Preaching and Note Takers

I had an enjoyable conversation with a friend today about note takers in church.  Some preachers love it when listeners are taking notes.  After all, it means they are listening, learning and will be going over the message again later.  But actually it doesn’t.  They are half-listening, may be learning, may or may not go over it again later.

I’ve read research that suggests the best way for listeners to learn from a message is to listen attentively, and then have time immediately afterwards to make some retrospective notes.  That allows them to give full attention to the message, rather than trying to recall and write while you are preaching.  It also allows them to immediately distill main point and applications of the message, rather than fooling themselves into thinking an outline equates to learning or life change.

Attention given to one thing means less attention given to something else.  If people are writing, then their minds are distracted from what is being said at that moment.

I like students to be taking notes in a class setting.  Firstly, because the sheer volume of information is greater than a single sermon that supposedly has a focused main point.  Secondly, because the goal is much more centrally about information transfer.  Preaching should educate, but the main goal of preaching is not education.

If you are in the habit of giving “fill in the blank” notes, I am sure you will want to defend that approach, and you are welcome to do so.  I like what I heard Tim Keller say a while back – “it’s when they put their pens down that I know I am really getting through.”  Why don’t we try giving a 3-5 minute quiet time after a message and encourage either prayer or note taking in that time?  I’d love to hear from any who have done that in a church service setting.

Enough from me, what are your thoughts on note takers?

13 thoughts on “Preaching and Note Takers

  1. Couldn’t agree more. The confusion between sermon and lecture is similar to the confusion between preaching and teaching. I want people to hear and SEE a worshipper-over- the-Bible so that they will find faith and worship rising in their hearts. In the worst case note taking reduces the act of hearing a sermon to an inadequate comprehension exercise not an exercise in expanding hearts till they are bursting with soul-satisfying, God-glorifying truth and delight

  2. I like to take notes while listening to my pastor preach, but I do find myself not listening, or trying to listen to the sermon while writing my notes.

    Some people are better at listening and taking notes while listening to a sermon, while others may not. I do find a benefit for myself, to listen to the sermon several times after hearing it on Sunday. Thank you iPod!

  3. I do a little bit of both when I am hearing a sermon I like to write down the scripture the title and some pain big points then I take my notebook to work on occasion and read over the notes. The thing that is awsome to me is how much the Holy Spirit brings back to me when I read the notes.

    When I preach it’s nice to see people taking notes but I also like the good ole head bob people give of, the yeah your on my street about to be in my living room with that point.

  4. The best learning model is when the audience has pre-read the material. My approach is to urge everyone to read and contemplate the passage BEFORE the sermon and to get commentary input.

    Instead of playing “catch up” with the sermon, the hearers are taking notes on new insights. This also drives people into the Word regularly.

    Fill-in notes are baby steps. They irritate me. I prefer blank space for key notes plus provocative questions for later reflection.

  5. Peter, I agree with you whole heartedly. When I was having a serious heart to heart conversation with my son about his behavior, I wasn’t expecting him to take notes. I wanted him to listen to everything I was saying. Isn’t preaching no less serious? Most my misunderstandings come from not fully listening to what some one is saying because I am side tracked chasing rabbits instead of seeing the whole picture.

  6. I guess I’ll defend the note-taking side for you. I’ll agree first, though, that just because they’re writing it doesn’t mean they’re learning.

    However, I don’t see the worship service as a place for preaching, but for teaching – “equipping the saints”. As the Teaching Pastor, I teach – not preach. They don’t need to be preached to or at; they need to be taught.

    So, yeah, I ask them to take notes, provide the outlines / blanks / whitespace (whatever that message calls for), and I teach them the Scriptures.

    • Thanks Daniel – I agree that our task includes equipping in a teaching sense. However, I struggle with the idea that “they don’t need to be preached to or at” . . . this sounds like your definition of preaching is the contemporary negative notion of “preaching” (as in an upset spouse screaming, “don’t you preach at me!”) What about the biblical case for preaching? More than that, are you suggesting that good preaching does not equip, teach or train? I get the sense that you are suggesting teaching the Scriptures is in one category, and completely separate is another category of preaching. I would suggest that they significantly overlap, and perhaps . . . point to ponder . . . there is more to teaching and education and training and equipping than simply transferring knowledge. I’d be interested to hear your definition of preaching and your definition of teaching. Thanks so much for engaging with this post!

      • Hi Peter,

        I do see a distinction between preaching and teaching, and I usually define it this way:

        We may preach (proclaim) a message, but we teach people.

        There are certainly elements of preaching during my Sunday messages, but they are designed to teach the people what the Scriptures have to say – whether it be a specific text or a specific topic.

        I would say that most biblical preaching was to an unbelieving audience (crowd or nation), and it was usually a call to reconciliation with God. In that sense, no, it doesn’t really equip, teach, or train.

        Teaching, on the other hand, seems to be strictly for believers, as they are the ones who are to be equipped for ministry to do every good work (2 Tim 3:16-17; Eph 2:10; 4:11-13).

  7. I realised recently that I tended to always take notes at conferences, but have never ever taken notes during a Sunday meeting (beyond the occasional jotting down of a quote or something to think over later). What I’ve found is that at conferences I’m almost *better* at listening when taking notes, and I’ve found it really helpful when praying over the stuff I’ve been challenged by to go over them. However depending on the way the preacher preaches, I’ll sometimes find it impossible to keep writing, or get to the end and realise I’ve sat with my pen in hand for the whole hour and a blank page in front of me.

    I wonder if different people actually find different things helpful. As I’m listening to a preacher, I want to be struck and challenged and rebuked and encouraged there and then, rather than later when revising my notes; however sometimes I simply can’t remember what was said (I’ve found that this week, in trying to remember what particularly challenged me on Sunday). The way my church seeks to remedy this is by having small groups after the main meeting where we discuss the passage that has been preached to better help us in being “doers of the word and not just hearers”. However others find that taking notes they can refer to during the week is a great way of reminding themselves of the heart of Sunday’s message. Is there perhaps not a one-size-fits-all solution?

    • Good to hear from you Matthew. I agree that different people have different preferences. I was only responding to the research that suggests the approach that results in greatest impact and retention is to listen fully and then take time immediately afterwards to jot down highlights and notes. I suppose your comparison between taking notes and no notes is another matter. I’m wondering if the research might be right that suggests taking notes immediately afterwards would be the better way. Perhaps we should try it and then share whether it helps or not. I don’t think any of the comments yet have shared the experience of doing what I suggested . . . who knows, perhaps if we all tried it fairly and repeatedly we might discover there is a one-size fits most 🙂

  8. When I listened to sermons most of the time I used to take notes because it helped me to listen – to keep focus. I could also mark issues I wanted/ needed to find out about.
    Now that I preach more than I listen I still take notes sometimes – same reason, because it helps me to listen. The church I work with is small and rural. There are no note-takers here. I started taking notes when I was part of a university church. I am wondering how much note taking is to do with education and culture.

  9. Personally I always have my notepad open when I’m listening, but what gets written down varies hugely from week to week.

    Some weeks I am totally captivated by the preacher and the page remains blank.

    Some weeks I am really engaging with what is being said, and scribble a bunch of key words and phrases which stick out, I have dozens of pages littered with JESUS! in between other longer sentences, which is always encouraging when I see them later.

    Some weeks the sermon is weaker, and I find myself taking a full page of notes. Generally then I will return to the passage later and see how the notes tie up with it. Usually this is because there wasn’t a single theme running through the sermon and I got confused by different things, so I felt the need to scribble as much as possible and try to sort it all out later on.

    There is also a very helpful situation when I will always take lots of notes, which is when I’m falling asleep. The act of having to write things down helps to keep me alert and awake. That certainly isn’t an argument for note taking in general, but in specific circumstances it can always be useful!

    I will certainly have a go at spending 5 minutes after a sermon writing down the main points. It’s a great idea and not something I have ever tried before.

  10. It would be interesting to do a survey. Two groups involved.
    1. Note-takers.
    2. Listeners.
    One week after the sermon ask each group the subject and general emphasis of the previous week’s sermon. Do NOT allow either group to do more than turn to the Biblical text (no going back to notes!). Then see which group got more out of what was preached.

    One could make it all more interesting if you then compared with that a third group – those in a church where sermons are discussed in the post-service tea and coffee, and/or those where there are a few moments to meditate on what has been opened from the Scripture.

    I know what I think the result would be between the first two groups, and who would do better – but I’m not putting my hand up here for fear of upsetting the other group!

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