Several weeks ago, I wrote that it takes nothing short of a miracle for a pastor to write a sermon every week.
It is true that sermons are the stuff of miracles, and I stand by my premise. Yet, for far too many sermons, it seems that the miracle runs its course before the sermon ends.
Concluding a sermon is difficult, and (as many sermons out there attest) I’m not the only one who has a hard time with this. I pity the congregation whose pastor does not know how to finish a sermon well.
“You should give as much thought to choosing your last sentence as you did to your first,” William Zinsser noted in On Writing Well, but far too many pastors preach for far too long, some exceeding 40 minutes of sermonizing.
For the late Fred Craddock, one of the masters at sermon conclusions, twenty minutes was good enough. Without a manuscript to hold him down, he ended his sermons when the time seemed right, even if it meant leaving a few questions unanswered.
“I am not sure even Craddock knows when he is going to end his sermon,” Barbara Brown Taylor once noted, “but nine times out of ten it takes my breath away.”
Now, don’t let me fool you. Just because I’m writing this article doesn’t mean I know something about it myself.
One time when I was preaching, someone’s cellphone alarm went off. I asked if there was a ringing in the room. Someone affirmed that there was indeed a ring. Another parishioner chimed in and said, “It means your time is up.” We shared a laugh that day, but that parishioner was right. It was time to get to the point.
Frankly, there is no right way to end a sermon, although theories exist. Homiletician Eugene Lowery believes that a conclusion to every sermon should raise the heart heavenward and inspire the church to see Christ anew.
His sermons usually consist of three movements: The beginning plunges his audience into a conflict. The middle digs deep into the biblical text and discovers how God uses reversal and redemption (what he calls the “narrative loop”) to save us from said conflict. The conclusion lifts us up out of our human condition and sets us on the path of the Risen Christ.
Other preachers reserve life applications for the end. Andy Stanley feels, for instance, that sermons should help people see why change is needed in the world. “You close,” he wrote of preaching, “with several statements about what could happen in your community, you church, or the world if everybody embraced that particular truth.”
Other preachers feel that a proper conclusion consists of a summary of things already stated. Unfortunately, many pastors take so much time on the summary that a great 25-minute sermon turns into a dismal 45-minute sermon.
Another observation from Zinsser rings true: “A series of conclusions which never conclude . . . is ultimately a failure.”
Lastly, there are preachers who believe that the conclusion should have the congregation wanting more, like a thriller with a cliffhanger.
“The conclusion of a sermon should move like a river, growing in volume and power,” John Broadus noted in On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, “It should not be like a stream that loses itself in a marsh.”
Preachers who exert power in their conclusions rely on emotion and inspiration, usually bringing their audience to its feet and raising both voice and hands to inspire people to take action. Repetition, rhythm, singing, chanting, and (in some traditions) hooping are tools in this preacher’s tool box.
As for me, I am honest with parishioners. I let them know I can’t hit a home run every Sunday, but at least I will get them out of church on time. I may not always inspire, but I will respect them. A sermon that ends well communicates as much.