A Prayer before You Begin
We live in a noisy world. Whether in the back or foreground, through talk radio, music, or conversations, we're almost constantly ingesting audible information. By week's end when we arrive at church and settle into the pew for a sermon, we try to silence the noise and prepare ourselves to hear something altogether different—God's living, active Word.
Good biblical teaching is more than just inspiring. It has the power to change hearts! With that in mind, taking notes on the message is a great way to stay engaged, leaving reminders for reflection later in the week to revisit the message and discuss with others.
Try these eight tips, and use a notebook or the margins of your ESV Journaling Bible to record thoughts and sermon notes. Before beginning, invite the Lord to bless the hearing of his Word.
Dear God, thank you that I can gather with other believers and hear your Word proclaimed and explained. Oh, give me ears to hear! I pray that the pastor's words would serve to point me to your truth, and that it would take deep root in my heart, producing much fruit.
1. Come prepared with the right writing utensil.
It's important to choose the right kind of pen or pencil when it comes to writing in your Bible, even if you're writing in a Bible with thicker paper (like the ESV Journaling Bible). Download our quick-reference Bible Writing Utensil Guide for more helpful information.
2. Don't try to transcribe everything the pastor says.
The goal of good sermon note taking is not creating a verbatim record of everything the pastor says from the pulpit. If your church records each week's message, there's no reason you can't go back and listen to it again (or even transcribe it) later. One of the dangers of trying to write down everything the pastor says during the sermon is that it often has the ironic effect of distracting us from truly thinking about what he's saying.
A more helpful approach to sermon notes is summarizing the sermon's key points, paying attention to the message's inherent structure. Some preachers explicitly lay out the structure of their message, regularly calling out different, numbered points. Others may not be as explicit about the structure of the message, but, most likely, there is structure to be found if you pay attention.
Focusing on the main points of the sermon will also allow you to note particularly impactful insights, practical applications, and follow-up questions.
3. Note related passages.
Even if your pastor tends to preach from a single passage each week, it's likely that he often reads or references other passages at times. Jot some of these references down as you listen to the sermon—this will make it easier for you to return to your notes later and dig into other biblical passages that may shed more light on the message itself.
4. Look up from time to time.
When taking notes during a sermon, it's easy to get sucked into the actual writing and forget to look up from time to time. And yet, looking up can be important for a couple reasons.
First, it gives you a chance to pause and take a step back from what you're writing. In doing this, you may find that you're able to make new connections, glean new insights, and ponder new applications related to the biblical text as you focus on simply listening to the message.
Second, it lets the preacher know that you're paying attention and engaged, rather than bored or distracted. Making eye contact can provide a small but needed encouragement.
5. Be sure to take note of the date and speaker.
Much like a journal entry, sermon notes can provide a record of what you were learning in various seasons of life. Having a date and name to associate with the notes can be helpful ebenezers (or reminders) when looking back through your notes at a later time.
6. Before the sermon ends, write down a one-sentence summary of the whole message in your own words.
Challenging yourself to sum the sermon up into a thesis of sorts can be a great way to solidify your understanding of the message. If someone were to ask you about the sermon at lunch afterwards, what would you say it was about? What is the main point you think your pastor intended for you to take away?
7. Remember that the goal of sermon note taking is communion with God, not detailed or beautiful notes.
It's easy to lose sight of the ultimate goal of good sermon notes: communion with the living God through his Word. Fight against the temptation to allow other goals—perfect accuracy, comprehensive detail, beautiful penmanship, etc.—to distract you from that which is most important.
Ultimately, it doesn't really matter what our sermon notes look like or even how infallibly they reflect the sermon from which they were originally drawn. What matters is how God uses his Word to transform our hearts and minds, conforming us more and more into the image of his Son. When taking notes during a sermon, make sure that's your ultimate goal.
8. Revisit your sermon notes throughout the week.
For most of us, by the time Tuesday morning rolls around, we've often forgotten all about our pastor's sermon the Sunday before. Sermon notes are a great tool for reminding yourself of what was preached on Sunday later in the week, allowing us to continue meditating on the message. What's more, if your pastor is preaching through a book of the Bible expositionally, reviewing your notes from the previous Sunday's message could serve as a great warmup for hearing your pastor's next message.
Finally, this may prove especially helpful for those in churches with weekly small groups, which often include discussion related to the most recent sermon.
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Publication date: January 23, 2017