder. But upon further examination, it is about so much more than that. Really in some capacity, it is about how actions and attitudes of anger make us guilty before a holy God. Essentially, in the larger context this means we cannot be holy as our Father in heaven is (5:48) because our righteousness does not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (5:20). We need internal righteousness. I believe this is the intent that is driven by the meaning.
So, I approached my conclusion something like this. ”Jesus was setting His audience, and us, up. He gives a goal that we can NEVER meet. If this is the standard, we will never attain this type of righteousness. We are in trouble. We need someone to meet it for us. I am reminded of a story of a man who was hiring a new limo driver. One of the major concerns he had was the person’s ability to avoid a brick retaining wall in his driveway. So he interviewed three candidates. The primary question he asked each was, ‘How close can you get the limo to the wall without hitting it?’ The first candidate examined the driveway and the wall. He then said, ‘I can get the limo within a foot of the wall without hitting it.’ The second candidate looked. He then answered, ‘I can park the limo within six inches of the wall without hitting it.’”
“Finally it was the third candidate’s chance to impress the man. His answer was telling. He simply said, ‘Sir, I do not believe my job is getting the limo as close to the wall as possible. I believe my goal is keeping the limo as far away from the wall and out of danger while parking the car.’ Jesus does not give us this standard for us to see how close we can get to anger or murder and still be ‘ok.’ For those who do not know Him, the King gives this standard to you knowing you have a problem with anger and thus cannot enter the kingdom. He does so that you may run to Him in repentance and faith so that you may be redeemed.”
For those of us who know Him, the King gives this ethic for living in the kingdom knowing we still have a problem with anger. We need the King daily to help us live as His citizens. We need Him to help us follow His example daily regarding actions and attitudes of anger in the kingdom. Would you be driven to Jesus this morning?”
As always, I pray my thoughts, suggestions, and examples help you continue to strive to accurately and effectively “Preach the Word!”