Have you ever heard Mark Twain’s take on sermon brevity?1
He valued it. Once he listened to a preacher for 5 minutes, and, subsequently, was ready to contribute $50. After 10 minutes more of the sermon, he reduced the amount of his contribution to $25. After 30 minutes more, he cut the sum to $5. At the end of an entire hour of oratory, when the plate was passed, he stole $2.
In light of dwindling attention spans, I give to you the following prohibitions when it’s time to end your sermon. I’m right there with you, confessing my transgressions and asking for help, hoping to end each sermon well. I implore you to join me and walk the path of thoughtful preaching, especially when it comes to the sermon conclusion.
THE AUTHORIZED VERSION OF THE TEN COMMANDMENTS OF SERMON CONCLUSIONS
1. Thou shalt not fail to prepare the conclusion in the study. It should not take much time to prepare your conclusion, but it’s time you cannot jettison. Write the body of your sermon first. Then write your introduction, and finally, write your conclusion. Make it the cherry atop your week’s composition. Much like a marathon runner who won’t quit moments from the finish line, don’t skip this step. Finish strong in the study, and you’ll finish strong in the pulpit.
2. Thou shalt not introduce new information. Summarize what you’ve said, but do not add new points — otherwise, it’s not a conclusion, but an extended movement of the main body. Hammer in what you’ve started with conviction and purpose. When you make a whole new point, you demonstrate a lack of discipline, which is frustrating and confusing for the audience. In the same way the runner sprints for the finish line, once you see the end, focus and finish fast.
3. Thou shalt not manipulate your congregation. Using emotion for the sake of emotion or because you know it will get you a better response at the altar is not an act of kindness. You should preach unto others as you would have them preach unto you. Even if you can trick others into believing your manipulation is an authentic spiritual response, you cannot trick God. Preach with authenticity, and reject exploitation.
4. Thou shalt not abandon the big idea. The big idea rules every part of the sermon, including the conclusion. The big idea is the point of the sermon — one sentence taken directly from the biblical text. It is reflected in every point. It’s the one thing you’ll want the audience to remember days later — the clear bull’s-eye, not the scattered buckshot. Thus, with your final opportunity to proclaim it, do so. You’ll not regret keeping your conclusion simple.
5. Thou shalt not build your sermon to support your conclusion. You know the temptation: You have found a great story, and now all you need is a sermon to get you to your great story. I’ve done it. You’ve done it. We know it happens. However, that’s not how it’s supposed to work. The conclusion serves the sermon; the sermon serves the big idea; and the big idea serves the biblical text — not the other way around.
6. Thou shalt not bypass the opportunity to call for commitment. Every sermon ought to lead the preacher and the congregation into the presence of God where a challenge is given, a decision is made, and a life is changed. Spirit-empowered preachers should never lose the opportunity to create space for the supernatural. Always call for a commitment to Christ, never missing the moment to respond to the message of God’s Word. If you preach the Bible, you should expect the Holy Spirit to stir the hearts of those He loves.
7. Thou shalt not end abruptly. Abrupt endings are usually traced to poor sermon preparation. The definition of abrupt is when you stop speaking while the congregation’s mind is still going. It’s awkward and unsettling. It’s not the way you want to finish. Years ago, I was listening to a sermon and the ….
8. Thou shalt not end on the negative. The gospel has two sides: bad news and good news. While it’s vital to confront, not skirt, the bad news in order to set up the announcement of the good news, never end on the bad news. Conclude with the answer that Jesus brings. End with the hope for the troubles of this life. End pointing others to Jesus, the One who saves and gives faith for tomorrow.
9. Thou shalt not end with an apology. I’ve learned long ago that I shouldn’t apologize for my effort, as feeble as it might be, to preach the Word of God. Over the years, as long as I am faithful to preach the scriptural text, I’ve discovered that what I thought was really good was not always what the Holy Spirit used to change someone’s heart. Conversely, what I thought was not good was often what the Holy Spirit used for change. I do my best to be prepared to stand in the pulpit, but I know it’s not up to me to do what only God can do. I don’t apologize. I leave it to Him, trusting He will use even me. In my weakness, He is strong.
10. Thou shalt not circle the airport. Finally. In conclusion. One more thing. As we wrap it up today. Let me tell you one more time. As we end. Drawing to a close, etc., etc., etc. When the time comes to land the plane, like a good pilot, prepare the audience for touchdown, and quickly put it on the tarmac. Your goal as a communicator is bringing the listeners to a destination. You will never spend a Monday wishing you had spoken longer, said a few more things, or circled the airport a few more times. You’ll always be content with an on-time landing.
The sermon conclusion provides a vital function. As you prepare it, remember you bring finality to your message by driving home the main idea into the hearts of your hearers, giving them opportunity to respond to God’s truth.
Of course, in your conclusion, you can summarize, give an illustration, quote a poem, ask a question, sing a hymn, give final instructions, or some other creative option, but I find the best conclusion is the one I keep short by simply restating the big idea with force and conviction. Because the weight of my preaching rests squarely on my exposition of the biblical text (i.e., the main body of the sermon), my conclusion is best when fewer words are spoken.
In brevity, I seek to end well. After all, we want the Mark Twains of the world to tune in and hear the gospel.
1. Cyril Clemens, My Cousin Mark Twain (New York, NY: Haskell House Publishers, 1974).