Final words are often defining words. Remember the thief on the cross? He was apparently guilty of crimes deserving of death, crimes that defined his life and determined his death. Then he said these words (Luke 23:42), “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Those words defined him more than anything else he had ever done in his entire life and those words determined his final outcome even more than his death on a cross next to Jesus. Final words of a sermon can define a sermon, sometimes more than anything else that is said in the entire sermon. The last words out of our mouths as preachers, as we conclude our sermons, are the last words the congregation will hear connected to our sermon. These concluding words demand careful thought, purposeful planning and diligent preparation.
A great conclusion can make a good sermon even better. A poor conclusion can cast a cloud over an otherwise clear message. Though I would not make the claim as having the corner on the market of conclusions, I have learned a few things over the years. First think I know is that I cannot conclude what I don’t yet know I will say. For that reason, a conclusion cannot be completely planned and written before determining the content of the sermon. Once my content is decided, then I can properly move to a conclusion. The prerequisite of content implies spending enough time in the development and clarity of the content so that I actually know what I am trying to conclude. Have I come to the place in my sermon content development that I understand what I am trying to communicate in the sermon? What has God said in the passage of Scripture that I am trying to re-state, explain and apply? Can I state what I want to say in a simple and clear way? What does God’s Word actually demand, encourage, or call people to do, think, believe, etc.? Once I have a very good handle on the content of the sermon and the intended outcome of the sermon, then I can move to the conclusion.
Where the introduction sets out to capture the listeners’ interest, a conclusion seeks to secure the heart of the listener towards response to what God has said through the sermon. A conclusion is not just a rewording or a summary of the content. The conclusion is the final presentation that contains the takeaway or emphasis from the sermon experience often communicated in an emotive way such as personal appeal or story. The final words of the sermon should feel less like the end of a sermon and more like the beginning of a personal response to God. We should prepare our conclusions with the expectation that God will call people to listen to what He says and respond. Our conclusions should reflect our expectation. In fact, in preparing the conclusion, the purpose of the conclusion as it relates to a specific message from God should shape the development of the final words. A clear purpose for each conclusion will move you from simply finishing your sermon to launching your people to an appropriate response to the voice of God.
Conclusions should be short. Don’t spend so much time landing the plane that the people wonder where you are really taking them. If you don’t manuscript your sermon, then, at the very least, manuscript your sermon conclusion. Your final words need the clarity that can come from a thoughtful manuscript. After you manuscript your final words, talk it out several times. Listen to what you plan to say. Make sure it sounds like you think it would sound when you write it out. Ask someone else to listen to what you plan for your final words. In stating your conclusion, make every effort to avoid words like “in conclusion,” “finally,” “wrapping it up,” and any other words or phrases that give people a reason to begin to vacate with their minds as opposed to respond with their hearts. Your conclusion should be crafted so that people are drawn in, emotionally engaged, sensing the nearness of God, the whisper of His Spirit, and even finding themselves surprised that you are really at the end of the message. Be clear and concise, purposeful and expectant. Give the time and effort to your conclusion because these will be your final words to your people at the most important moment in the service, the church’s response to God.
And now some final words. When Peter denied Jesus right before Jesus died, those final words must have seemed defining to Peter. After all, in Mark’s account of the angel’s instructions to the disciples after the resurrection, the angel at the tomb said (Mark 16:7), “But go, tell His disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He told you.” The angel gives Peter every indication that his final words in that courtyard of denial did not really define him. If the final words of your sermons have been defining your messages in a manner you would like to end, then make last week’s conclusion the beginning of a new way to share your final words.