The key to a strong conclusion is understanding its purpose.
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In this workshop from Preaching Today audio tape 234, editor Brian Larson and executive editor Kevin Miller discuss the strengths of four strong conclusions by Bryan Chapell, Ken Davis, Robert Russell, and John Ortberg.
Brian Larson: In the following examples, we want to look at four purposes of a good conclusion:
- To finish the application. Hopefully you've had a good amount of application during the sermon; in the conclusion you should finish that application. You may need to speak to emotion. You may need to have some how-to steps. You may need to speak to the motivation of the hearer.
- To give a sense of closure. When the sermon is over, it should feel as though it's over.
- To give a burning focus to the takeaway of the sermon. Take the most important part of the sermon and focus it powerfully in the final few moments.
- To round out the sermon. We may need to tie up loose ends or give balance.
Bryan Chapell Conclusion
Our first example is by Bryan Chapell from a sermon titled " Jesus Wept, " based on John 11, the account of Jesus going to Bethany and raising Lazarus from the dead. This sermon was given in the wake of September 11, 2001, and spoke to the great questions that arise from such tragedies. He conveys three ideas: (1) God Knows, based on the fact that Jesus intentionally delayed his return to Lazarus; (2) God Cares, shown by the tears Christ shed at the graveside; and (3) God Rules. We pick up in the middle of the third point, God Rules:
Jesus' triumph may take some time, but it will surely come, for he is ruling with a care, with an intricacy, with an intimacy for his people that defies our full ability to comprehend. After all, he will pass this way again. In just a few days he will go through Bethany again on his way to Jerusalem while the crowds take off their cloaks and put palm branches before him. They will say, " Hosanna! His time has come! " But his time has not yet come, though it will surely come.
In another day or two they will say, " Crucify him! " because his time has not yet come. But though it has not yet come, it will surely come. And when they hang him on a cross, they will chide him, " Tell your angels to come. " They do not come, but they will surely come.
Three days later he will rise. His time has surely come.
The promise of God will be fulfilled. Though it tarries, wait for it. For it will surely come, and it will not be late. God speaks to his people in such a way that we in a fallen world might trust that he is love. Unless we miss the point, he puts tears on the face of the Savior, each tear a lens so we will focus in, look closely, and through the microcosm of that tear begin to recognize what God has done. He has shown us in real form how he is in charge of the world in its intricacy as well as its grand scale. He is at work, and his illustration is not stick figures drawn in the sand. It is dealing with the realities, the harshness, the terribleness of this life.
Lazarus is dead. And to show us that God has power over even death, the harshest of this world's realities, Jesus comes to make it right. He will raise this one to show he has the power over sin, even to the extent of death. We see it in this microscopic vision of Lazarus's life.
And we see it in a grander scale when Christ himself rises again. If I had been at the foot of the cross, I would have said, " Lord, don't do this. This is wrong. " But it was right, and I know it because I look through the tears of Jesus to see what is being accomplished is the rule of God on behalf of his people. It is why Jesus wept: so we would trust he cares enough to do the right thing. And his rule will win out. He shows us as he overcomes the power of death to accomplish his good purposes in a fallen, sometimes terrible world.
Does he understand? Yes. Jesus wept. Does he care? Yes. Jesus wept. Does he rule? Yes. Jesus wept. Every tear is a lens to reveal the power of God ruled by love in behalf of his people, so we know when we face the terror he still loves and he still rules, because Jesus wept for us.
Larson: Kevin, how did he achieve a burning focus on the heart of the sermon?
Kevin Miller: He used certain phrases repeatedly, and that gave a unifying and intensifying effect to the conclusion. For example, at the beginning of that conclusion Bryan was talking about how God rules, and he used the phrase " his time has not yet come, though it will surely come. " Then he used those words, " it will surely come, " four more times. He gave Bible example after Bible example of how Jesus suffered and the angels didn't come, but " they will surely come. " He continues to use that phrase, " will surely come, " as an intensifier and a unifier for his conclusion. That gives a sense of heat to the tip of the flame. It gives some burning focus.
Larson: Oftentimes conclusions are the prime place for rhetorical elements like he used here — the parallelism, the repetition. They fall naturally in a powerful conclusion.
Miller: He even does it again after the " will surely come " repetition. He moves into a metaphor where he says every tear on Jesus' face is a lens through which we see God's care. He uses phrases like " we see it " and " look through the tears of Jesus to see. " So that's repeated multiple times. Then as he moves to the big, final conclusion of the message he uses the phrase " Jesus wept " four times. So this conclusion is a great example of how repetition of a key phrase or key words can provide burning focus.
Larson: A second thing that gave it burning focus was bringing the message to the cross — speaking not just of what Jesus did in Bethany for Lazarus, but coming to the cross and saying, When Jesus was on the cross we see ultimately the greatest expression of how to understand suffering and tragedy.
Miller: One other thing I loved about this conclusion was the way Bryan used his voice. There should be a unity between the conclusion's tone and the rest of the sermon's tone. I loved how he said, " Does he understand? " and then a long pause and a quiet, " Yes. Jesus wept. "
Larson: And when he came to the end of that sermon, I knew it was done. There was a clear sense of closure.
Ken Davis Conclusion
Our second sermon conclusion is by Ken Davis, titled " Obedience at the Burning Bush, " in which Ken looks at the story of God calling Moses and how Moses gives four excuses not to serve God: (1) I'm a nobody — I have nothing to offer; (2) I don't know what to say — I don't know where to start; (3) What if they don't believe me? and (4) I don't feel capable.
What was it that God has touched your heart with? He would not touch your heart unless he equipped you to do it. When God created you, he broke the mold. There's nobody else. Before the foundation of the world was put in place, he had your picture on his wall, and you are a masterpiece. He created you perfect for what he wants you to do.
I have a friend, David Ring. David is a Southern Baptist evangelist. Some of you may have seen him on TV. If you heard him on TV or if he came here to speak, you would hardly understand him. He's afflicted with cerebral palsy. He has a powerful message: " I can't even pronounce the name, but I'm going to brag about Jesus until the day I die. " And then he says, " What's your excuse? " He appeared on television on the East Coast. The lines were jammed. It's wonderful to see a person like that used of God.
If this man, who even with a sound system requires you to strain to hear his every word, if this man, who is no more of a saint than I am, can see hundreds of thousands of people come to know Christ, then truly what is our excuse?
Finally Moses said to God, " Send someone else, " and the Bible says, in one of the few places you'll find it, that God's face burned in anger toward Moses, because there are no excuses.
" I'm a nobody. "
" I'll go with you. "
" I don't know what to say. "
" I'll tell you. "
" What if they don't believe me? "
" It's not your job. "
" Look at me! "
" I know. I made you. "
" Send — "
No, no, not " send somebody else, " because you are God's answer. When God speaks, there are no excuses.
Larson: Like every element of a sermon, good conclusions depend on understanding emotion. Ken Davis clearly understands human emotion here. He's been dealing with the excuses, he's been dealing with fears that we have, and he ends by giving us hope, by giving us confidence, by giving that sense of, Yeah, God and I can do this. What were some general reactions you had, Kevin?
Miller: It's hard to tell a story with a handicapped protagonist in a way that is effective and not offensive. Ken did that in this case and elevates his friend David Ring to say, Look, here's a person who on a human level has many excuses not to be an evangelist, and yet God is using him in a powerful way. So Davis is making it impossible for his listeners to hold on to that final excuse.
Larson: That to me was the burning focus of the conclusion. We have this enormous contrast between where we are and where Mr. Ring is, and we see, Who am I to make any excuses? He gives total clarity on: no excuses, let's get with it.
How about a sense of closure? What made you know this sermon was over?
Miller: It was the call to action in that final sentence. There were no more things I needed to hear. He had set up and obliterated all four of Moses' excuses, which are also my own, and I was ready to be challenged to act.
Larson: He also gave the big idea once again of the sermon: When God speaks there are no excuses.
One other element that gave me a sense of closure — and it also finished up the application — was when he mentioned it's one of the few places in the Bible that God's face burned in anger toward Moses. That's a bracing element, and you remember that. That works on my emotions and says: take this seriously.
Bob Russell Conclusion
Our third example is by Bob Russell, titled " When Teens Rebel. " This was given in the wake of the Columbine High School shootings several years ago. He gives three biblical principles about raising kids: (1) Children are inherently sinful; (2) Parents must teach respect; and (3) Don't quit parenting early. This sermon conclusion is less rhetorical, and more pastoral counsel:
Some of you may say, " This is probably too late for me. My teenager is rebellious. I've lost all control. What should I do? "
First, you need to pray and ask God for wisdom. You have a difficult circumstance and need divine help. Secondly, sit down with that rebellious child and repent. Admit you have made mistakes as a parent. You've been hypocritical, you've been too strict or too lenient, and you are sorry.
Then announce an immediate change of strategy. From this point on you are going to be the leader of the home. And you'd like the child's cooperation, but you're going to do it regardless. I guarantee that your child is going to react angrily or cynically, because sin nature will always resist authority.
Fourthly, communicate clear guidelines and reasonable consequences. Gary Smalley suggests we give children the opportunity to assist here. Perhaps so, but God has given you the authority, and there are appropriate leverages. Make church attendance a requirement. School is non-negotiable; going to the doctor when you're sick is non-negotiable; so church attendance should be non-negotiable.
Then, follow through with consistency and courage. It will be a hassle. It will be unpleasant. It will be risky, because they may run away. But that's their decision. Your child has to have an authority figure in his or her life, or you must release them and say, " God, you bring an authority figure into their life, because I can't. "
Be willing to practice tough love if necessary. Say up front, " If you resist these guidelines, here are the steps we're going to take. Your privileges will be removed. We'll go to Christian family counseling. If we still can't control you, we'll send you to the child correctional facility where you can be brought under control. "
I got a touching letter from a mother in our church who became alarmed about the behavior of her 15-year-old daughter a couple of years ago. The daughter was increasingly rebellious, wore dark clothing, ran with the wrong crowd. They suspected drugs. Finally, the mother discovered a folder in the girl's room, and the folder read, " Leave this blankety-blank alone. This is my life. " With trembling hands she opened it. She found a series of the most disturbing letters she'd ever seen, and she is not naive. One of the notes had a poem from a boy smeared with blood around the edges, and they discovered that this girl, even though she'd grown up in the church, was involved with witchcraft and the occult.
The parents were devastated, and they realized their daughter was rebellious beyond their ability to control. They took drastic action. Within 24 hours, they whisked her away to her aunt. They said, " We needed to get her out of the city for her protection, but also out of the house for the protection of her younger brothers and sisters. " The aunt, a dedicated Christian, insisted the girl go through a program called Bondage Breakers. She took her with her to Precept Bible Studies. She home-schooled her. One day, this young girl devoted her life to Jesus Christ. She was gone for three months, but she came back a new creature in Christ. Today she's active in youth group and recently gave her testimony. Her mother wrote, " Bob, encourage the people to be obedient to God even if it's embarrassing, even if it's drastic. We are thankful we did. "
If you practice tough love, continue to extend gestures of love. First Peter 4:8 reads, " Above all, love each other deeply because love covers a multitude of sins. " Ruth Graham in Prodigals: And Those Who Love Them says, " Keep the channels of communication open at all times. Permit them collect phone calls so they know that they're loved and welcome back home anytime. "
Can I say a word to teenagers before we close? Chances are there's no one in this world who loves you the way your mother and father love you. Long after your friends are gone, chances are your parents will still be there. And if you have a parent who practices these principles that we talked about today, be thankful, because they really love you. And if you're rebelling, would you understand God holds you accountable? Other people may look at you as a little innocent child, but you know deep in your heart you're responsible. Maybe today there's a mother praying for you that you need to respond to. You would please your parents in great measure if you would respond in humility to Jesus Christ.
Larson: Kevin, what strikes you about that conclusion?
Miller: He really has two conclusions, because he has two audiences. He has the parents, or the grandparents — those who see themselves as authority figures — and then he has the teenagers, or those who have to report to authority and who are tempted to rebel. Bob has to speak a closing word to the parents, which he does first, but he then turns at the last moment and says, " Can I speak a word to you teenagers? " And then he speaks a conclusion to the sermon for the teenager. So it's important to remember that when you're preaching a sermon there are times when you have more than one audience, so you may need to have mini-conclusions for each of those audiences. For example, if you were preaching on marriage you might want to have a closing word for husbands and a closing word for wives.
Larson: This is the pastoral conclusion that more often than not is going to be used in most churches every Sunday. There's going to be the tying up of loose ends, the rounding out. He has told people what to do. Now he says, " All right, some of you know you've blown it. What are you going to do? " So he gives these final four or five steps of what they can do to correct the situation. He's pastoral, directly and tenderly speaking to the teenagers and their parents.
Bob Russell is a great preacher and pastor because he understands human emotion. He understands human nature. He knows how to speak the word people need to hear in a way they need to hear it. This is a masterful example of that.
He shows how a strong conclusion will be the strongest element of the sermon. If it isn't, it will be an anticlimax. If our strongest stories are all in the sermon and we have just a sleeper at the end, by definition that's an anticlimax. In the sermon Bob does not tell any extended stories, but in the conclusion he gives this story of the 15-year-old daughter who is involved with witchcraft. He gives these powerful emotional elements and thereby makes the conclusion stronger or equally strong with the rest of the sermon.
Miller: And one of the interesting things about that is that normally when we hear our conclusion should be the strongest point of the sermon, we think it's going to have the loudest volume. And Bob does the exact opposite here. He comes down to a whisper when he talks to the teens, and it's the soft voice that will break bones. It is profoundly powerful, and he's not raising his voice; he has actually lowered his voice.
John Ortberg Conclusion
Larson: Our final conclusion is by John Ortberg in a sermon titled " Fourth Man in the Furnace. " It is based on Daniel 3, the account of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. John tells the story, weaving in thoughts and application and insights throughout the sermon. And then the final element of the sermon is not a one- or two-paragraph conclusion. It is a strong, complete, full move of a good 11 or 12 minutes that weaves together a tremendous amount of power and application and rhetoric all into one:
I want to ask you to consider doing something quite dangerous. I want to ask you to consider this: that you stop asking for less heat, that you don't ask for an easier, or richer, more pleasant, or more secure life. There is something better.
How often the human heart, the spirits and emotions of the potentially glorious creatures that we are, made in the image of God, get attached to, bound up, and enslaved by trivially stupid things. Somebody cut me off on the freeway, my boss gave me an angry look and hurt my feelings. Did I not get the recognition I must have at work or at school or from the opposite sex? Did I get an unexpected expense, which means I can't have something I've got to possess? Did someone create an obstacle in my life? Is my career not going high enough up the ladder?
We are being called to a deeper measure of devotion. So I want to ask you to pray a dangerous prayer: " God, give me an opportunity to show my devotion to you. I don't ask primarily for comfort or riches or ease or security. God, give me an opportunity to show my devotion to you. " If you are not sure your devotion level is where you want it to be, talk to him about that. Be honest about it. Ask for the presence of the fourth man in the furnace.
Maybe it's at work. Somebody told me recently they were praying to get to work in an easier environment. They said, " I work with fallen, difficult, cranky, hostile people all the time. " Well so do I, and so do the people who work with me. It's a world of fallen, cranky, difficult, hostile people. Maybe you have people in your work who are far from God and have habits or behaviors that are quite painful for you. Nebuchadnezzar was not exactly up for the Employer of the Year award, and God used Shadrach's, Meshach's, and Abednego's willingness to go into the furnace to change his heart.
Often people want to get transferred to a nicer job with nicer people. Maybe that would be a good thing, but maybe God's plan is to have you right where you are so he can use you. Maybe he wants to grow you up in judgment and discernment, in your ability to know when to speak and when to be silent. To grow you in your ability to love somebody, when it would be easier to resent or dislike or judge or write them off. Maybe you need to stop praying for deliverance from the furnace and ask for the presence of the God who meets people there. Maybe there's a Nebuchadnezzar that God wants to reach through you. You ought to quit praying to try to get away from him, and ask God to meet you in the furnace.
Maybe God's been whispering for you to get involved in some form of service, with the city or with the poor, or going overseas. Maybe it involves using some spiritual gift, and you're afraid to do it. You have been avoiding what feels like the furnace. God is in the furnace — tell him you'll meet him there. Maybe the furnace involves a relationship or financial hardship or giving or sacrifice. I don't know. I just know that the golden statue in our world tends to involve gods with names like comfort, ease, security, and success. Somewhere along the line, too many people in too many churches have gotten the idea that following God has something to do with an easier life.
So I will put it to you in the form of a question: How many heroes in our faith had easy lives? How many of those people written down in that great eleventh chapter of the Book of Hebrews 11 had easy lives? The writer says, I don't have time to tell them all and list the things they faced and did — including quenching the flames. Where did Jesus say to his followers, " God has a wonderful plan for your life, and that involves a great house, attractive spouse, terrific job, wonderful car, endless succession of easy days " ? Where does Jesus say that?
Jesus said: Follow me, and you're going to have a great big God and outrageous joy, and you're going to be in trouble all the time. They followed him by the hundreds and by the thousands and by the tens of thousands. They followed the same path he walked on. They followed him through servanthood, they followed him through sacrificial generosity, they followed him through community, they followed him to suffering, they followed him to persecution, they followed him to death.
Do you understand that we are here in this room because throughout history hundreds of thousands of ordinary men and women, most of whom are long since forgotten, said they were willing to go to the furnace? They loved God that much. They said, " I'll suffer and I'll give everything for you. I'll die. " When their final moment came, which it will for you, then they knew, " Mustn't despair. " God did not forget them or abandon them.
God said to them what he said to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, what he said to Stephen, who was the first follower of Christ to be martyred, what he said to Paul and Peter, who were persecuted and beaten and jailed and probably martyred as well, what he said to Corrie Ten Boom and Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa on the streets of Calcutta, what he says to his followers still in China, in Albania, in Cabrini Green, and maybe, just maybe, to somebody tonight in South Barrington: " I'll meet you in the furnace, if you dare. "
This is your day, friends. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had their day. Daniel had his day. Stephen had his day. Peter and Paul had their days. Corrie Ten Boom had her day. This is your day. Your final moment is going to come. I don't know what furnace you're facing; I don't know what this means for you. I just know who will meet you there. He says, " Fear not, though you pass through the flames they will not burn you, they will not destroy you. " He says, " I'll meet you in the furnace. "
Larson: Wow. Where is the furnace? I want to get in.
Miller: John chose one key phrase, which was the organizing phrase for the entire sermon: " I'll meet you in the furnace. " He used that phrase or a close variant of it nine times in the closing ten minutes of the sermon. So every minute of that conclusion we heard " meet you in the furnace. " It's a drumbeat behind his message that's compelling because it is the central message and it's also the application: Don't be afraid to go into the furnace, because God will meet you there.
Larson: And what a mosaic of contemporary examples of where you might apply this in your life — with your finances, with your job, with your family — and the repetition of phrases. We only have the conclusion here, but he weaved in some other phrases he used earlier in the sermon. It's an amazing focus of emotion and power and content.
Miller: Yes, and one of the things that made it build toward the end was that John picked up his speed toward the end. He gave example upon example faster and faster. He said what God said to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, what he said to Stephen, what he said to Paul and Peter. And he starts piling example upon example, faster and faster, so you get this freight train bearing down on you and this sense of intensity and power as he moves toward the close.
Larson: With a long conclusion, as he used, you would have thought, How could he possibly reach an even greater climax? But he did. He also used the element of challenge. He is challenging people to the highest height. One of the ways he does that is by contrast. First he shames the desire for convenience and comfort and ease. He holds that up to derision. He says this is unworthy of what God made us to be. Then he holds up examples of people who raised themselves up to a glorious kind of life. He uses phrases like " this is your day " — the sense of destiny, the sense of calling.
So conclusions can take an inspirational move, or they can take a more pastoral approach — gentle, tender counseling — but the point is we need to understand the purpose:
Miller: I ask of every conclusion:
This article is a transcript of Preaching Today audio workshop #234. To order this Preaching Today audiotape, e-mail your request to store@ChristianityToday.com.
Craig Brian Larson is the pastor of Lake Shore Church in Chicago and author and editor of numerous books, including The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching (Zondervan). Kevin Miller is associate rector at Church of the Resurrection in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. He served for many years as executive editor of PreachingToday.com and is author of Surviving Information Overload (Zondervan).