Airplane landings make me as nervous as a rabbit’s nose. I can’t forget one descent into O’Hare Field in Chicago. Apprehension tugged at my stomach muscles as we began an instrument approach toward the nation’s busiest airport. At last the wheels touched down and 130 passengers braced, waiting for the engines to roar into reverse. Instead the plane gathered speed, the front end of the cabin tilted skyward, and the runway disappeared in the swirling mist. Moments later we were back in the stack of jets circling over Lake Michigan. Our captain explained we had touched down too far in and the control tower had ordered us back into the air. Our second landing was perfect, but many passengers were disgruntled at the half-hour delay.
Abortive landings can happen in sermons, too. Listeners get irritated when a speaker reaches a logical stopping point, only to become airborne on a new point or on a repetition of an old one. The speaker who does this can cause listeners to lose not only interest but also their good will toward himself and his subject.
Those who teach the art of public speaking warn that the introduction and conclusion of a message require extra care in preparation. Gerald Kennedy says, “For me the conclusion is the most difficult part of the sermon. If the conclusion is right the most important single thing has been done” (His Word Through Preaching).
The conclusion offers the preacher the opportunity to drive home his central idea one more time. Also, he may impress every listener with the fact that specific action is called for. The conclusion should create the highest emotional level of the message. A dull, apologetic, anti-climactic closing can negate whatever has been accomplished in the body of the sermon.
In his Beecher lectures on preaching, the late Halford Luccock observed, “There is no substitute for a specific conclusion. At the end of the sermon something must be given, something must happen. Otherwise the sermon becomes like an expression of his hotel life given by a character of Ring Lardner’s. He said, ‘Everybody puts on their evening clothes like something was going to happen, but it don’t!’ ” (Communicating the Gospel).
There are several techniques a preacher can use to improve his sermon conclusions. He will do well to vary his style, so that those who hear him week after week will not always be able to guess how the sermon will end. The element of surprise is a valuable ally in preaching.
1. The summary. The recapitulation of major points is an appropriate technique when the goal is to inform or inspire. Don’t let the summary become too detailed; stick to the most important ideas. And beware of introducing new major points that should have been taken up in the body of the sermon.
2. The anecdote. A story that vividly illustrates the theme of the sermon provides a dynamic conclusion. Here is the spot to use the strongest illustration in the message. It should be so pointed the listeners will grasp its meaning in a flash. Here’s a test: if you have to explain the meaning of a story to put it across, it’s too weak for effective use in the conclusion.
3. The quotation. This too should be pointed and strong. A few lines from a hymn or poem may have a powerful emotional impact. So may a Scripture text, particularly if that passage has already been woven throughout the body of the message.
4. The question. An appropriate question or series of questions at the end helps the listener participate in the message. Sometimes this device works well where for the problem being discussed there is no clear line of action to recommend.
Preachers may also use the question as a heart-searching device to prompt immediate action. For example: “He is saying, ‘Come to me and find new life.’ He is saying it right now to some of you. Will you listen? Will you believe he means business? Will you let him know you mean business with him?”
5. The call to action. This is a direct appeal for the listener to take specific action. He is given definite steps that answer the questions, How may I respond? When may I respond? In what areas of my life shall I apply what I hear in the message?
Perhaps the call to action will carry over to the closing prayer. In the prayer the preacher may spell out the response desired, or may actually pray the words he wishes the listener to say. This technique may be especially useful in evangelistic preaching where a speaker phrases the penitent’s prayer and urges listeners to repeat the words from their hearts as he prays.
The call to action is most successful when a preacher offers a sincere, suitable appeal to the emotions as well as to the intellect.
Regardless of what device is employed, let the preacher maintain full power as he brings his sermon to a climax. Many speakers tend to diminish their vocal power little by little and end with a dwindling, dying conclusion in which they appear to have run out of steam. Teachers of public speaking urge that full vocal power be maintained right up to the last word.
Let there be doors in our preaching—not only doors that swing inward for men to worship the Triune God, but doors that swing outward at the conclusion of the message, so that our listeners may depart to serve.—DAVID S. MCCARTHY, pastor, Bethlehem Advent Christian Church, Augusta, Georgia.
out of the moment—
the physical edges of lunch:
a child’s health,
the quarrel of persons,
a terror of the holy—
the inner core of appetite;
making of this moment
a prayer of moment
in a moment
to the contours of hope & fear,
love & pain
& laying them out on yellow paper,
waiting for the descent
of your burning dove
to touch them to truth
sharp as a nail’s point,
clean as a tomb
swept by dawn.
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