Monday, May 16, 2011

Thoughts on Note-Taking During Sermons

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 often 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 a "seeker 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 I stunk at helping.

3. I first began thinking about note-taking in relation to what preaching is when I heard Tim Keller 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, "Hmmm."

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 preaching outline (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.


Aaron said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Graham Buck said...

So I decided to take notes on your note taking post... ;)


Point 1: Which would be converted after a fill in the blank sermon? A) the congregation B) the worship bulletin

Point 2: My sermons weren't pointy enough (note to self: use a pencil sharpener next time).

Point 3: Tim Keller wants to bring it (me?) home. Hmm, I wonder what he's cooking for lunch.

Point 4: I don't want my congregation to think of my sermons as lectures. Sweet mercy, my professors just rambled...

Point 5: Remember to not accidentally curse (even in Christianese) because someone will put it on YouTube.

Point 6: Make sure to give note-takers an offer they cannot refuse.

Point 7: Point of clarification, preach your guts out is not the same as spill your guts...

Point 8: Look, you're not a poet and you totally know it...

Timothy P said...

Appreciate your thoughts and take on sermon note-taking. I agree with you on most points as to reasons why people should not take notes. Having come from not-so-much a tradition, rather than a habit and discipline, I've found that note-taking (since growing up in church as a teenager) has helped me in my processing of God's word and ultimately how He speaks, reveals, convicts and teaches me through His Word and Spirit. Being a pastor-preacher now myself, I still take notes, though perhaps processing on 2 levels, both as a hearer and doer, but also for future references to help me in my own sermon development.

Timothy P
Skillful Shepherds

SnatchedFromTheFire said...

I appreciate this post very much. I don't usually take notes in a sermon myself anyways, but this kind of adds words to my actions. Intuitively i think i just get that a sermon is not a lecture and is meant to be heard and responded to, not picked apart and analyzed. I do think as well that this idea of not taking notes exalts the work of the Spirit and diminishes the wit and wisdom of any man.
I look at it this way: w/o singling out any particular culture, i hate it when i go on vacation and see people taking so many pictures that the whole vacation is viewed through a viewfinder! The idea being, ' i want to enjoy this later' but how much enjoyment are you really experiencing in that moment when you 're fiddling with a camera and yelling at your kids to smile or skootch over, etc. I say, just enjoy the moment and the beauty surrounding you in that moment and grab a few postcards which are more than likely much better shots than you'll get anyways ;) Similarly with the sermon, sit under it, absorb it, mull over it, wade through it, just ENJOY IT! Let the Spirit speak or shout or whisper - whatever He wants to do. don't miss the point of the sermon looking at it through your "view-finder".

Chad G. said...

Interesting. Definitely gave me a lot to think about. I'm by nature a note taker and tend to process things better when I can write them down, but I have to admit this can be a hassle at times too. Being so focused on points and Scripture references it is easy to miss the overall theme or "big idea" of the message. Thanks bro.

nannykim said...

I think for those of us that are visual learners, note taking is so helpful. It also helps me to concentrate; it keeps my mind focused. If I don't take notes, I rarely remember much from the sermons and instead am left with vague impressions. I can get so into my everyday living and actually forget what the Spirit was saying to my heart!

Noah D. Lee said...

Although I preach most of the time, when I am a listener, taking notes helps me to stay focused. Otherwise, my mind wanders and I disengage from the worship service. Having a pen in hand, open Bible and a note book keeps my focus where it should be.

However, I agree 100% about the "bullet point" sermons and fill in the blank notes. I did those long ago and regret I ever tried to preach that way.

Jeff said...

Interesting...I started taking notes about a few months ago hoping it would help drive home the points or to possibly revisit them at a later time. And, of course, I haven't re-read any of it. Maybe I'm thinking too much about what to write down, like I'm dissecting the message for an exam, and I'm missing the opportunity for the Spirit to speak to me.

Good stuff.

Jared said...

Aaron, if you'd like to take another run at your comment without the condescension, smugness, and derision, I'd probably approve it.

Will said...

Thanks for writing a great thought provoking article Jared. Will digest it a bit before commenting. I'll respond later on my blog. I don't want to turn your comment section in to a dissertation.

Chad Brewer said...

I like the 8 steps approach...;)
Seriously thoigh, I never really thought of this. Thx for taking the time to encourage us that the gospel isn't found in our notes, but in our hearts.

Dubbahdee said...

I have taught myself to take notes in a way that mostly disregards the outline. Instead I listen for the nugget of gold, the bolt of lightning, the flash of gospel illumination. I write this in my journal, and then return my attention to await the next gospel epiphany. Sometimes what I write is not at all what the preacher said, but something his words triggered. My notes are usually quite short, at times perhaps only a sentence, but I walk away engaged. I keep the journal, and occasionally return to it for reflection.

Dubbahdee said...

Because of the dangers you list, I have taught myself to take notes in a very different way. First, my notes pay almost no attention to an outline. Instead, I am simply listening for the flash of gospel illumination. When it strikes I write it down and then return my attention to listening.
I write in a journal which I keep. That way I avoid the pocketed notes thing. I can return to these insights for reflection.
Often what I write is not what the preacher is saying, but I will write some observation triggered by what he said. Much of my notes consist of word pictures and images.
My notes are often short, only a sentence at times. I don't force it. If there is no flash or nugget that pops out, I don't sweat it. I do find that I review the sermon mentally to see if I missed anything. I am content to know that the Word has washed over me and pickled me just a bit more in it's holy brine. ;-)

"Anyone can count the seeds in an apple, But only God can count the apples in a seed."- Unknown said...

Very interesting...I too am a notetaker and never really thought of the fact that I was missing something from the sermon... I do like going over my notes later to remind me of what the pastor said, but it might be better to write down what the spirit said to me rather than man. I take notes as a way to keep engaged in the sermons and reflect later, but as you said it can always be listened to later on a CD when that is offered.
Thank you for your post.

bot1 said...

But I thought people who took notes were more spiritual. Thanks for this post. I totally agree.

Bill said...

Heh. Naturally, I'm a note-taker . . . Man! I'm with the people who tend to concentrate better when they are taking notes.

Now I'll be looking over my shoulder to catch the disapproving glances of my non note-taking brethren. :-)

Aaron Hann said...

John Owen writes (in Vol. 3 of his works, On the Holy Spirit, p. 389):

“One principal advantage which we have by attendance on the dispensation of the word in a due manner [is]…that by presenting those spiritual truths which are the object of our faith unto our minds, and those spiritual good things which are the object of our love unto our affections, both these graces [faith and love] are drawn forth into frequent actual exercise.

And we are greatly mistaken if we suppose we have no benefit by the word beyond what we retain in our memories, though we should labor for that also. Our chief advantage lies in the excitation which is thereby given unto our faith and love to their proper exercise.” (italics and paragraphing mine)

Whitney Taul said...

Thanks for these thoughts, Jared. I'm a big note-taker. I've got a few Moleskines dedicated almost wholly to sermon notes. Definitely going to give it a no-go on the note taking this week. I do it because I feel like I'll want to come back to it in the future. I rarely do. I lead a small group for church that uses sermon-based questions. This is another reason I take notes. Often someone in the group missed church. With notes I can walk through the sermon quickly. However, I'll be moving soon, and I won't be in that role any longer. Thanks again for the words!

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

note-taking can be a valuable enterprise but does not need to be employed at all times or at all stages of one's walk with the Lord. In my teens I took notes to on a massive scale because I was in a Pentecostal church where topical preaching was normative and it was often useful to compile scriptural references as they were read during the sermon. The youth pastor incorporated various people in the youth group to read different passages he referred to in the sermon as he was preaching. Looking back on this approach to preaching it was a surprisingly interactive approach to preaching. You stayed alert not just because you were listening to the sermon for its content but you might get asked to volunteer to read a particular passage.

One of the things that can happen during note-taking is that you can hear a preacher botching a text. I'm sad to say I've had this happen any number of times at all when I'd rather say I never heard it happen once. So the points have their usefulness and I appreciate them but I want to do a little friendly pushback on some of them.

Keep in mind, too, that for those of us who grew up in the days when tapes or CDs or MP3s of sermons were not common for most churches old patterns don't just go away. Depending on production issues it can take weeks before a sermon preached one Sunday gets available on mp3. A lot can slip in the memory in two weeks.

Freddy Taul said...

The comment from Whitney should have been from me, her husband. Didn't realize she was signed in. Oh well.

Brian E Hoch said...

Personally, I take notes during sermons because otherwise my mind wanders and I entirely miss what is being preached. Taking notes allows me to stay with the preacher rather than succumb to my inner monolog.
And as Kent Hughes says, "You cannot be profoundly changed by that which you do not know."
Note taking is definitely not for everyone, but it is for me because without it I miss the worship experience entirely.

Anonymous said...

What good is a sermon if not applied? (luke 11:28)A good Bible centered church encourages note taking. Then when we listen a second time take more notes. Then those notes come in handy in our Home Fellowship Group when we really dig into that weeks preaching. Most important note taking allows me to APPLY the teaching. Our Pastor puts so much knowledge time effort into every sermon you need to take notes. Its the Meat and potatoes. If your not taking notes I suggest you get off the milk(Heb 5:12) and find a more challenging Church. Also the back of the note sheet has a minimum of 5 Application questions for group study. A minimum of 10 books researched in the sermon prep. and at least 5 previous sermons that discuss a related message. Whats left leave you bible ipads and laptops at home?

Jared said...

Anon, one question for you:
Did Jesus' audience take notes?
If not, how could they ever apply what they heard?

There is no valid correlation between note-taking and Bible-centered. In fact, the most note-takingest churches I've been a part of have been the least gospel rich. Lots of the preacher's ideas; little Bible.

You can take notes in a bad church as well as a good one; or not take notes in a good one as well as a bad one.

michaelmartin said...

To use David Platt's language, are we suppose to be mere receivers of God's Word and not reproducers? Doesn't note taking allow one to better take what you learn and teacher other (2 Tim. 2:2)?

Jared said...

Michael, as I indicate in the post, it allows some to do that, sure.

I have tried to take care to say that taking notes can be beneficial for some. I would hope the pro-notes folks could concede that perhaps taking notes is not an absolute indication that someone takes the sermon more seriously than one who doesn't take notes.

Are we going to make note-taking a fruit of the Spirit? ;-)

lyn said...

i've been taking notes from my pastor's preaching for 10 years already and i am still blessed whenever i review them. I am also amazed often times when reviewing them gives me more understanding compared to just listening.

I think what counts is our desire to know God more and treasure His words.

Anonymous said...

While I agree wholeheartedly that not everyone needs to take notes, more than once I've gotten disapproving looks for note-taking. Seriously? The vast majority (60-70%) of people are visual learners. Only some 20-30% of the population are auditory learners, and I seriously doubt the percentages differ much within the church!

I dislike the style of note-taking where you fill in little sentences (but I've only seen that a few times), but have zero problem with people writing down sentences, information, and verses that strike them as important.

Now, when the entire church is taking notes, and you are singled out for derision for not doing so- that is a definite problem. It hasn't been experience, but I know the type of people who would do that.

Anonymous said...

Is this suppose to be funny? Wow!