(Against?) Note Taking During Sermons

Mark Jones comments
| Faith

Do you take notes when you are worshipping God by listening to a sermon?

Preaching in a number of countries has been not only a rewarding experience, but also a deeply interesting experience. In North America, especially, I’ve noticed that those sitting in the pews are far more likely to take notes during a sermon than those in other countries (e.g., China, Brazil). 

With a little bit of fear and trepidation, I wonder if we might not need to re-think the appropriateness of excessive note-taking during a sermon. 

Now, in my own church where I minister, we do not legislate any laws concerning whether people can or cannot take notes during a sermon. Having said that, I have wondered whether note-taking can be so excessive that the person writing misses the special dynamic between the preacher representing Christ and the person to whom Christ is speaking. 

In Paul’s ministry to the Thessalonians he commends them for receiving his preaching as God’s word:

“And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thessalonians 2:13).

By faith through the Spirit, we receive Christ through eating and drinking in the Lord’s Supper. Similarly, by faith through the Spirit, we receive Christ through the hearing of God’s word. There is a real encounter with Christ. 

Martin Luther was convinced that preaching is not primarily a work of man. He desired that God would “train our hearts to believe that the preacher’s words are God’s Word and that the man addressing us is a scholar and a king.” He adds:

“As a matter of fact, it is not an angel or a hundred thousand angels but the Divine Majesty Himself that is preaching there. To be sure, I do not hear this with my ears or see it with my eyes; all I hear is the voice of the preacher, or of my brother or father, and I behold only a man before me. But I view the picture correctly if I add that the voice and words of father or pastor are not his own words and doctrine but those of our Lord and God. It is not a prince, a king, or an archangel whom I hear; it is He who declares that He is able to dispense the water of eternal life. If we could believe this we would be content indeed” (Sermons on the Gospel of St. John, LW, vol. 22, 526-5).

Like Luther, Calvin had a high view of preaching: “For, among the many excellent gifts with which God has adorned the human race, it is a singular privilege that he deigns to consecrate to himself the mouths and tongues of men in order that his voice may resound in them” (Institutes, 4.1.5).

Personally, I put in a lot of work to be able to preach with little notes. I want to make eye contact with my people. Very often their faces tell me a lot, even when I need to re-explain something or when I need to slow the pace down. But it can be off-putting when those you are looking at are never looking at you. Plus, there is something about looking into the eyes of others when you are preaching that can be deeply moving for them, whether a point of conviction or a point of assurance from the Word preached.

If someone is still taking notes towards the end of my sermon then I feel like I’ve probably failed to some degree. 

When the Spirit is present in our preaching people are moved to worship God. But far too often the sanctuary of God’s house can feel more like a lecture hall than a place of worship. 

Christians who identify themselves as Reformed or Calvinistic can be especially guilty of a purely intellectual approach to God’s word. They leave with their notes, but they never entered with their hearts.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones discouraged note-taking during his sermons. In his own words: “The first and primary object of preaching is not only to give information. It is, as [Jonathan] Edwards says, to produce an impression. It is the impression at the time that matters, even more than what you can remember subsequently.” 

In the end, the point I’m making is not whether sermon notes help some to remember better what is preached. Perhaps notes do that. But my point is something altogether different: is it even appropriate to take notes during the whole sermon and perhaps miss something vitally important that’s happening which can’t be written down?


Mark Jones

Rev. Dr. Mark Jones (PhD, Leiden Universiteit) has been the Minister at Faith Vancouver Church (PCA) since 2007. He is also Research Associate in the Faculty of Theology at University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa. He lectures at various seminaries around the world and is currently writing a book titled, "God Is: A Devotional Guide to the Attributes of God" (Crossway, 2017) and "Faith, Hope, and Love" (Crossway, 2017).

My Website: http://amzn.to/2aT50QJ