Take notes.

by K.W. Leslie, 23 October

It’s Wednesday. So, assuming you went to church Sunday morning… do you remember what the sermon or homily was about?

Some of you do, ’cause your memory is just that good. (Mine is.) You were paying attention. The preacher said something memorable, or entertaining, or particularly profound. Or perfectly relevant to your situation, or taught you something you’d like to try.

Others of you can’t remember for the life of you.

Nope, this isn’t a criticism. Hey, some people who stand up to preach simply aren’t preachers. They might be nice people, good musicians, great prayer leaders; they’re friendly people, and exactly the sort of person you want in your life when you’re going through tough times. Or they might have a lot of personal charisma—they’re people you naturally like, even though they might not have done anything to win people’s affection. (Some of them, like certain celebrities and politicians, might’ve done plenty to make you dislike them—but when you see ’em in person, all they gotta do is smile at you, and you’ll forgive them everything, ’cause they’re just that kind of person. That’s how they get away with so much evil.) But for whatever reason, Sunday mornings they’re the ones on the dais, at the podium, talking at you. And they use a lot of words… yet say very little worth remembering.

Some preachers are confusing. Instead of three points, they preach 20. Or every time they touch upon a good idea, they go off on a tangent, and never return to the initial idea. Or they speak nothing but Christianese and platitudes. Or they speak nothing but elementary, new-believer stuff—the stuff you know already, so why bother to listen?

Then there are the distractions in the service. There’s a hole in your sock, you can feel it, and it’s bugging you. There’s an argument on Twitter you had to pause for the service, but you so wanna dive back into it. There’s a guy behind you who smells like he’s taken holy communion about 20 times before the service. There’s a woman in front of you whose hat is blocking your view; who’s wearing a ton of perfume to cover up the fact she hasn’t drycleaned this particular set of Sunday clothes in a few months… but you can smell the stank anyway. There’s a crying baby. The kids are fidgeting. Isn’t there a game going on?… What’s the score?

Or you’re just tired. Or your mind is otherwise elsewhere. Or any of the personal reasons why you weren’t able to follow the message as well as you wish. Life happens.

But it’s important to remember what’s been preached at your church. For more reasons than these:

  • It helps you grow closer as a church body: You’re on the same page, topically. You have a common goal, a common subject to analyze further.
  • The preacher is likely discussing an issue many of you do need help with. Elementary or not, maybe you need to look at it again, or in depth.
  • Likely the Holy Spirit wants this subject preached upon, because you’re gonna need this information in the near future. Like, say, this Wednesday.

So if you’re struggling to remember the sermons, notetaking can help.

Notetaking. Like in school.

Yep, like in school. You’re in school. You, same as every other Christian, are a student of Christ Jesus. True, we should be learning from him directly, so get out your bible and read the gospels and apostles—and the Sunday morning messages are additional lectures meant to help. Your homework is to figure out how to apply them to real life. Your test is real life.

True, our Schoolmaster is ridiculously lenient, and passes everyone in his class. But don’t settle for the easy D– when you could get an A+. Start treating the sermons like the lessons they’re meant to be. Start writing stuff down!

The reason we take notes isn’t just so we have something written down which we can later use to jog our memories. Yeah, it’ll do that too. But when we do it properly, notetaking is a way to boost our memories. When we listen to something, even if we’re listening to it intently, too often it goes “in one ear, out the other,” as it’s said: It doesn’t stay in the memory because we haven’t really done anything to keep it there. We gotta process this information. It’s gotta bounce around the walls of your mind a few times, in the hopes it’ll dent one of the walls, or stick to one of the others; whatever metaphor works for you. Some thinking has to happen, even if it’s really simple thought.

It may have been a few years since you’ve had to do any notetaking. (Then again, your job may require it.) Or your teachers, back in school, never taught you how to do it. So maybe it’s time for a refresher. And, if you’ve never used current technology to help you with your notetaking, a bit of an update.

Your preacher’s helpful aids.

SLIDES. Some preachers are huge, huge fans of Powerpoint or Keynote or ProPresenter slides. (Heck, some preachers still use overhead projectors… or even blackboards.) They wanna give you some visual aid to go along with their message. Interesting pictures, important words, and of course bible verses.

Now, slides can be useful… depending on whether you preacher knows how to use them properly. For some, the entire sermon is on the slides. They’re using the slides as their cue cards, so they know what next to say. (I’ve done this.) Or the outline, in great detail, is on there. Way too many slides—because slides are for key points and key words, not every point and every word. Slides are for the few words our listeners oughta write down verbatim.

And if every word is on the slides, it’ll make the listeners nuts. Because a lot of ’em write down every single thing on the slide, and if the speaker wants to go to the next slide, you’ll have a roomful of listeners going, “Wait!… Wait!” as they scramble to write down everything. Which isn’t good: It means they’re not listening! They don’t have time to listen; they’re transcribing slides.

Well… in the olden days they were transcribing slides. Nowadays students have cameraphones. So do you. Use that. (Don’t forget to turn off the flash.) Then go back to notetaking.

FILL-IN-THE-BLANKS. Some preachers are huge fans of this method: Before the service, they make sure everyone has a sheet of paper with all their main points—and a few blank spots for you to fill in. You can probably guess what they are before the message, but the idea is you get the answers as you’re listening.

This isn’t actually notetaking. This is a trick to keep you awake. Seriously; it’s no different than pastors who interrupts their messages to say, “Can I get an amen?” or “Turn to your neighbor and say, ‘That’s about you.’ ” It’s mean to keep you alert: You never know when that wacky preacher’s gonna make you twitch.

And supposedly you’ll remember the message better… but it doesn’t actually work. Listening for that one fill-in-the-blank word isn’t the same as listening to remember. Because your mind dumps all the unnecessary words. Preachers who think this is a memory aid, seriously need to go back to school and take Psychology 101.

So what do you do with fill-in-the-blank forms? Like the slides: Fill in the blanks. Then go back to notetaking.

SERMON AUDIO. Churches will remind you all their messages have been recorded, and you can download them from the website. Sometimes they have sermons going back years, which is mighty useful. Other times they take ’em down after a year, ’cause the pastor wants to have those old sermon series transcribed and turned into books. (Yep, that’s how pastors have the time to crank out three books a year.)

Thing is, churchgoers tend to see those audio files as a crutch. “I don’t need to take notes; I can just go listen to the message again.” Yeah you could. And once again, it’ll go “in one ear, out the other.” You’ll think it’s improving your memory because listening to it again will sound familiar, but it’s simply not enough reinforcement.

Once again, how to take notes.

Notetaking is pretty simple. It’s not about writing down what the preacher said. It’s about processing what the preacher said. You gotta take the preacher’s words and chew on them for a little bit. Turn them over in your mind. Or as we say in Christianese, meditate upon them. Then write ’em down.

Your job isn’t to write a transcription of the sermon—to write everything down word for word. It’s to write all the useful things. When the preacher says something, and it strikes you as useful, write it down. In your own words, whenever possible. ’Cause the process of putting it into your own words will help you remember it.

Make sure the following is in your notes:

  • The preacher. (’Cause sometimes you have guest preachers.)
  • The date.
  • The sermon title, if there is one.

  • Every bible reference. Look ’em up later; make sure they’re in context.
  • Anything the preacher repeats. ’Cause if it’s repeated, the preacher thinks it’s important. (Maybe it is!)
  • Everything you think bears repeating.

Will it look like a sermon outline? Not at all. After all, why do you need a sermon outline?—are you planning to preach it again later? Don’t worry about the outline. Let your notes look like notes. If they’re messy, so what? If they’re chicken-scratches—hey, so long that you can read them.

When you put everything into your own words before writing them down, chances are a lot of this information stays in your head. Might even stay in there a while. You may not even need to look at your notes again for a good long time. But memories fade, so keep them anyway. Store them together in the same place. (I type mine into the computer, and keep ’em there. And of course you can always get out your cameraphone and keep ’em that way.)

If you wanna abbreviate the bible book names, fine. But be careful: Does Jo stand for John, Jonah, Joshua, Joel, or Job? (I standardized my own abbreviations long ago, so I know the difference between Jn, Jh, Js, Jl, and Jb. Till you do likewise, maybe you should skip abbreviating those books.)

When you write down a verse reference, summarize what’s in the verse. That way, if you do mix up your abbreviations (“Is that Ezra or Ezekiel?”), or if the preacher mixes up the books (“Turn to 1 Timothy… sorry, I mean 2 Timothy”), your mini-summary helps you find out which is which.

I’m not kidding about double-checking all the bible references. Do it. Find out whether your preacher is trustworthy when it comes to quoting bible. Most of them are, so you can relax. Some of them really aren’t, and this is how you find out your preacher is unreliable. And everybody makes mistakes (myself included, so double-check me too!), so reliable or not, keep double-checking. If you find out you can’t trust the preacher to quote the scriptures, maybe you’d better reconsider churches.

If you missed anything—and I mean missed it entirely, ’cause you had to deal with your kids or spouse or some other emergency—get the sermon audio from the website and take notes from that. Yeah, it’ll feel weird at first. Still.

If the sermon is part of a series, look back on last week’s notes before the next sermon in the series. It might be relevant.

Meditate on every scripture you want to understand better.

That’ll help you get a handle of note-taking. If you want, start practicing on old audio sermons. See how much more of them you can retain.