Finishing a sermon is neither easy nor natural. There are plenty of ways to crash a good sermon; I’d like to offer a few I’ve observed in myself and others.
1. The “Searching for a Runway” Conclusion — This is a common one that we fall into when we fail to plan our conclusion before starting to preach. As the sermon wears on, we become aware of the need to land the plane but have to search for a decent runway on which to land it. Consequently, as we’re coming in to land, we remember that we haven’t reinforced a certain element of the message, so we pull out of the descent and circle around for another attempt. Next time in, we think of half of a conclusion that might work better and so pull out again, circle around, and turn in to another possible landing strip. Needless to say, passengers don’t find this pursuit of a better runway to be particularly comfortable or helpful. When the message drags on a couple of minutes (or ten) longer than it feels like it should, any good done in the sermon tends to be undone rather quickly!
2. The “Just Stop” Conclusion — There are some preachers who don’t seem to be aware of the possibility of a strong finish and so don’t bother to land the plane. It simply drops out of the sky at a certain point. Once all has been said, without any particular effort to conclude the message, it's suddenly over. This is a particular danger for those who go on to announce a closing hymn, I find.
3. The “Overly Climactic” Conclusion — At the other extreme are those who know the potential of a good finale and so overly ramp up the climactic crescendo in the closing stages. After preaching a ho-hum message, they suddenly try to close it off with a fireworks display that will leave everyone stunned and standing open-mouthed with barely an “ooo-aaah” on their lips. Truth is that if the message hasn’t laid the foundation for such an ending, then people will be left stunned and unsure of what to say: “Uuuugh?”
4. The “Uncomfortable Fade” Conclusion — Perhaps the domain of new, inexperienced, and untrained preachers, this follows the general comfort rule of preaching: If you are not comfortable in your preaching, your listeners won’t be either. So the message comes to what might be a decent ending, then the speaker, well, sort of, just adds something like, “That’s all I wanted to say, I think, yeah, so…” (like this paragraph, 20 words too long!)
5. The “Discouraging Finale” Conclusion — Another tendency among some is to preach what might be a generally encouraging message but then undo that encouragement with a final discouraging comment. People need to be left encouraged to respond to the Word and to apply the Word, but some have a peculiar knack for finishing with a motivational fizzle comment.
6. The “Machine Gun” Finish — Wildly fire off a hundred different applications in the final minute in the hope of hitting something—no depth, very shallow, badly aimed, rarely hits the target, and often has nothing to do with the passage.
7. The “Salvation by Works” Finish — After preaching the wonders of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, undermine that grace by throwing doubt on their own salvation because of their sin or not doing the application you suggest.
8. The “Left Field” Finish — Where the conclusion and/or application has very little to do with the passage, your sermon, or anything else.
9. The “Not Again” Finish — Where (for some funny reason) the conclusion is the same as every other conclusion you’ve given for the last three years. It also happens to be your hobby horse and is often one of “pray more, give more, evangelize more, read the Bible more, and come to church more.”
10. The “Gospel out of Nowhere” Finish — Where the preacher feels the absence of the gospel in the message and so levers it in at the conclusion without any sense of connection to what has gone before. (To a thinking listener, this may feel a little forced and intellectually inconsistent.)
And while I'm at it, here's a bonus:
11. The “Tearjerker” Finish — Where the speaker seeks to cement emotional response by throwing in a random and largely disconnected tearjerker of a story (perhaps involving a child, an animal, a death, or whatever). Strapped to this emotional bomb, the preacher hopes the truth of the message will strike home (even though in reality, the truth will probably be smothered in the disconnected emotion of the anecdote).
Landing the Plane
Since I’ve now offered examples of how to finish weakly as your sermon finishes weekly, let’s now ponder what makes a conclusion strong:
As someone who has flown once or twice, let me continue with the airplane analogy since there are several thoughts that can be shared here. Passengers who have had a great journey with a bad landing will leave with their focus entirely on the bad landing. Passengers want the pilot to know where he is going and to take them straight there. They don’t particularly want the pilot to finish a normal journey with a historic televised adrenaline landing. Passengers like a smooth landing, but they’ll generally take a slight bump over repeated attempts to find the perfect one. Once landed, extended taxi-ing is not appreciated. A good landing that takes you by surprise always seems to have a pleasant effect.
The conclusion is a great opportunity to encourage response to and application of the message. Sometimes it is helpful to review the message flow, the main idea, and intended applications. But remember, the conclusion has to include, at some point, the phenomenon known as stopping. Review, encourage, stop.
Standard teaching it may be, but worth mentioning nonetheless: Generally it is not helpful to introduce new information during the conclusion. A concluding story? Maybe that’s OK. But don’t suddenly throw in a new piece of exegetical insight into the preaching passage or rush off to another passage for one last bit of sight-seeing.
Haddon’s Runway—One approach that I particularly appreciate and find hard to emulate is Haddon Robinson’s oft-used approach. It is evident after most Haddon sermons that he carefully planned his final sentence. He flies the plane until he gets there, and then quite naturally the plane lands on that landing strip of just ten to fifteen words and the journey is over—smooth, apparently effortless, immensely effective. As he teaches in class, it’s much better to finish two sentences before listeners think you should than two sentences after!
Now a few thoughts relating to the post-landing phase of the journey. Sometimes it is helpful to have a closing song, sometimes it is helpful to have a whole set of responsive songs, and sometimes it is better not to allow the singing of a song to help people switch back into their “real world” and leave the sermon behind. Sometimes it’s helpful to leave space for silent response; sometimes that is just plain uncomfortable and overkill. Sometimes quiet music played after can help the contemplative mood; sometimes music blasting out after the meeting can switch people into a frenzied chaos of raised voice fellowship (and the journey is forgotten, I fear!).
After the sermon is over, but still within the confines of the service, sometimes it is helpful to have another person wrap things up—then again, sometimes it can be disastrous. (I can’t help but think of the “helpful” MC who undoes the impact of a global missions thrust with the typical and deeply annoying “and we can all be missionaries right where we are!” . . . thankfully no one added that to the end of Matthew’s gospel or we’d never have read the New Testament!)
Whether the analogy continues to work or not is somewhat unimportant, but these thoughts are worth pondering in our churches:
Some passengers want to get out of the plane and airport at breakneck speed. Like it or not, some people just want or need to flee from the church once things are over. It doesn’t help them to make that difficult. At the same time, no airline I’ve been on will let you leave without a friendly goodbye. Some churches put a lot of energy into greeting/welcoming teams (a very good idea) but let people slip away without human interaction after the service. On the other hand, some churches seem to put barriers to people leaving, or create an environment where people are rushed out before they need to be (the preacher at the door shaking hands with everyone can sometimes create an urgency to vacate the building).
Some passengers need to sit down and let it all sink in. This may be a slight stretch, but some airports (I’m thinking more of the U.S. ones) have seats at the gate so passengers can sit down if they need to. In churches sometimes, there is nowhere for someone to sit and soak for a while. I mentioned the music signal in some places that blasts out an indication that it’s all over now and it’s time to interact (at high volume if you want to be heard). This creates an environment very non-conducive to post-service reflection.
Some passengers need to access further information. I suppose it’s a bit like finding out about connecting flights, but how do people in church know who to go to in order to find out more? Is the preacher accessible, or is he stuck at the door shaking hand after hand and smiling at polite feedback? Is there a way to get someone to pray with? What about finding out about other aspects of church life that could be the next step after this service?
Most passengers will want to talk with someone about their journey. In the travel world, it seems like everyone is ready to say something about what they’ve just experienced (or endured) when they meet a human who actually knows them. In the church world, it often seems like everyone is ready to talk about anything but what they’ve just experienced. But actually, people need to reflect and reinforce and respond in community rather than in isolation. Does your church encourage that kind of interaction?
Today we’ve pondered the art of sermon-stopping. We have thought about weak finishes, and then about the elements in finishing strong. We’ve also considered the elements included in the service after the sermon is over. It certainly is not easy to get the plane down comfortably and effectively. I pray I have offered some constructive alternatives.