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how to end a sermon – john tucker

The-End

I was in a preaching lab at Carey Baptist College. A pastoral leadership student was preaching to his year group. The sermon was, in many respects, quite outstanding – until the conclusion. The message, which had started so well and promised so much, ground to a thudding and disappointing halt.

I’m struck by how many sermons – or, at least, how many of my sermons – are just like that. They take off with lots of energy. They reach a good altitude. But then, towards the end, they nose dive and land very badly. Why do you think it is that so many homiletical journeys, sermons that promise so much, come unstuck at the end?

One of the main reasons, I suspect, is that we typically prepare our messages in the order in which they will be delivered – introduction, body, and conclusion. So if we get tired or run out of time it’s the conclusion that usually suffers. We default to ending the sermon in much the same way as we did last week – and the week before that.

I was really interested, therefore, to come across some advice from Fred Craddock on how to conclude a sermon. In Craddock on the Craft of Preaching (St Louis: Chalice, 2011) he lists thirteen ways to end a sermon:

  1. End with the beginning. Return to that unfinished story with which you began the message. Repeat that striking phrase with which you started the sermon. Answer that opening question which you left hanging in the air.
  2. End with a simple exhortation. The preacher does not have to be the one who gives the exhortation. It could be someone in the congregation who is asked in advance to discern and articulate what the Spirit is saying through the sermon.
  3. End with repetition and summary. Some sermons take the shape of an argument. In these cases it is often good to simply finish the message with a concise summary of the main points.
  4. End with a musical response. Instead of sealing the sermon off from the rest of the service, why not finish the message with a musical item – a piece that is carefully chosen to bring the sermon to its climax.
  5. End with an appropriate prayer. Not an ad-libbed prayer. Not a tossed-off prayer. But a carefully composed prayer that doesn’t just repeat the sermon or add to the sermon but serves to shift gears and land the sermon.
  6. End with an invitation to some decision or expression of faith. Give people an opportunity to make a visible or creative response to the message they have heard. It might involve moving to a station, writing a letter, or taking communion.
  7. End with a story. But make sure the story serves the sermon’s purpose. Sermons don’t just say things, they do You might have a compelling story. But does it say and do what this sermon is trying to say and do? Remember, Isocrates said that the first law of communication is appropriateness.
  8. End with silence. Just sit down and make space for silence. Unrushed silence. Give people time to assimilate the message. Our worship services could do with more of this.
  9. End with a question. Not a smattering of questions, but one carefully honed question. A question that grows out of the message and which I want the listeners to consider seriously.
  10. End with a fractured syllogism. A syllogism runs like this: major premise, minor premise, conclusion. All sinners are punished, Emma is a sinner, Emma is punished. Why not structure the sermon as a fractured syllogism? All sinners are punished, Emma is a sinner, Emma is forgiven. There’s a twist in the tail.
  11. End with a refrain. Repeat one more time that sentence you’ve woven like a golden thread through the fabric of the sermon. “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.” This rhetorical device emphasises the main idea in a way that few techniques can.
  12. End with a broken sentence. Don’t complete the sentence. Just say, “Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock…” Stop the sermon there, and watch the congregation’s lips moving: “… and it shall be opened to you.”
  13. End with no conclusion. Leave some loose threads hanging, like the book of Jonah. Finish the sermon with a hint. Just a hint. And leave it to your listeners to draw the connection.

What I like about this list is the way it opens up my thinking about the range of creative possibilities for ending a message. I’d love to expand it, and pin it up on my wall. Can you think of any other ways of concluding a message not included in this list?

8 Comments

  1. Greg Liston says:

    I found this really helpful Jon – thanks. Always the bit I find challenging.

  2. john says:

    Thanks Greg. Do you ever try something that’s not on the list?

  3. Reuben Munn says:

    Thanks John, good stuff. Landing the plane is definitely one of the hardest aspects of preaching. It’s an area where the classic kiwi ‘she’ll be right’ attitude takes over for me too often!

    The list from Craddock is helpful. I’ve found number 6 to work particularly well – inviting the congregation into some kind of embodied reflective practice as a response to the sermon.

    1. john says:

      Thanks Reuben. Can you think of any particular instance of calling people to respond with an “embodied reflective practice” that really stands out in your memory? I’d love to hear what you did! Along with the “she’ll be right” attitude, I think the other great weakness in my preaching is to go over the top, and include two or three conclusions. A story plus a quote plus a statement… when just one would do! 🙂

      1. Reuben Munn says:

        One example would be a few week ago when I preached on the birth narrative of Moses. At the end of the message I invited people to write on a bit of paper an area of weakness in their life, and come forward to place it in a “Moses basket” (!) at the front of the room. It reflected the application of the message around experiencing God’s strength in our weakness. It got quite a good response.

  4. john says:

    Love it! 🙂

  5. Ben says:

    Hi John. Love the list. Have used most of them. I tend to spend 2/3 of my writing time in the last 1/3 of the sermon. I find this gives me space to offer a different ending depending on the space the congregation is in. Currently our sermons through Colossians are finishing with a congregational waiata/song and then an open floor for questions/statements from the sermon. We preface it by asking, “What might God be saying to us from this sermon?” Three weeks in and people are starting to engage this space a bit more.

    1. john says:

      Hi Ben. I love the “open floor” idea. I often think that, if I were pastoring a local church again, I would make it a priority to weave this kind of opportunity into our weekly worship. As the people of God, the body of Christ, the temple of the Spirit, we’re called to listening to Scripture in community. And discussion is crucial to that. So good on you. I hope the engagement with this grows.

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