Should I take notes during the sermon?

Most of the people I go to church with in KL, or have gone with in the UK, are the type to take notes during the sermon. I don’t do this, and I’m not a keen advocate of note-taking either. So my stance on this is clearly a little controversial in the circles I find myself in. This question was mainly motivated by a  Jonathan Edwards quote I recently came across:

“The main benefit that is obtained by preaching is by impression made upon the mind in the time of it, and not by the effect that arises afterwards by a remembrance of what was delivered.”

My experience tells me that this is true. I find it hard to remember any sermon older than a month, and my memory is considered to be better than most. I know Christians who can barely recall in detail sermons from the previous Sunday, let alone two Sundays ago. This is not a slight on them. That would be the wrong conclusion to draw.

The fact is that the sermon (or monologue format) is a rather ineffective structure for rich learning and retaining new knowledge. Remembering what the preacher said is an inherently difficult task. We already see this fact being played out in the growing adoption of interactive learning methods in education. So, if sermons are an ineffective instrument of learning, then why retain them in our church liturgies?

The quote from Jonathan Edwards answers this question very well. The reason why the sermon has endured since the inception of the church is that biblical preaching has never been primarily about education, such that listeners can remember what was said after. Rather the main benefit to listeners is delivered in the moment when the preacher is preaching.

When someone gets up into the pulpit and faithfully preaches from the Bible, he is a messenger of God. More than that, he is an ambassador. He is not merely carrying a message – his very words carry the authority of God. God Himself is speaking, and all must listen and respond. God has promised that where his Word is preached, his Spirit will be at work convicting hearts of their sin, the righteousness of his Son and the judgment that awaits this world. In this sense, preaching is about communicating a real sense of God to the listeners, eliciting the kind of response we see in Acts 2:37: “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

Another illustration might help to clarify what I mean. When you walk into a dark room and turn on the light, the focus always shifts from the light onto everything you see by the light. The same applies to preaching. When God’s Word is spoken and explained, it is like a light being shone on our hearts. While our attention will initially be divided between the light and everything we see by this light, our focus must eventually shift from the former to the latter. By this light, we see the sin in our hearts that offend him and the Saviour he has provided, being moved to repentance and faith accordingly. This conviction can only take place as the Word is actively listened to and received.

What does this mean for note-taking during the sermon? The key principle is that there is no power in reading our sermon notes. The power lies in the reading, the speaking, and the listening to of God’s Word. The power of the Spirit is tied up with the presence of the Word. If your sermon notes help you to read your Bible with more clarity and understanding, then they are being used properly. If they replace your Bible reading, then they are useless.

Yet I am still not keen on encouraging note-taking during the sermon, even though they can be put to good use after that. I think the very act of note-taking feeds the fallacy that preaching is about feeding the mind. To the contrary, effective preaching must aim through the mind at the heart. The Bible shows us that our sin problem does not lie in the ignorance of our minds (as Muslims believe), but goes deeper into the rebellion of our hearts. So the sermon cannot be purely educational; it must also be convicting. (Although we must remember that the work of conviction can only be done by the Spirit and not the preacher, which is why preaching must be saturated with prayer and faithfulness to the Word of God.)

Having established that effective preaching aims at the heart, it remains useless for the preacher to preach in the right manner if we do not listen in the right manner. I know from experience that note-taking shuts down the critical faculty of the mind – if you disagree, attend a university lecture. This is the part of our mind that carefully considers how God’s Word affects our lives. This is the channel that links our minds to our hearts, and to shut it down would be a great loss to listeners. If the sermon is an arrow aimed at our heart, then note-taking is putting 40 inches of solid steel in between.

On a separate but related note, I think if churches want listeners to remember the content of a sermon, this aim is most effectively achieved through song. Yes, I am a huge advocate of post-sermon singing of a good length that reinforces the sermon. This would be the equivalent of taking the arrow in your hands and slowly working it deeper. Our songs would need to be up to the task, possessing a richness and breadth of theology, with words set to memorable melodies. This is a daunting task.

However, if we truly hope to work lasting change in listeners, then they must listen to the Word of God again and again, and give listeners an opportunity to work through the text for themselves. This would require text-by-text expository preaching, biblical small groups, and trained leaders – an even more daunting task.

But these are topics for another day.

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