All the discussion of sermon preparation and preaching in previous articles of this series has been converging on the really important part of the whole process—the conclusion.
If a salesman delivers an impressive sales talk, but fails to get your name on the contract, he hasn't accomplished very much. And unless the conclusion of your sermon focuses it so that your congregation is moved to embrace the action it calls for, you haven't accomplished a great deal either. Here is where you ask your people to sign on the dotted line.
Yet, what happens to many preachers at this point in their sermon preparation? Time is running out; they have to preach.
And so, for the conclusion they scribble something down as quickly as they can. I can think of nothing more foolish than not to take time for the real purpose of the sermon—the application of it to the hearer. Yet I've done just that dozens of times! If you won't admit that you have done so too, it's only because I'm more honest than you are!
The conclusion, ideally, should incorporate four parts: (1) an objective sentence, (2) a brief outline or summary, (3) an appeal, and (4) a closing sentence or sentences. That is the way the conclusion should look. Now, let's discuss each part and find out its significance.
The first part—the objective sen tence has two important elements: there fore and should. The word "therefore" refers back to the basic arguments of the sermon body. The word "should" places an obligation upon the hearer to do some thing about what he has heard. The objective sentence says (though not in these words), "In the light of all that I have said in the sermon, here is what you should do about it."
Let's see how these elements fit our sermon on John 17, the illustration we have been using in this series of articles. The proposition of this sermon, you remember, is "The church can have an effective relationship with the world." The preacher has given answers to that question. He has shown the people how the church can have an effective relationship with the world. Now, as he moves into the conclusion, he is coming to the target. He has launched his missile; it has flown through the main divisions and subdivisions of his sermon. Now it is going to hit the bull's-eye and bring the application home to the people. It is at this point that you must come up with the answer to the question, What do I want these people to do? What response do I want them to make? Having determined the answer to that question, the preacher uses the elements of the conclusion's objective sentence—therefore and should—to present the claims of the sermon: "Therefore, as Christian ministers, we should in our own experience develop this effective relation ship with the world. Therefore, as members of this congregation, we should in our own lives develop this effective relation ship with the world. Are you out of the world? Are you nonetheless in it? Are you not of it, yet going back into it? You should."
You see, all the points of your sermon become obligations that you press home to your hearers as you move into the conclusion of your sermon. The objective sentence tells this specific congregation what they should do in light of the sermon's proposition. And that is the reason this sentence should always have the basic concept of the proposition (the part of the sermon that is aiming at the target) combined with the ideas of therefore and should (the actual point of impact). "Therefore, you as young people ..." "Therefore, you as preachers ..." "Therefore, you as members of the church should do thus and so." This is the objective sentence.
A young preacher who had heard me giving these ideas on sermon preparation came to me some months later and said, "My wife is getting awfully tired of hearing me close every sermon with the words therefore and should."
"I don't blame her," I replied. "I would too."
"But you told me to do that!"
"No, I didn't," I protested. "I told you that you should always have these words in your outline and use the idea. But there are all kinds of synonyms for these words. You don't have to say the same thing every time like a formula!"
The objective sentence should be fol lowed by a brief outline or summary of the main sermon points. It must be brief because the conclusion itself is to be brief. Introduce no new material in the conclusion. How many times have you been preaching when some bright new thought came to you as you were bringing your sermon to an end? You didn't think of it in time, so you tucked it in the conclusion! This is not the purpose of the conclusion; to do this is anticlimactic and defeats your purpose. When you come to a stop, you want to do so intelligently, and so this part of the sermon should be well thought out.
The conclusion is basically a gathering together of the threads of the sermon. Perhaps I should say it is focusing all the main beams of the sermon on a point, much the way that as small children we would take a magnifying glass and hold it so that the sun would shine through it and then focus it on a piece of paper until the concentrated heat would burn a little brown hole in the paper. This is what you want to do with the conclusion. You are now taking all your main heads and you are bringing them into a sharp focus. You're holding up a magnifying glass to the sun of information given, and you're bringing it down in a close application to the hearts of the people. This can be done by summary or by recapitulation. You won't want to follow this practice every time, but it is good to refresh the memories of your hearers regarding what you have said.
It's interesting that homileticians dis agree on this. One says, "A good conclusion does not include a summary. A summary looks back, and you don't look back in the conclusion. If you want to spoil a good sermon, summarize it." Another states in opposition, "A preacher may rightly consider that if the statements and the main points are worth using, they are also worth repeating. Many conclusions are highly effective when the listener's mind is refreshed by hearing a recounting of the main points."
You can take your choice, then, and still be in good homiletical company. I believe a middle position is best. To always summarize would become very monotonous. It's uncanny how your members, although they are not trained in sermon preparation, can almost predict what you are going to say next and how you will say it. After you have been with them for a length of time, they catch on to your speaking style and technique. They may not know all the principles behind what you do, but they can say to themselves, "Watch! This is the way he's going to close. He always says it this way." So I suggest you shouldn't always use the summary method. But to summarize once in a while is good.
Another method of focusing the sermon points for your hearers is by application. Although you have made an application after each main point, there can be an application at the close and oftentimes should be. Of course, some homileticians believe the conclusion may be weakened by too much application in the body of the sermon. They argue that by petty distribution of impression all impression is lost, and that if you do too much applying in the main part of the sermon there's no point to applying in the last part.
I think such views are partly right and partly wrong. As we move along with our application and plan our sermon, we ought to see the whole thing in perspective and thoughtfully look at the conclusion, asking, "How does this application in the conclusion relate to those that I have made in the body of the sermon?" You can't see this unless you spend time developing your conclusion. If you have four main points in the sermon, have four subpoints in the conclusion, and apply each one to the individual hearer.
The main thing is to pull the threads together. Bring into sharp focus and bear down upon that one big truth. Make clear what it is so the hearers will understand what they are supposed to do.
As you focus the main points of the sermon and make clear what the response should be, you will naturally move into the third element of the conclusion an appeal to action. It can be either direct or indirect. At this point the wooing note is always prominent, and if you use any illustrative matter it should always be of a nature that will speak to the heart. The ultimate purpose of the appeal is to persuade the people to do something about what they have heard. Bring to bear upon them a very strong sense that they must respond individually.
When Peter finished his sermon on the day of Pentecost, the people said, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" His words made an impact; he moved the people to action. "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 2:37, 38).
The preacher's attitude, as well as what he says, is important at this point. Far better for the Holy Spirit to make the hearer feel uncomfortable than for the preacher to attempt to do so through psychological gimmicks or emotional stories.
There is power in emotional appeals, and some preachers have a tendency to use that power. When I was pastor of a certain church a visiting speaker who was raising money for a certain purpose came to preach. Before he came, the president of the conference said to me, "This is a private venture and no official offering is to be taken in the churches for it." So I mentioned this fact to the speaker. His reply was, "That's all right. I don't need to ask for an offering. I've got a real tear-jerker today!"
We had about five hundred people there that day. We took the regular offering and got eighty or ninety dollars. Then the visiting preacher spoke, and when he finished with his "tear-jerker," he didn't ask for a cent. But people came forward spontaneously and laid $700 on the table for his project!
A lot of people will respond to emotional appeals. I'm not saying you shouldn't use emotion. It is a legitimate means of appeal. But a preacher should be extremely careful how he uses it. What is the motivation? What is the basis? The appeal must be given in the context of deep earnestness and integrity. Honesty and sincerity should permeate the spirit of the preacher. This is no time for sham.
There are other motivations to which a preacher can appeal. Charles Koller, in his book Baste Appeals to Preaching, mentions six: altruism, or benevolent regard for others; aspiration, the universal hunger for spiritual happiness and a sense of completeness; curiosity, the human susceptibility to that which appears novel, unfamiliar, or mysterious; duty, the divine urge to do a thing because it's right; love, the affection we feel for others, for God, sometimes even for ourselves (there is a kind of self-love that is healthy); and fear. Fear is by no means the most lofty incentive, but it is a legitimate one. Did our Lord appeal to it? He certainly did. " 'If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell'" (Matt. 5:29, R.S.V.).
When you get into the appeal, pronouns become very important. Use you and we. Bring yourself into it. The appeal is not for your congregation alone, but for you along with them. It must be highly subjective. And this, of course, requires careful and prayerful study.
An appeal can be made in many ways. It does not always have to take the form of calling for visible response. I know some pastors always close with an appeal for folks to respond by coming forward. Some do this beautifully. Others do it very awkwardly. In some places it's very effective; in some places it's not. When it's well done, I think it's good. But I don't think it's a stereotype that every preacher everywhere should feel he must follow. An appeal can be powerful and effective in producing change even if it does not call for an overt response from the hearer.
I know that some preachers don't think an appeal should be planned carefully ahead of time. "I just leave it to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit at the moment," they say. I think there are times when we can do that. I think there are times when we stand in the pulpit that the Holy Spirit actually helps us to know what direction to go. I think there are times when we can plan so tightly what we are going to say and stay by our stereotype so closely that the Holy Spirit can't move in and guide us. But it works both ways. I also think that sometimes we lean on the Holy Spirit as an excuse for our unwillingness to put forth the effort that adequate preparation requires.
It's like a young preacher who said to a famous German evangelist, "I never prepare before going into the pulpit. The Holy Spirit always tells me what to say. I go into the pulpit, open my Bible, and the Holy Spirit gives me the sermon." The great evangelist said, "That's wonderful. I never really had the Holy Spirit speak to me just like that. But sometimes when I'm in the pulpit He does speak to me, usually at the close. And what He says is, Today, Klaus, you were lazy. You didn't make proper preparation.'"
The Holy Spirit can pour it all into our brain without any effort on our part, but usually He doesn't.
The concluding sentence or sentences form the final portion of the conclusion. They should be carefully prepared. Charles Brown, former dean of Yale Divinity School, suggests that the last three sentences of the sermon should be carefully prepared, written out, and memorized. This will avoid uncertainty or hesitation when coming to a stop. The wheels of the sermon should touch down with ease and grace, bringing the sermonic flight to a smooth landing.
When you have spoken your closing sentence or sentences and the conclusion is finished, stop talking! Some pastors are afflicted with not knowing when to quit. Never say, "In closing ..." and then ramble on for another five minutes. Your congregation will forgive many homiletical sins, but they will not forgive this. Show no hesitancy and uncertainty. Bring it to a conclusion and then sit down!