The Beginning And The End
There is an old adage about public speaking that says, “Stand up, speak up, shut up.” This common-sense advice reflects three challenges every speaker and every preacher has to overcome—getting started, saying what has to be said, and coming to a succinct conclusion.
So far, we have addressed only the second challenge—saying well what needs to be said. This is obviously the most important of the three admonitions. If we do not have anything relevant to say, the beginning and the end will mean little. However, getting started and ending well are highly important to an engaging and powerful message. Think of your favorite sandwich as an example. What makes a sandwich so good is what lies between the two slices of bread. Yet, you would not be tempted to consume the sandwich without the bread. At best, you would have a poor salad. Likewise, it is important to frame every sermon between an engaging introduction and a powerful conclusion.
Let’s begin with the introduction. It may seem somewhat strange to add the introduction to the sermon after having completed the sermon outline and adding the illustrations. However, until the sermon proper is in place, there is nothing to introduce. This is not to say that ideas and concepts for an introduction will not come to mind as the sermon is constructed. They often do and should be noted for consideration when the introduction is finally considered. Before putting an actual introduction in place, always think in terms of what it is that a good introduction should accomplish. First of all, an introduction must capture the listener’s attention. Secondly, a good introduction will always establish the need for listening to the sermon.
Capturing the attention of the listeners is the first matter of importance. Let’s begin with what not to do. It is my practice to skip the prayer and the reading of the text. I know to some this will seem unorthodox or untraditional at best, and to others, it may seem downright disrespectful. The question you will need to consider is this. Are you willing to sacrifice your message on the altar of tradition? Pray a long prayer and then read an extended text, and a good portion of your listeners will have already tuned out. Even, if they read along with you, they can read faster than you can verbalize the text. They will inevitably run ahead of you and finish the text while you are still speaking. This will create a time-lapse that will invite their minds to wander elsewhere. By the time they happen to tune you back in, you are on the first main point and they have no idea what you're trying to say to them. If you must pray, pray a short and quickly move on to gaining the congregation's attention. If you do not begin with prayer, rest assured, God understands. May I suggest that an attitude of dependence matters more than uttering a public prayer before preaching?
How do we capture a congregation’s attention? I routinely introduce a sermon with some type of illustration. I lean heavily on stories, antidotes, and personal experiences, but anything from a quote to statistics can work. Sometimes you have to get creative when nothing seems to work. I’ve used interesting photos, interactive sequences with the congregation, and object lessons of all types. I recently wore a Santa Claus hat into the pulpit and then commented on the listener’s reactions. It was an obviously unexpected event that evoked varied reactions which is what I wanted to talk about in my message, but more importantly, it garnered the congregation’s attention.
The second thing that a good introduction accomplishes is that it establishes a need to listen in the minds of the congregation. A good opening illustration that gets attention should lead directly to the need for listening. However, you will need to make the connection and spell out the need. If it is not already clear from the opening, you may need to add more explanation or illustrations. Statistical surveys, quotes, a reference to some current event, or the mention of some personal experience may help. The goal is to identify and emphasize some issue, problem, or challenge that needs to be addressed. Never skip this step. This is important for motivating your listeners to actually listening to what you have to say. You will also want to make sure that the need you establish is logically connected to your big idea. Your big idea should give a biblical answer to the need you have established.
Having completed the introduction, you can now turn to the conclusion. A good conclusion has two important parts. First, a brief summary of the sermon should be given. This is best done by reviewing again the big idea and main points of the outline. If you have remembered to round off each main point and emphasize the big idea at the conclusion of each main point, this is no different, other than you will add some appropriate wording to indicate that this is a concluding review. Having reviewed the sermon, one thing remains to be done. A final verdict needs to be rendered. Like a good lawyer tells the jury what they should do in his closing statement. A good sermon should tell listeners what conclusive action to take. All that is required is a short powerful action-oriented statement. It is often effective to tie this verdict back to the need or even the opening illustration. When I can do so effectively, I leave the opening illustration unresolved. Only the dilemma, challenge, or problem part of the story is explained. Then, in the conclusion, I return to the same illustration and complete the story as a demonstration of how to resolve the need addressed in the sermon. When you have finished the conclusion, shut up, and don’t keep kicking a dead horse. If you have done your part, the Holy Spirit will drive it home.