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p1020571I originally wrote this a few years ago. I still agree with it, more or less.

Ray Ortlund recently excerpted the Doctor on note-taking during sermons:

“I have often discouraged the taking of notes while I am preaching. . . . The first and primary object of preaching is not only to give information. It is, as Edwards says, to produce an impression. It is the impression at the time that matters, even more than what you can remember subsequently. . . . While you are writing your notes, you may be missing something of the impact of the Spirit.”

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors (Edinburgh, 1987), page 360.

Ray adds:

Hearing a sermon is not like hearing a lecture. It is your meeting with the living Christ. It is you seeing his glory, so that you can feel it and be changed by it. Let’s pay attention to him and what he means a sermon to be, lest we miss him.

Some thoughts of my own:

1. I began rethinking what preaching is about the time I began growing disillusioned with the “6 Steps to Successful Yada Yada Yada” I had been fed in church for nearly 15 years. At that time, we didn’t often have to take notes, as a fill-in-the-blank notesheet was usually provided. This many of us would dutifully complete, filling in the missing alliterations, then when the service was over, fold in half, stuff in our pockets, and later find converted back to pulp when the laundry was done.

2. It is difficult for people accustomed to 6 handy steps with accompanying Bible verses to transition to proclamational preaching. I learned this first when preaching this way in a young adult service hosted by an attractional church that preached the other way. There was category confusion. The sermons didn’t seem bullet-pointy, so there was difficulty sensing the narrative. And, honestly, I really stunk at easing the transition.

3. I first began thinking about note-taking in relation to what preaching is when I heard Tim Keller, echoing Lloyd-Jones, say in a sermon, “I don’t mind if you take notes at the beginning of a message, but if you’re still taking notes at the end, I feel like I haven’t brought it home.” I thought to myself then, “Hmmm.” It resonated with me and how I both was experiencing the kind of preaching I found to exalt Christ and the kind of preaching I was trying to get better at.

4. I began discouraging note-taking (not forbidding it) and relieving my church from the duty of note taking (meaning, saying they didn’t have to) because I want them to see preaching in the worship service not as a lecture or as primarily an educational transmission to their minds, but as prophetic proclamation and as primarily aimed at their hearts.

5. Some people have said they process what they hear better when they write things down, and that’s cool. Some people have said being told they shouldn’t take notes if they don’t need to was a huge relief. They now hear better. People are different. I would say if taking notes helps you hear, take notes. If taking notes is simply for memory afterwards, I would recommend not doing so. There is always the sermon audio to refer to, and I provide my manuscript (which usually includes the lines people most want to remember) to anyone who asks for it.

6. My view of preaching is that it is an act of worship for both the preacher and the congregation. The aim of preaching is to proclaim and exalt Christ by proclaiming and exulting in the Scriptures. For this reason, I dissuade note-takers, the same way I dissuade a similar approach to the music time. In worship music, we respond to the gospel by exalting God verbally. In the preaching time, a congregation may not be exalting verbally (although “Amen”s are appreciated, and the occasional awe-inspired gasp is gold :-), but they are not passive in their silence.

7. The preacher ought to do his best on each sermon and preach his guts out in an act of audience-of-One worship, but it is best not to trust one sermon for specific results. Instead, we trust a pattern of and persistence in preaching to have a cumulative effect on the hearts of individuals and in the shaping of a local body. Note-taking is a one sermon act of trust. Just listening and exulting in proclamation trusts that it’s okay to miss some good lines or good points, because it trusts the Holy Spirit to be shaping your heart through the preaching of God’s Word.

8. Ditching the note-taking preaching ethos both elevates sermons and properly diminishes them. It treats a sermon as proclamation aided by the Spirit, which gives the sermon a supernatural weight. On the other hand, by treating all words in a sermon as expendable to memory, it puts the preacher’s words in the right place compared to the Scripture’s words. It diminishes the impact of a well-turned phrase and magnifies real revelation.

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29 thoughts on “Thoughts on Note-Taking During Sermons”

  1. Ronald Wagogo says:

    This is definitely counter cultural for me. It gives me much to chew on as taking notes is a learned trait in my church experience. As I reflect on this article most of the sound bites that I read on Twitter by folks ARE from sermons they heard. But it’s never the scripture that they quote but the powerful or profound comment the preacher (insert your favorite TGC pastor’s name) made. Now I’m not knocking witty one liners but I do feel that we are drawn to what “he” the preacher said than what “He” the Spirit said. My 2 cents. #SDG

  2. Tony HUy says:

    Great article and a great perspective that I’ve never heard before. It has me thinking, and I didn’t even stop, highlight, Evernote any lines. Just read straight through it :)

  3. alan davis says:

    What about screens with sermon points?

  4. Rob S says:

    There is definitely a very good point in this post. However I know for myself note-taking during sermons is not primarily an act of the mind but of the heart. In my notes I apply the sermon to my specific situation and pray to God. We all know that internal prayer often overflows into spoken words. This isn’t possible during a sermon, but through notes one can still allow one’s prayers to overflow onto the page.

    I concede that sermons I find particularly penetrating often do not incite me to take notes, but a sermon which is less gripping requires it for me. Note taking is a way of internalising a message when it otherwise would simply not penetrate deeper than my ears. Of course, my experience may not be normative for everyone, but it seems as though actively ‘dissuading’ people from taking notes may harm listeners’ receptivity and devotion to God as much as it may help others.

  5. Linda says:

    I take notes because it helps me process what I’m hearing. However, I am probably the only person in my church who does. I don’t write verbatim sermon quotes but put it into my own words and personalize it; for example if the pastor says “your salvation” I’ll write “my salvation.” I am grateful for the freedom to take notes and also for the freedom NOT to take notes.

    1. Melody says:

      I do the same. I have to. Even if I’m given a sheet with all the information that is being said, I have to write it. It’s what helps me to stay on track with what is being said.

  6. Jeff says:

    I understand what the author is trying to get at…however, when I’m taking notes it means that I am listening. I appreciate point #5 in this that tries to drive this home. I think that for some people, it is important to emphasize that point a little more deeply. Taking notes, for me at least, verges on journaling as I apply certain sermon points and scriptures to my immediate circumstances. I write them down as a means of capturing my thoughts, perhaps for later reflection, but writing is an act of worship in itself. I think that we need to be really careful in articulating posts such as these with even stronger caveats for those who are super conscientious. Note-taking is a wonderful gift, it implies the ability to write, to comprehend, and an interest in listening closely. I would argue that taking notes depends on the spirit in which that act is done. Like any church-related activity, it can be devoid of meaning or deeply spirit-enriched. We should heed the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 10.

  7. Laurie says:

    Not with you on this one. Note taking is done when it helps the hearer. “If you’re still taking notes at the end I feel like I haven’t brought it home” is an odd statement to me. Seems like the preacher is looking for visual emotional response which is not what everyone gets on cue at the end of a sermon. When I take notes it helps to reinforce what I hear-in other words-it helps me process the information, Every preacher’s style is a little different and every listener is a little different. I think the preacher should preach what God has laid on his heart and the listener should listen as well as he can whether by taking notes or not.

    1. Stanton Frey says:

      I agree. This article mentions ZERO Scripture. The discussion is essentially about how people learn and process what they are hearing.

  8. k henson says:

    I respectfully disagree. Note taking is an essential part of my meditation process. I have journals full of notes which the Spirit uses as I go back to key things I have been taught and need to be reminded of. Honestly, if my pastor is putting in as much effort as I know he is, there is much to think on and I want the full benefit of his study- not one or two things that my feeble mind can catch without opportunity for review.

  9. Tim says:

    I think that note taking usually helps me focus on the sermon more. Admittedly, sometimes I am easily distracted, but writing helps keep me focus. Still, I certainly agree that no one should feel obligated to take notes during a sermon.

  10. Todd Brooks says:

    To each his own. I have a journaling Bible and I will write in it some during the service when I feel the pastor makes a good point or says something from a perspective I had not thought of before. It also helps keep my mind from wandering from tangent to tangent.

  11. Bryan Park says:

    My mind is always wandering. It’s not uncommon for me, in the middle of a church service, to be thinking about what I’m going to have for lunch, rehashing events of the past week, or previewing the upcoming week. For me, writing notes during a sermon helps focus my mind on the prophetic proclamation of the Word. I’m glad you would discourage but not forbid note taking outright for the sake of people like me.

  12. steve says:

    respectfully, I couldn’t DISAGREE more. :)

  13. HZD says:

    It’s nice to take a leaf out of the page of some preaching greats, but in my experience, most pastors don’t have the speaking ability to really draw people in and grip them in that kind of way. Don’t set the bar of expectation so high when most people’s pastors can’t actually reach it. Of course there’s nothing particularly virtuous about taking notes; if you’re doing it because that’s what you’re “supposed to do” then take a break and just listen. But it’s silly to make a sharp distinction between the impact of the Spirit and the educational increase in understanding. Just like most sermons (as you rightly acknowledge) don’t necessarily really blow you over, but work little by little, so also the impact of the Spirit often just works little by little, through a line here or there that grabs your attention. Writing that down may a really fantastic (and quite realistic) way of gathering little stones towards a big building.

    On the other hand, when it comes to goals for a preacher, I think that it’s great to aim high like Keller and try to speak in ways that are effective enough that people forget to take notes. For most of us preaching, though, it’s when we really get going that we look up long enough to notice the drifting head-bobbers in the fourth row. Small steps.

  14. R? Sorenson says:

    I take notes and sketcht to keep my mind from from wandering and to focus on the message. When I don’t bring a pen I notice every little visual or auditory detail that is not relevant , like the clothes, the voice inflection, the wires. The more notes I take, the more,intensely I listen. I think this is more a learning style that some are designed with, not an insult to the pastor.

  15. I concentrate better when I take notes. I’ve tried not taking notes (because there was no space for it in the outline. It was a wedding), and I found myself spacing in and out. At the end of it, I wasn’t sure what the sermon was about. Anyhow, I also find the notes handy to refer to when I wanna discuss the sermon after the service with a friend or explain it to a new person or visitor whose first language isn’t English. I do agree though, if it’s a sorta stumbling block, don’t do it.

  16. Ginger says:

    I agree that if you find it helpful, do and if you don’t, don’t. We shouldnt take notes out of obligation, but studies show we remember more of what we write down.

    This article acts as if you are taking notes you are only “filling in the blanks” and that would be mutually exclusive to letting the Holy Spirit speak to and move your heart.

    I guarantee if someone invited you to sit for an hour with Warren Buffett for some investing advice, it’d be important enough to take notes to remember. Sitting down with the Creator God is no different. We can rely on the Scriptures and the Word an ALSO do our best to aid our human frail minds to rememeber the living words spoken to us.

    I guarantee the preacher is making notes when he preaches. Is he not trusting the Spirit to bring to mind what he needs in the moment? Of course not. There is nothing wrong or suspect with relying on commentaries, notes, sermons, etc. for training. A congregant here is no different from the pastor. The Spirit can use impressions in our hearts as well as ink impressions in our journals.

    The Bible tells us to study to show ourselves approved. Study implies that it is fine to take scripture as many things, including information.

  17. AM says:

    Well put HZD. I think a caution might be considered here. We don’t want to assume that an emotional response is the only indicator of a move of the Spirit. I haven’t attended a place of worship that utilizes the bullet points, fill in the blank approach in a long time. I’m most accustomed to moving through the Scriptures directly . I treasure my notes from these years of study. I would definitely call the lessons teaching oriented as opposed to preaching. Perhaps that’s where part of the different approaches might come in.

  18. Stanton Frey says:

    Quite disappointed in this article. ZERO Scriptural basis for this. This is not a Biblical perspective on the subject. It is at best a superficial discussion on how humans most effectively hear and process what they are hearing and trying to learn. It seems the author is making a case that a sermon, or ‘preaching’, is only and most appropriately some sort of dramatic presentation intended to ‘move’ people. It is this line of thinking that I feel is most destructive to our evangelical church culture. It is to say that a very ‘matter-of-fact’ delving into Scripture, to read the words, to understand the context, to study and learn… is somehow incompatible with being ‘moved’ by the dramatic presentation of some preacher. It diminished the power of God’s Word and exalts this unscriptural concept of ‘preaching’. Doesn’t Scripture emphasize ‘teaching’ what the Bible says and ‘study’ of Scripture? I simply cannot disagree more strongly with this article and NOT on the basis of my personal preference, but on the basis of Scripture. There should be no article on this site without strong Scriptural basis. Isn’t that compatible with the ‘mission’ of TGC? I’m disappointed and this article should be reevaluated.

  19. Lynne G says:

    The article is good in that it encourages us to take sermons to heart, not just to mind. However, the article also contains logical fallacies. The idea that the Holy Spirit can’t be involved in notetaking is ridiculous. Notetaking can help you meditate on the Word and apply spiritual admonitions personally. It definitely helps me hear and process what I am hearing, as well as prevent my mind from wandering. Often my notes are copying the scriptures and personalizing what I hear, so the assumption that notes elevate the manmade words doesn’t ring true.

  20. Don Shorey says:

    Every good thing can be misused or used with false understanding or wrong motivation (legalism in either direction is spiritual poison in this issue as it always is in any practice), but this article misrepresents the Biblical doctrine and vision of both worship and the mind. Cliches about public “worship” and a dangerous dichotomy between body, mind, and spirit are the only way that you could discourage freely-engaged, active listening and learning through the note-taking of those who listen and retain truth more effectively in this way (it is clearly not for everyone). The separation of spirit, mind, voice, body, and other senses in this article, as though separate ones are used for separate types of worship, is troubling; and even more troubling is any suggestion that mind and body-engaging note-taking diminishes the reality or the recognition of the supernatural role of the Spirit in either the proclaimed Word or any other God-given and worship-expressing activity in any part of life — as though the Spirit is more engaged or expressed in some sort of mystical, emotionally-poised inactivity than He is in hungry, attentive activity.

  21. Kim Cosgrove says:

    Hi, Jared. Thanks for writing this article. It has helped me understand myself a little bit more. I’ve always felt vaguely guilty for not taking notes in a sermon…like I’m communicating the arrogant idea that “there’s nothing you’re saying that I think is worth writing down.” I’ve found that for my own personality, writing things down distracts me from hearing and thinking and I tend to miss things while I write. The best of all worlds for me is when the speaker gives me a written outline of their sermon that I can use for processing through later. I recognize everyone hears, learns, and thinks differently, but I appreciated your perspective.

  22. I get so much more out of it when I take notes, especially since I am an adult with Attention Deficit Disorder. The process of writing it (kinesthetic) and seeing it on the page (visual) provide extra avenues to my brain. I also enjoy going back even years later to glean again. None of this detracts from the “in the moment” experience. To me, it seems a bit intrusive and even arrogant to be setting this kind of expectation for a congregation. This not an issue of morality. Each one can decide what serves their own souls best. For me, and obviously for so many others who have commented, taking notes reaps huge benefits. Why is this even a question?

    A favorite quote by 19th century French priest Abbe de Tourville: “Let us be able to depend quietly on ourselves. Let us judge for ourselves which things most help, guide, and teach us, by observing the degree in which they fit our own particular temperament; learning by experience those things which help us and which we most need.”

    And… “For nothing is more individual to each soul than the form of its intimacy with our Lord. His earthly life revealed also that no two were intimate with Him in the same sort of way.”

    And… “Observe the path you take instinctively at those times when you are most keenly aware of the real and intimate presence of our Lord. Realize that there lies your own particular grace.”

    1. As a side note, in our little PCA church, I love the atmosphere of openness, flexibility, and trust in the unique spiritual walk and personal dignity of each member. It comes right along with the faithful, compassionate preaching of the Word.

      Also, when I take sermon notes, I don’t try to catch everything on paper. I write what speaks most to me. Another thing that helps is that I usually keep notes in a journal, so they aren’t scattered around getting lost. I like to go back and read once in a while, and have had so many “aha” moments and chances to reflect on how I have (or have not) applied what I felt like God was leading me to do.

  23. Dan Bragdon says:

    I’m not generally someone ruled by obligation, so note taking for me has never felt like a burden or weighty expectation. I can understand the value and need to be released from a performance driven need to take notes. However, I think note taking is valuable for seeing how a sermon impacted you in a single moment rather than reinterpreting it in future contexts. It also can feel like arrogance from the pulpit when people are being dissuaded from interacting with the message in a way that they could check against Scripture or come back to the preacher with questions. Note taking is a form of accountability. I generally find that I take the most notes when I am being introduced to a new way of looking at a passage or am being given information that doesn’t match my current understanding of Scripture. This gives me a real time picture of how something impacted me and I have a source to look back to for reference when studying Scripture against my own initial reaction. I also seem to recall that the majority of learners process things better when they write them down because it adds an additional layer of immediate processing.

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Jared C. Wilson

Jared C. Wilson is the Director of Content Strategy for Midwestern Seminary, managing editor of For The Church, director of The Pastoral Training Center at Liberty Baptist Church, and author of more than ten books, including Gospel Wakefulness, The Pastor’s Justification, and The Prodigal Church. You can follow him on Twitter.

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