The Practice of Sermon Note-Taking

by Jim Fowler September 26, 2015

I naturally am forgetful. I forget birthdays, anniversaries, tasks, and events. I forget so much I need to use programs like Omnifocus, Calendar, and Reminders to stay on top of everything. While such programs help me remember tasks and dates, there isn’t really an app that helps me listen to the preaching of God’s word.

Some of you are gifted listeners. You can sit, listen, and retain the information being presented. I am not of your tribe. I cannot just sit and listen, I need to take notes. I may never refer back to the notes themselves, but the practice of note taking helps to solidify the message in my heart and mind.

Others have made the argument that taking notes during sermons distracts the individual. While there is a potential danger in note taking, it more has to do with how the person takes notes, not the act itself.

Through years of trial and error, I have come to follow these five keys to taking notes during a sermon.

Less is More

One of my biggest mistakes was to try and get everything that is said written down. Every phrase, example, and Scripture, I would try to get into my notes. When you try to get down too much you begin missing much of what is being said. Don’t get bogged down in the details. Just try to get the main points and any key phrases that jump out at you. The point of the notes it to reinforce what is being said in a way that you can better retain the truth. You are taking notes, not transcribing a transcript.

What’s the Point?

Every good sermon has main point. Some would call this the big idea, thesis, theme, etc.. Just make sure to get it down. A good preacher will make sure to present a clear and concise phrase that captures what is being preached on and how it’s going to be fleshed out. Preachers, if people cannot come away able to articulate what the main point was, then it was not clear and/or concise enough. Notice I used the word “cannot” rather than “do not.” In the former, the preacher is the reason for the lack of clarity, in the latter, the individual may not have ben listening properly. 

Here is an example. If the point of the sermon is “The sovereignty and goodness of God exercised in the details of our lives demonstrates that God is present, cares, and is involved.” Good luck with your people remembering the main idea. The same material could be summarized as “God’s sovereignty in our lives is our good.” This is concise, clear, and memorable. Of course it will be full unpacked and everything in the original thesis is going to be taught, but with this shorter main idea people know where you are taking them. Couple this with a preacher that repeats the main idea throughout the sermon, it would be hard for someone to leave without knowing the point.

Know the Triggers

Having listened to many preachers, I find that a good preacher has trigger words. They set people up to recognize the main points. A good preacher will have a phrase that helps people identify that what is about to be said is important. Pastor Joe for example will nearly always say “Here is what I want us to come away with this morning….” Every time I hear that, I get my pen ready. How does your pastor introduce the main idea, or transition to main points and notable truths? Be on the look out for the triggers.

Chart Your Path

Don’t wait to hear a preacher say “For the application into our lives…” or “This is applied to our lives in the following five ways…” I am not against preachers having an application, but I am against listener laziness where individuals expect to be spoon fed. As I am listening I am thinking through how it applies to my life. What areas of my life need adjusting? In what ways am I not living in belief of the Gospel? Where is my stubbornness and hard heartedness need softening? Write it down. If a sermon is only the mere download of information, then we are wasting our time and playing church. The Word is being proclaimed, the Gospel is being presented, we are being given an opportunity to repent, flee from our sin and cling to Christ.

Be Consistent

It takes time to develop your note taking system and get into a note taking rhythm. Stick with it, don’t just be “one and done.” It will be difficult at first but soon you will find your groove. You will find yourself remember sermons but more importantly, you will remember the Gospel presented, the beauty of our Savior, the reconciliation only found in the work of Christ. Don’t quit, stay consistent.

When done incorrectly, taking notes during sermons can be distracting. When done well, there is a richness and impact in one’s spiritual formation. Don’t get bogged down with details, find the main point, know your preacher’s triggers, chart your own path, and be consistent. It is a difficult practice to begin, but one worth it in the end.