Should you take notes in the sermon or not?

As I have come off Facebook and Twitter, I have re-opened comments here on the blog for the time being. You are welcome to post your comments below.

Two blogs I follow have written about note-taking in sermons. Alistair Chalmers first made the case for taking notes. You can read his argument here. Dave Williams has responded to that and made his case for why you shouldn’t take notes. You can read his case here. So, I thought I’d throw my hat into the note taking ring and offer my two-penneth. So, here it is.

I don’t care.

I don’t mean that to sound as facetious as it does. What I suppose I really mean is, do whatever you want. Or, even more accurately, do whatever will help you listen best (and I’m not that bothered whatever it is).

Some people are absolutely mad on note taking and think it definitely helps them concentrate better. They review their notes later in the week and they are sure it helps them remember the preaching in a way just listening wouldn’t. To which I say, all power to your elbow. Take those notes to the glory of God.

Other people (I among them) don’t find taking notes is especially helpful and will almost certainly not read them back if they are written. For such people, I say listen without a pen in your hand. Listen and try to remember the key points of the sermon in the week. Find other ways to recall them if note taking doesn’t work for you.

But this whole thing goes well beyond note taking. What we want is for people to engage with the Word. I want them to engage with the Word in whatever way they find most helpful. Given the Bible does not insist on note taking or no notes, it doesn’t insist on lots of things that many seem to think it does, I am keen to let people do whatever they find best helps them to engage with the Word.

In many churches, for example, there are a range of neurodivergent people. Many of them, I have found, do not listen well by not taking any notes, but nor do they listen very well by trying to jot things down either. For many of them, simply having something to fiddle around with while they listen is helpful to them. As far as I am concerned, if mucking about with a fidget spinner or faffing about with a load of squashy stuff helps them concentrate better on the word, then so be it. I couldn’t care less that they are neither taking notes nor looking me in the eye. If they are gaining more from the Word as it is preached fiddling with stuff while they’re listening, then let them play with whatever they will.

Of course, if people are mucking about with stuff and not listening at all – and it is clearly distracting them – you might want to say something. But you need to be careful that you don’t assume that because you would be distracted doing whatever they are doing that they must necessarily be distracted too. You shouldn’t insist that because you wouldn’t find that thing helpful, they necessarily can’t be finding that thing helpful either. The simple test of these things is not ‘what did you take down in your notes?’ or ‘how did that thing help you concentrate?’ Those questions are irrelevant in practice. The question is, ‘what can you tell me about the sermon?’

Case in point, my 9 year old son this past Sunday showed me what he had been doodling during the sermon. Suffice to say, it bore absolutely no relevance whatsoever to anything being said. From memory, it appeared to be an entirely fictional Fifa-style cup run that ended in a Liverpool-Real Madrid final, the winner of which was entirely unclear. I can assure you nothing in the sermon from Hebrews 13 had anything even approaching that in it! But when I asked him what the main points of the sermon were, how they applied to us, what we were to do with the passage, there are a fair few adults – no doubt taking notes they insist will help them remember – who would be put to shame by what he remembered and how much he understood.

So, whether you take notes or not, whether you doodle or not, whether you find fiddling with stuff helpful or not, I just don’t think it matters. What does matter is how well you engage with the Word. And if doing stuff I wouldn’t do helps you engage better, then have at it. The real test isn’t what I find helpful, or you find helpful, but what can we actually remember of the sermon. How well did we engage with what was said? How much have we heard and intend to put into practice?

So, when it comes to note taking – in a very real sense – I just don’t care. Do whatever you want. Or, more accurately, do whatever helps you engage best. After all, the preacher can’t see your heart and it isn’t him you have to answer to. Jesus, on the other hand, knows whether this is helping or not and it’s before him your doodles and notes will stand or fall.

2 comments

  1. Thanks Steve, to be honest I don’t care that much in terms of individual’s choices re taking notes. The point of my comments was not so much individual advice -though it’s been good to get different people’s responses. Rather I’m reacting a little to the culture which assumes that note taking is the golden standard of sermon engagement. If jotting, doodling, whatever helps you concentrate and take in then I’m not really worried. I suspect that the helpfulness is less to do with the intellectual reasons we assume and more to do with the things you come onto in the section on neurodivergence. This also means that part of my concern is that encouraging “note taking” has in fact distracted us as preachers from thinking harder about how to help people actively engage. I mean, we don’t want the person to blurt their objection out halfway through our point do we? Better that they jot it down in their notes šŸ™‚ I agree generally about what the true test is. But I wonder even if “remembering” is crucial. I suspect that the reality is that few of us can remember most sermons, talks, Bible studies, what we’ve read. This doesn’t mean that things haven’t had an impact that have shaped our relationship with Christ for good.

  2. Thanks Steve
    I go through phases of taking/ not taking notes
    At work if I wanted to really concentrate I always doodled..boxes were my thing,which enabled me to have a sharp focus on what was being said.
    Iā€™m inherently lazy so am normally happy not to take notes and just listen.,

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