Conclusions do more than simply end a sermon, they bring a message to a satisfying finale. Conclusions are to sermons what the final chapter is to a good mystery novel. What the final two minutes are to a great basketball or football game. What a great cup of coffee is to a gourmet meal.
Effective conclusions accomplish two objectives.
Reinforcing the Main Idea of the Sermon
Good conclusions reinforce the main idea of the sermon. They should enable the listener to understand with even greater clarity what the sermon is all about. It should bring all of the information of the message into burning focus. To achieve this level of intellectual precision in the conclusion, the wise preacher will do the following.
Avoid introducing new concepts. By this time in the sermon, all of the relevant concepts should have been presented and adequately developed. Serving up leftover thoughts will only diffuse the clarity you have worked so hard to achieve.
Review the main points. Briefly draw the points together into your central idea. While restatement is often more effective than rote repetition, the results of this review can be profound. In oral communication, it is almost impossible to repeat yourself too often. Repetition leads to clarity in the mind of the listener, and clarity is a critical component of legitimate behavioral change. People cannot obey a biblical passage they do not understand.
Avoid an exhaustive review of the sermon. It is more effective to hit the highlights. Those who try to repreach their sermon during the conclusion risk dissipating any interest they might have generated.
Utilize appropriate emotion. Good sermons crescendo as they conclude. They end with a bang, not a whimper. A dull anticlimactic closing can ruin an otherwise excellent message.
Good conclusions emphasize application
Effective conclusions reach beyond the listener's mind to the will. They call listeners to embrace the action that the sermon calls for. While some application will usually be given during the main body of a sermon, it is in the conclusion where the clearest and most compelling call for response often occurs. This is where the answer to the question "so what?" is communicated with maximum clarity and specificity.
Many of the sermons recorded in Scripture conclude with strong applications. In the end of his message, Peter tells his audience in Acts 2 that they should "repent and be baptized." Joshua climaxes his sermon to Israel by saying, "Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve." Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, finishes by exhorting his listeners to build their lives on the rock of his words. The preachers of Scripture conclude their sermons with a call for concrete behavioral change. We need to do the same.
Here are several methods of concluding a sermon:
Give suggestions concerning the ways and means that the central idea can be carried out. Take the time to give specifics of what should take place because of the truth. Good preaching occurs when a sermon is shaped and spoken with a consciousness that the weekend will soon end. Monday morning's world must be brought into harmony with Sunday morning's truth.
Paint a picture. Visualization can intensify desire and lead to action. Preachers can place their audience into a plausible scenario that allows them to experience the benefits of applying God's truth. Or, they could select a situation that highlights how bad things will be if the listeners were to choose to ignore the biblical concept. What is important, however, is that the preachers visualization stand the test of reality. To be effective, the conditions chosen should be probable. To be highly effective, the preacher must make the situation so vivid that it touches the senses of those listening. The audience should be able to see, hear, taste, and smell God's word in action.
Give an illustration that applies the truth. More than just a heartwarming story to close out the message, this is a slice of life that embodies the big idea of the sermon. It shows either positively or negatively (although positive illustrations are often more effective) how the biblical idea has worked itself out in the lives of people past and present. This testimonial approach allows congregants to "connect the dots" of theory and practice.
Use a poem or hymn. Although this approach may have been overused in a previous generation, it can still be utilized with great effect. Preachers need not restrict their poetry search to old high school textbooks. Lyrics from a contemporary song or a line from a well-known movie may be appropriate. If concluding with an older hymn, it is worth the effort to quote it from memory.
Employ a contrasting truth. When the biblical text presents an idea in the negative, for example, "do not commit adultery," the preacher may choose to apply that idea positively: "build a strong marriage."
Be audience specific. Do the research necessary to learn how to best apply the truth to the individuals you will be speaking to. Ask questions such as: How old? What education level? What work situation? What ethnicity? What sex?
Kent Edwards is professor of preaching and leadership, and director of the doctor of ministry program at Biola University in La Mirada, California, and author of Deep Preaching (B&H).
This article appears in The Art & Craft of Biblical Preaching, a comprehensive encyclopedia of preaching. Click here to purchase a copy of this book to have this invaluable resource on hand as you preach the Word!