Thanksgiving Day, sprawled on my couch watching a football game, I had an epiphany
The home team was scoring at every opportunity – moving up and down the field,
connecting on passes, breaking through lines, racking up touchdowns, and kicking
extra points. The visiting team was strong in a lot of ways, too, and able to
move the ball successfully, but with one difference. Inside the opponents’ 20
yard line – what football people call “the red zone” – they ground to a halt.
By half-time, the visitors had managed only two field goals for six points,
in contrast to the 28 points for the hosts.
I have preached sermons like that, which seemed to do everything but “score.”
The introduction worked well, but perhaps like the first 20 yards on the football
field – which is almost a “gimme” to each team – congregations generously
concede the first few minutes of a sermon to see what the preacher plans to
do today. My points were in order, the biblical exposition appropriate, and
the application right. Even my illustrations worked. What the sermon lacked,
however, was a coming together for a closing that worked – that “scored,” to
use our sports metaphor.
After blazing downfield for the first 20 minutes, my sermon had fizzled out
like a spent firecracker in the red zone. I had tacked on the ending as an afterthought,
leaving the congregation confused as to what I was saying and unclear on what
I was expecting of them.
With four decades of pastoral service behind me, a year ago I came to a new
position with our denomination that has me in different churches each Sunday.
Preaching in churches of all sizes, all situations, and all nationalities has
been a refreshing challenge. I find myself particularly enjoying those times
when I’m not the preacher, but a visitor and fellow worshiper on a back pew
hearing a local pastor do what he does every Sunday of the year. I’ve been pleased
to discover that most of the pastors do very well. I’ve not heard one sermon
that did not feed my soul.
I have noticed, however, that just because a preacher delivers a good message
does not mean he knows how to “bring it home.” Most of our pastors could use
help in effective closings to their sermons.
One Sunday I sat in a small congregation where the preacher was a young seminarian,
presumably still learning how to preach. His message on the Beatitudes seemed
well thought out and he brought some helpful insights to his people. Nearing
the close, it became apparent that he had no clue on how to bring his points
together to the single focus of the message. In fact, his final prayer dealt
with the five points of his sermon.
That day I went away reflecting on what that young man had done well and where
he had missed. Like the Thanksgiving Day football team, he had moved the ball
across the field, then bogged down in the red zone and failed to score. Perhaps
because he had moved the ball, so to speak, he thought of it as a success.
As though the Lord were working overtime to teach me on this subject, the next
sermon I heard was delivered by a veteran seminary professor who did the same
thing. An excellent message with effective exposition and apt illustrations
ground to a halt in the red zone, as though the learned preacher had given no
thought on what to do once he arrived at this end of the field. A good sermon
fizzled, the public invitation sputtered, and the congregation progressed on
to the next item in the order of worship. If anyone left church that day pondering
how close they had come to hearing a great sermon, I couldn’t tell.
In Writer’s Digest for December, 2004, Lauren Kessler quotes Joan Didion,
“It is easier to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.”
With that line, Kessler introduces her article, “The Elegant Finish,” which
deals with writing first-class conclusions to non-fiction pieces. Some of her
insights are helpful to preachers in search of effective climaxes to their sermons.
Kessler asks why endings are so hard to write. For one thing, she finds, we
are taught in school that the opening is most important. Writers (speakers,
too) learn that they must grab people with their first words. Further, something
inside writers – and preachers – insists that once we figure out how to begin,
the rest will fall into place.
Kessler puts much of the blame on journalism schools that teach students to
tell the story, and that the story is over when they run out of material. That
way, there is no ending. It just stops, like a lot of sermons where the preacher
runs out of time or material or inspiration.
There is an old school of thought that says speeches and sermons are made up
of three parts: an introduction in which I tell what I’m going to tell, the
main body in which I tell it, and the conclusion where I summarize what I just
told. If one is preaching to kindergartners, that may be an effective approach.
Otherwise, it’s an insult to the audience, assuming as it does that the hearers
are mentally impaired or did not listen the first time.
A sermon which lays its points before the people without ever tying them up
again at the end fails its audience in a lot of ways. Chiefly, it never lets
the congregation see the bigger picture, how the message fits into the larger
framework of God’s plan for the world, the Kingdom, and themselves.
With Kessler’s suggestions as our guide, I want to propose three approaches
for preachers in crafting more effective closings for sermons.
“Think of the closing as a story.”
The preacher may end with a story that brings the gist of the sermon home. The
old joke about the sermon being composed of three points and a poem is half
right. Something – a poem, story, illustration, something! – can be used at
the end to push the main message across the finish line.
In an old sermon titled “Looking at God Through Christ,” John A. Redhead preached
on the love of God, which, he said, will not let us down, let us off, or let
us go. Toward the end, he tells the story of Harry Lauder, a Scotsman who buried
two sons killed in the First World War. In his depression, he often took long
walks. One evening, a little boy from the neighborhood who had befriended him
joined him. The child pointed out the banners hanging in the windows of homes.
star represents a son who served in the war,” Lauder said. “And why are some
of them gold?” the boy asked. “That means the son did not come back. He was
killed in the war.” Soon the sky began to darken and a star twinkled. The child
saw it and said, “Did God send a son to the war, too?” Lauder said, “Yes. God
sent His only Son to the greatest war ever fought, the war against sin, and
it cost His life.”
Redhead concludes, “For the gold star of God’s only Son, embroidered on the
service banner in the window of heaven, attests a love that has gone all-out
to seek and to save.”
At the end of a sermon called “It Pays to Pray,” David Jeremiah tells of the
time Professor Howard Hendricks stood before his seminary class and said, “My
seventy-five-year-old father received Jesus Christ as his Savior. That might
not be meaningful to you unless I tell you that for forty years, I have prayed
for his salvation. And after forty years, God finally said ‘yes’.” Jeremiah
concludes, “It pays to pray.”
“Bring it full circle.”
Go back to the front of the message where it all began, to the issue it raised,
the problem it presented, the need, the question, the allusion, and now tie
it together. Let the message end where it began.
One of Francis Schaeffer’s most memorable sermons was “The Lord’s Work in the
Lord’s Way.” In his introduction, he quotes the first verse of a hymn which
his theological school always sang at commencements. In the conclusion, he quotes
the last verse, and ties the message together perfectly.
In the introduction to the sermon “Jesus said, ‘Father’,” J. Wallace Hamilton
tells of the time G. Studdert Kennedy was walking on the seashore at night,
taking in the majesty of the stars while massive waves crashed against a nearby
cliff. Kennedy was so conscious of a divine presence nearby that he felt like
asking, “Who goes there?” Eventually, the impression was so strong he did call
out those words, and received back the answer, a single word, “God,” that imbedded
itself in his heart.
Hamilton’s sermon went on to present various ways people have answered the question,
“Who goes there?” and climaxes with the divine revelation in Jesus. He concludes
this message with the story of the prodigal son:
evening the father had watched down the road from the roof top, and one evening
there he was – something in the way he walked was familiar. And when
he was a great way off, the father saw him and ran. There was a heart cry in
the twilight, and the lights went on in the father’s house.
is God, said Jesus. Someone out there on the road . . . calling your name.
In his sermon “Pulling Weeds,” Alistair Begg advises couples headed for the
marriage altar to uproot unhealthy influences and patterns that have grown up
in their lives. He begins the sermon with a story from his own gardening. He
knows only one way of dealing with weeds, and that is to uproot them immediately,
ruthlessly, and consistently. The sermon lists various traits that need eradicating
from a marriage. Begg ends the sermon: “No matter how much effort goes into
the preparation and planting of a garden, it will all be in vain if the weeds
are not dealt with. Let us then resolve to tackle them immediately, ruthlessly,
Ralph Sockman introduced a sermon, “The Divine at the Door,” with two Scriptural
pictures he found intriguing. In the first, from John 20, the newly risen Jesus
materializes inside a locked room to meet the disciples. In the second, from
Revelation 3, Jesus stands at the door and knocks for admission into the human
heart. He enters the first without an invitation, but waits for the other to
be opened from the inside. Sockman’s sermon deals with the need for the Lord
Jesus in the affairs of men.
He concludes: “Let us keep the two pictures of Christ before us. One, the powerful
Christ who pervades every situation, social, financial, internation. ‘Jesus
cometh, the doors being shut, and stood in their midst.’ The other, the Christ
so personal, so patient, waiting for little people like ourselves to open the
door . . . .Christ has the keys to the world’s situations. But we have the keys
“Focus on your hearers.”
What are you now wanting your audience to do? What do you wish them to carry
away, what actions to take? Listen to any sermon from Billy Graham. “I’m going
to ask you to get up from your seats and come forward and stand here and commit
your life to Jesus Christ.” Not one soul in a stadium full is in doubt as to
where Mr. Graham is going with his message or what people are being asked to
Martin Niemoller ended a sermon on brotherly love with this call: “And therefore
I ask you, dear brethren, for more than your sympathy, for more than your monetary
help, on behalf of the church of Christ. We live by the fact that he laid down
his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.”
Martyn Lloyd-Jones ends a sermon called “Facing All the Facts” with this call:
“Do not merely go to church to consider your present prospects; consider your
latter end . . . go immediately to God and confess your blindness, your prejudice,
your folly in trusting to your own understanding, and ask Him to receive you.
Tell Him you accept His message concerning Jesus Christ His only Begotten Son,
Who came into the world to die for your sins and to deliver you, and yield yourself
to Him and rely upon Him and His power. Give yourself unreservedly to Him in
Christ and you will see life with a wholeness and a blessedness you have never
Arguably, Winston Churchill was the Twentieth Century’s greatest orator. Historians
like to say he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle. When
asked Churchill’s contribution to the successful outcome of the Second World
War, one critic remarked, “He talked.” Indeed he did, but how he talked. His
speeches are still read and marveled at today, particularly the ones from 1940
when Britain stood virtually along against Hitler and Churchill had to rally
his nation to faithfulness. What strikes us about those messages today is that
the most memorable parts, the segments which still soar and which in that day
brought audiences to their feet and drove Brits to make just one more sacrifice,
those portions are all found in the concluding words, in the final paragraph.
On June 4, 1940, Churchill had the unenviable task of explaining his country’s
defeat at Dunkirk, when hundreds of thousands of English troops were evacuated
from the French coast and brought home across the Channel. Most of the lengthy
speech gave detailed explanations and no-nonsense analyses of what had happened,
and what Churchill expected to occur. He will not guarantee the Nazis will not
invade and so far, he had not been able to bring any other nation to their defense.
They are alone. With that, he concludes:
. . . we
shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France,
we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence
and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the
cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing
grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in
the hills; we shall never surrender . . .
today with no idea of the context of those remarks can practically recite them
by heart. Citizens who kept diaries in those dark days would write: “Winston
spoke by wireless tonight and rallied the nation.” A Scottish soldier, evacuated
from Dunkirk and dumped on a road outside Dover, scared and in shock, heard
Churchill on the radio that night. Later, he said, “I cried when I heard him
say ‘we shall never surrender’ and I thought, ‘We’re going to win!'”
Two weeks later, Churchill began to prepare his people for what history would
call the Battle of Britain. In a short speech, he said, “Upon this battle depends
the survival of Christian civilization . . . . The whole fury and might of the enemy
must very soon be turned on us.” Stand up to Hitler and Europe would be free,
he promised. Fail to do so and the Dark Ages would return. Then, he concluded:
Let us therefore
brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British
Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will say, ‘This
was their finest hour.’
would object, with good reason, that Churchill had weeks to prepare a single
message, a staff to handle his research, and days to seek the ideal closing.
Pastors deliver two or more messages a week, and do not have the time, energy,
or resources to hammer out works of oratorical splendor which will be studied
in seminary classrooms of the future.
Churchill stands as the ideal. We study his speeches as prime examples of how
it is done. Anyone assigned to motivate people with words can benefit from studying
this one who overcame great obstacles in his life to learn how to speak, then
devoted a lifetime to perfecting his craft. In Churchill, we have one who knew
the value of the spoken word, who knew how to prepare a message, who knew precisely
what he was doing at the lectern or in front of a microphone, and who chose
each word, formed each sentence, for its desired effect.
One thing Churchill did not do, however, was leave the closing of a message
to chance. Even what seemed spontaneous was the result of planning. A friend
teased, “Winston has spent the best years of his life writing impromptu speeches.”
Of the three methods for crafting effective conclusions, we observe that Churchill’s
favorite was to focus on his hearers. He inserted himself into their place,
knew their fears and questions and pride in their heritage, then used all these
to rally their highest ideals and awaken their courage.
When I began this little exercise before my computer, the obvious question confronting
me was how I would conclude. After all, a preacher advising other preachers
on improving their art must demonstrate he has a grasp of the subject.
I have three choices.
I can tell a story. Perhaps I should tell of hearing the inimitable Calvin Miller
compare sermonizing to flying a plane. The introduction is taxiing down the
runway for takeoff and climbing. As the sermon progresses, we make our journey
across the landscape to our destination. Finally comes the descent and landing,
and the final stop at the gate. Just as some sermons never get off the ground,
and some have trouble knowing where they are going, others keep circling the
airport unable to land. I fear I have preached every one of these sermons.
I can come full circle. We can return to the football metaphor and talk about
bursting through red zones and scoring. We could point out that this after all
is the object of the game, and that the number of yards a team amasses, the
ratio of passing attempts to completions, and a thousand other statistics are
just so much window dressing if the team does not win. It’s all about winning.
I can focus on the hearers. Or in this case, the readers. Those who read this
article, who subscribe to this magazine, are preachers saddled with the burden
and honored with the privilege of finding and building and delivering sermons
week after week, year after year. I think I’ll choose this conclusion.
Pastor, the next time you prepare a sermon, try this. Lay out your sermon on
paper, complete with main points and illustrations, and study it closely. Decide
first how to introduce your message. Then, move to the end and pick up that
theme again. Tie the points of your message together into a single, simple statement
concerning God’s power in the world, His plan for the kingdom, or His will for
Then, reflect on whether something has happened in your life that would be an
apt illustration of that truth. It may be something you have read, a story you
heard, a quote you have saved.
Remember this is no time to introduce new thoughts, new Scriptures, new mandates.
All you are doing is bringing it home across the finish line. Like you promised
them at first.
McKeever is Director of Missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New
Orleans (LA). His cartoons frequently appear in Preaching.