Negotiating The Red Zone: Taking Your Sermon To A Successful Conclusion Joe McKeever September 1, 2005 On Thanksgiving Day, sprawled on my couch watching a football game, I had an epiphany about preaching. 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. 1. “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. “Each 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.” 2. “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: Every 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. That 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, and consistently.” 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 to ourselves.” 3. “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 do. 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 known before.” 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 . . . People 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.’ Some 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 His people. 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. ____________________ Joe McKeever is Director of Missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans (LA). His cartoons frequently appear in Preaching. Leave a Reply Cancel Reply Your email address will not be published.CommentName* Email* Website Notify me of follow-up comments by email. Notify me of new posts by email.