Ending a Sermon on Time

stop-sign-2By Joe LaGuardia

Several weeks ago, I wrote that it takes nothing short of a miracle for a pastor to write a sermon every week.

It is true that sermons are the stuff of miracles, and I stand by my premise.  Yet, for far too many sermons, it seems that the miracle runs its course before the sermon ends.

Concluding a sermon is difficult, and (as many sermons out there attest) I’m not the only one who has a hard time with this.  I pity the congregation whose pastor does not know how to finish a sermon well.

“You should give as much thought to choosing your last sentence as you did to your first,” William Zinsser noted in On Writing Well, but far too many pastors preach for far too long, some exceeding 40 minutes of sermonizing.

For the late Fred Craddock, one of the masters at sermon conclusions, twenty minutes was good enough.  Without a manuscript to hold him down, he ended his sermons when the time seemed right, even if it meant leaving a few questions unanswered.

“I am not sure even Craddock knows when he is going to end his sermon,” Barbara Brown Taylor once noted, “but nine times out of ten it takes my breath away.”

Now, don’t let me fool you. Just because I’m writing this article doesn’t mean I know something about it myself.

One time when I was preaching, someone’s cellphone alarm went off.  I asked if there was a ringing in the room.  Someone affirmed that there was indeed a ring.

Another parishioner chimed in and said, “It means your time is up.”  We shared a laugh that day, but that parishioner was right.  It was time to get to the point.

Frankly, there is no right way to end a sermon, although theories exist.  Homiletician Eugene Lowery believes that a conclusion to every sermon should raise the heart heavenward and inspire the church to see Christ anew.

His sermons usually consist of three movements: The beginning plunges his audience into a conflict.  The middle digs deep into the biblical text and discovers how God uses reversal and redemption (what he calls the “narrative loop”) to save us from said conflict.  The conclusion lifts us up out of our human condition and sets us on the path of the Risen Christ.

Other preachers reserve life applications for the end.  Andy Stanley feels, for instance, that sermons should help people see why change is needed in the world.

“You close,” he wrote of preaching, “with several statements about what could happen in your community, you church, or the world if everybody embraced that particular truth.”

Other preachers feel that a proper conclusion consists of a summary of things already stated.  Unfortunately, many pastors take so much time on the summary that a great 25-minute sermon turns into a dismal 45-minute sermon.

Another observation from Zinsser rings true:  “A series of conclusions which never conclude . . . is ultimately a failure.”

Lastly, there are preachers who believe that the conclusion should have the congregation wanting more, like a thriller with a cliffhanger.

“The conclusion of a sermon should move like a river, growing in volume and power,” John Broadus noted in On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, “It should not be like a stream that loses itself in a marsh.”

Preachers who exert power in their conclusions rely on emotion and inspiration, usually bringing their audience to its feet and raising both voice and hands to inspire people to take action.  Repetition, rhythm, singing, chanting, and (in some traditions) hooping are tools in this preacher’s tool box.

As for me, I am honest with parishioners.  I let them know I can’t hit a home run every Sunday, but at least I will get them out of church on time.  I may not always inspire, but I will respect them.

A sermon that ends well communicates as much.

Learning from Fred Craddock

Picture courtesy of Disciples of Christ (Click on picture to follow original link)

Picture courtesy of Disciples of Christ (Click on picture to follow original link)

By Joe LaGuardia

Georgia is blessed to have some of the greatest preachers in these United States of America.  The list goes on and on, from Thomas Long at Emory University to Barbara Brown Taylor in North Georgia.

We are truly surrounded by good, Bible-based preaching.

This past month, we lost one of the best, as  the Reverend Dr. Fred Craddock, retired professor of homiletics at Emory University and long-time pastor of Cherry Log Christian Church in North Georgia, passed away March 6.

I’ve heard him twice, both times memorable.  I shook his hand once.  A collection of his sermons, which he signed “To Joe, with gratitude,” remains on my night stand.

Craddock’s influence on preaching cannot be fully described here, but since the 1970s, he’s become one of the foremost–and sought out–preachers of our time.

He redefined preaching, which was, at one point, growing stale and predictable: Three points and a poem, as they say.

Craddock argued that the texture of preaching should reflect that of the Bible.  If the Bible came to us in narrative form, then so should our preaching.

The goal of preaching, he taught, isn’t to talk about the Bible.  It is to acknowledge that the Bible is God’s sermon to us.  God gives us the honor to be in on the conversation and, by a leap of faith, become a part of the conversation.

That best describes Craddock’s sermons: They were conversational.  Hearing one of his sermons was like hearing your grandfather tell stories about the old neighborhood while sipping beer and rocking on the back porch.

When we preachers learn how to preach, we study the parts of sermons.  Craddock’s sermons were standards for those of us who learned narrative preaching.

Take his sermon introductions, for instance.  You always felt like you were a part of the family as soon as he began to preach.  They were never flamboyant or theatrical, and many a sermon began with a whitty joke.

“I’ve been given permission…to dress less formally.  In fact, one person asked me if I ever wore Bermuda shorts to preach.  I am wearing Bermuda shorts.  I didn’t come here to be made sport of.” If you knew Fred Craddock (he’s quite short), then you got the joke.

The middle of a sermon is where we preachers delve deep in a scripture text for the day.  The meat of Craddock’s sermons always wrestled with the text and brought new insights to the Bible.  He invited his congregation along for the ride, to eavesdrop on the biblical text with a keen ear.

Another aspect for which Craddock was known was his use of dialogue.  Whether he was role-playing characters from the Bible or describing his interactions with people as an illustration, his use of dialogue was something to behold.

I’ve tried to replicate it more than once in my own preaching, but with miserable results.  I can never get it right.  Dialogue was his unique gift.

Perhaps what Craddock was most famous for were his sermon conclusions.  He never really gave any formal endings or tied a sermon into a neat bow.

Instead, he posed challenging questions or told some moving illustration.  Sometimes he’d emphasize a lesson for the day.

He often concluded sermons abruptly: He simply stopped preaching, sat down, and let the next portion of worship commence.

He gave his audience the gift of God’s Word, but let them open it for themselves.

These days, when preachers are quick to give their congregations easy answers to all of life’s problems, Craddock’s sermons were a breath of fresh air.

I’m going to miss Fred Craddock.  I regret that I won’t be able to hear him preach again.

But thanks to him, an entire generation of us will cherish his style and continue the legacy of preaching in the narrative style as best we can.

I praise God for good preaching.  I praise God for giving us Fred Craddock.*

Brosend,William. “The People’s Preaching Class.” The Christian Century (4 March 2015): 20-23.

Craddock, Fred B. The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock, with a foreword by Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2011).