Once when I ate an Olive Garden, I enjoyed the four-course Festa Italiana with my wife and some friends. The meal includes an appetizer, unlimited soup and breadsticks, an entrée, and a dessert. All of this was only $14.99!
The Crispy Risotto Bites started the meal off with a bang. After an appetizer like that, my expectations for the entrée were high. I was not disappointed. Then, came the soup or, more accurately, soups. I had two bowls of two different kinds of soup—the Zuppa Toscana and the Pasta e Fagioli. After all this food, the entrée arrived. The Smoked Chicken Mozzarella was superb.
The dining experience, up to this point, was delightful. Although my belly was feeling quite full, I couldn’t wait to conclude the meal with a delectable dessert. There’s always room for dessert, even when there’s not. The Festa Italiana included dessert so, to be a good steward of God’s money, I had to eat it. I ordered the chocolate mousse which, in my estimation, is the ideal way to top off an excellent dining experience.
Then it happened. The waiter brought to the table our desserts of choice. I thought someone was playing a joke on me, probably my wife. My chocolate mousse came in this tiny, I don’t know, glass thingy. That’s the best I can come up with since the “tiny glass thing” was too small to be called a bowl, dish, or cup. I wanted to yell out, “What kind of portion is this!” But I managed to maintain my external composure, despite my internal rage.
I finished the chocolate letdown in two bites. My wife, who resisted the Festa Italiana four-course “deal” that I tried my best to push on her, sat there gloating with her super-sized piece of Amaretto Tiramisu. My tip for the waiter was going to be “make the dessert bigger,” but I resisted and gave him cash instead.
The joy of the first three courses was diminished by the disappointment of the final course, the dessert. I left the restaurant full but with a taste of disappointment in my mouth. The conclusion soured me toward the entire dining experience.
Preachers are sometimes guilty of doing to listeners what Olive Garden did to me. We leave a bad taste in the mouths of listeners during the conclusion of the sermonic meal. The introduction might be appetizing and the body a theologically substantive and contextually relevant entrée. But if we fail to finish off the meal with a delicious dessert, the entire meal will be diminished.
Let’s learn from Olive Garden’s mistake. Here are some things to keep in mind as you seek to finish the sermonic meal with a sweet conclusion.
The goal of preaching is not ultimately to provide people with memorable information but transformational inspiration. If we preachers have done our job during the sermon, people will know more information about the Bible, to be sure. But when it comes to the dessert, the sermon’s conclusion, end with the sweetness of inspiration not merely the spinach of information.
The American Church seems well-informed but uninspired to apply what they already know. Try to overcome the advice given to the past few generations of preachers to, in the conclusion, “tell em what you told em.” Don’t do that. Instead, tell em something that will inspire them to embody the gospel. Summaries don’t carry the inspirational weight the conclusion needs to bear. The summary is like a disappointing dessert that leaves listeners thinking, Is this it?
Most of us have experienced the painfully extended altar call, the one that forces people out of their seats in hopes that the preacher will shut up and conclude the sermon. The long drawn-out altar call is one form of manipulation that occurs during the conclusion.
Here’ another. I call it the bait and switch. The preacher will say, “With heads bowed and eyes closed, just between you and God, raise your hand if this sermon applies to you.” The listener raises their hand thinking they made a private acknowledgement. The preacher led them to believe that. Here comes the switch. The preacher says, “Now, if you raised your hand, please come forward to the altar.”
Listeners want to be challenged, not manipulated. Sometimes the line between the two is rather thin. If the preacher crosses it, the meal will be spoiled.
Land the Plane
The conclusion will determine, to an extent, how the listener perceives the entire sermon. Think through the finish. Make it concise and compelling. Don’t wing it or you’ll end up hovering over the landing strip.
I remember a bad experience flying into Chicago. I’m not sure why, but for some reason the plane hovered over the landing strip for about 20 minutes. Perhaps there were some issues on the ground. I was frustrated, angry even, and so were the other passengers.
When the preacher hovers, refusing to land the plane, listeners become frustrated and angry. The listener will be finished with the sermon, even as the preacher keeps flying. This puts a bad taste in the mouths of listeners.
Unless your conclusion is extremely engaging and crucial to driving home the focus of the sermon, land the plane quickly when the strip is in sight.
I will keep going to Olive Garden and hungry listeners will keep showing up on Sunday mornings to feast on a word from the Lord. When they do, we must carefully and creatively develop a powerful conclusion. A disappointing dessert can diminish a good meal. But a delicious conclusion can heighten the power of a sermon.
Lenny Luchetti is the lead pastor of Woodland Church (Battle Creek, MI) and the author of Preaching Essentials: A Practical Guide and Preaching with Empathy: Crafting Sermons in a Callous Culture .