In the following edited excerpt from his book, Touching Others with Your Words, Chuck Swindoll encourages you to really think through the ending of your message and teaches you how to deliver the most stirring conclusion.
Of all the elements that comprise a sermon or a speech, none is more important than the conclusion. The last few moments you spend with an audience can, literally, make or break the whole message. You can’t fling a message toward the audience like a baseball, hoping it flies close enough to catch. On the contrary, if there’s anything you don’t leave to chance, it’s the last thought you leave ringing in their ears.
A Conclusion’s Threefold Purpose
A solid conclusion accomplishes a threefold purpose. First, to add a final “why” to the question of “how” answered by the application. Ideally, good exegetical exposition will prepare the audience’s heart to say, “So what? Show us how to put this information into action.” While the application feeds the mind, an effective conclusion appeals to the will; it prompts the audience to action. That’s the primary difference between teaching and preaching. Therefore, the spirit of a sermon is motivational throughout and devotes a greater portion of time to stimulating audience response.
Second, a good conclusion satisfies the audience’s desire for a feeling of closure. A message without a conclusion feels like someone turning and walking away in the middle of an interesting conversation. A hasty, unplanned final conclusion is rude, leaving the audience feeling abruptly dismissed, like they aren’t important to you.
Third, an effective conclusion ties up any loose ends, unifies the principles and applications under a common theme, and summarizes the message. Ideally, your ending words should help the audience restate the essence of your talk in a sentence or two. If they haven’t captured it beforehand, they’ll need to grasp it in the conclusion.
Transition Clearly and Smoothly from Beginning
A well-planned conclusion doesn’t feel tacked on . . . because it isn’t! It fits with the flow of the message. To make that happen, you begin transitioning to the conclusion virtually from the introduction. Each element of the message must be considered an incremental move toward the final thought. Moreover, the transitions between elements need to be smooth.
To help with transitions, many people craft a good sentence, which they write in their notes, and then memorize it. The transitions between elements help the audience subconsciously learn your pattern as a speaker so that, when you reach the end, the transition to the conclusion feels just like any other. They will know you’re headed for the home stretch, but they stay with you. Very often, when I transition to the conclusion, people unconsciously close their Bibles and assume a different posture; they know we’re coming in for a smooth landing (hopefully!).
Stay on Time
Time is a constant concern for the preacher or speaker. You can lose yourself in a message as minutes pass like seconds. And you can sometimes draw the audience in so deeply they forget the clock as well. Nevertheless, time will become an issue sooner or later. You can’t “say it well” if you don’t end it well. And for a sermon, in which motivation is such a critical factor, sufficient time needs to be devoted to the conclusion.
A good rule of thumb for a sermon is what might be called the “25-50-25 rule.” Break your allotted time into quarters. Devote a quarter of your time to establishing a rapport with the audience and introducing the subject. Use the next two quarters to deliver the body of the message, an explanation of your points. Then reserve the remaining quarter for applying and concluding.
Three Ways to Close
I generally close a message in one of three ways: a summary, a story, or a statement.
A summary covers your main points, principles, and applications in brief fashion, which is effective if remembering the information is important. I don’t do this often because people remember what is relevant to them. They will remember the points that impacted them personally. But if you want to aid memory, repetition and review can be helpful. Unfortunately, this can easily come across as pedantic unless you do something creative, like propose an analogy or paint a vivid word picture. When used well, a creative summary not only aids the memory by providing an image, it shifts the audience from the rational side of their brains to the imaginative, emotional side.
Sometimes a good story can bring all of the points, principles, and applications together through illustration and, simultaneously, drive them deep into the audiences’ hearts. Sometimes, when typing out my notes, I’ll come to the end of the applications and I need a good closing. So, I’ll close up all my books, return them to my library shelves, tidy up my desk, lay aside my notes, and pray. Then, I get out of my study. I’ve been so close to the trees, as it were, I need to back away to see the forest. I’ll take a brief walk in the neighborhood or run some errands. I let my mind wander without ever drifting far from the message.
Sometimes sooner, sometimes much too late for comfort, the perfect story will occur to me. Usually it’s something I’ve read. A human interest story from the news or in a magazine. A compelling description of an event in history. A great illustration used in someone else’s book—I always give credit. A personal experience, or that of someone close. The beauty of a story is that it shows the application actively lived out by someone else. We see the results and hopefully want to see those results repeated in our own lives.
I have also closed with a strong statement or a quote. But you can’t just drop the line at the end; you have to set it up, usually with some information about the source. Context gives extra staying power in the minds of the audience.
A Final Thought about Final Thoughts
Show your listeners how the sovereignty and goodness of God prevails over every circumstance, even past sin. Let them know the Lord is for them, He wants them to do well, and explain how the applications lifted from Scripture will lead to a better future. People will come out of the woodwork to hear that. Never wander too far from grace.
The Word of God is both encouraging and empowering. Our messages, if they are lifted from Scripture, should be no less so. Keep up the good Word. And never stop learning how to “say it well.”