My second book, Preaching That Moves People, is scheduled for release the first part of January. For eleven chapters, I share what I consider to be a fairly unique way of looking at sermons in order to maximize their impact on hearers. The key isn’t merely thinking through messages but learning how to feel through them – to trace and leverage their emotional flow.
However, as with any book manuscript, there are sections and even chapters that don’t make the final cut. I thought some of it might be worth putting on my blog. In this post, I wanted to share some of my (unedited, rough draft) thoughts on sermon introductions and conclusions. It’s probably even a little rough for a blog post, but maybe some of these unfinished thoughts will be helpful. Here you go:
The “do’s and don’ts” of sermon introductions and conclusions are fairly common. A simple search on the internet produces scores of resources, most of which share the same answers. Let me offer some reflections that deal specifically with how introductions and conclusions intersect the sermon’s emotional flow.
What I try to look for in a sermon introduction is how it puts “the why” of the message before for the congregation. Preachers should use their introduction to answer the question: Why would congregants need to listen to this message? or Why should listeners take this journey with me? This is just one more reason why [as stated earlier in the book] creating tension is critical in the sermon’s beginning. It necessitates having a why for the congregants at the start of the sermon.
I also prefer messages that address sermon content immediately instead of beginning with announcements or random comments for church ‘insiders’ that have nothing to do with the emotional flow of the message. Often such moments are counterproductive to engaging listeners emotionally. If you are going to start your message via an introduction, actually INTRODUCE the message. Like a good flight, a sermon’s introduction should launch listeners into the journey of the message, not waste time meandering on the tarmac.
I also believe it’s a good thing to memorize your sermon introduction. Staying with the flight imagery, memorizing the intro provides a strong takeoff where the preacher begins the message looking into the eyes of his listeners rather than having his gaze disconnect from them in order to repeatedly find where he is in his notes. Beginning the message by keeping one’s eyes upon the listeners establishes a strong emotional connection between pastor and congregants. Preachers can return to their notes once they’ve successfully entered into the cruising altitude of the body of the message.
This is also way I think it wise to memorize conclusions. Like the start of the message, you also want to conclude it looking at your listeners, not your notes. Remember, the goal is keeping a good connection emotionally with the congregants. Maintaining eye contact with them better fits what a conclusion should feel like emotionally, especially if there is any kind of congregational appeal. Those who are adept at feeling their way to the sermon’s end may not need to memorize their conclusions but usually those kind of preachers are the exception not the rule.
If conclusions are like a plane’s landing, then the landings in your messages need to feel like landings in real life. In what way? Well, for starters, you should only have one. You wouldn’t want an actual flight to conclude with the pilot attempting multiple touch downs. Unnerving to say the least. At some point you would question the skill level of the aviator. The same goes for preachers and sermons. Messages should have one ending. If they don’t, it may lead the congregation to wonder how proficient you are at preaching.
For example, don’t tell everyone you are just about to wrap up the message then continue to preach for another fifteen minutes. Congregants now have to play a guessing game for when they think you will finish. I wrote this to a buddy I was coaching, about a conclusion he gave in a specific message:
You said you were closing and went an additional ten more minutes. You actually preached another mini-sermon complete with an entirely new text and exposition. This just tells people either you don’t know how to end a sermon or you’re unable to do it. It also gives them permission to “check out” of your talk if you go longer than four to five minutes.
This isn’t a unique experience. I’m amazed at how many times I thought a pastor was going to finish his message (because the sermon seemed to be concluding in both its emotional trajectory and pace) only to find him re-ascend into the skies at the expense of his listeners. Don’t do that. A good rule of thumb is to never introduce new material in your conclusion. Leave it for another sermon. Remember, land the plane once.
As many times as I’ve heard preachers land multiple times in a sermon, I find more messages where no landing has taken place at all. The introduction is fine. The body of the message flows wonderfully well. And then, with a sentence or two at the conclusion, the sermon ends – and by ‘ends’ I mean it crash lands. The conclusion feels so emotionally abrupt and unfinished that it does an injustice to the all the time spent preaching before it. Often these crash landings happen because preachers don’t manage their time well in the pulpit. They just run out of sand in the hourglass. It’s a costly mistake because while the the pastor knows it, the congregants feel it.
Another reason could be that some pastors never take the time to actually craft emotionally satisfying conclusions to their messages. Maybe the work of exposition and structuring of points takes up all the time they have to prepare. But this is to miss a huge part of the emotional dynamic of the message. If you want to preach sermons that move people, you must take into account how both introduction and conclusion respectively start and finish the message’s emotional flow, and do them well. They’re like two wings on the airplane, if you want the message to fly well, you probably need both of them. (For the record, this is one more reason why it’s wise to identify them when charting a message’s bandwidth.1