Sermon note-taking does actually work

  • Rachel Macdonald
  • 11 April 2018

What did you do with the last sermon outline you were handed as you entered the church building and looked for a seat? Did you use it as a bookmark in your Bible to keep the sermon passage handy? Did you give it to your toddler so they could scribble on it and stay quiet for 60 more seconds? Did you refer to it 20 minutes into the sermon to estimate how much longer it was going to go for? Or are you unable to remember because your church gave up producing them long ago?

When I glance around my church during the sermon, I don’t see many moving pens or pencils. I do see lots of open Bibles, and a couple of people furiously typing with their thumbs. There are attentive faces, heads nodding in agreement, and gasps and giggles at the appropriate moments. But I would say that the very few snorers still out-number those taking paper notes.

We don’t think much of paper these days, and many (myself included) say that their handwriting has gone down the drain. But in giving ourselves over to the idea that the screen is more efficient, are we actually squandering opportunities as we listen to God’s word preached?

Study after study has proven handwriting to be superior over typing as far as learning goes.1 It isn’t because of the blue-light bogeyman, or because the act of handwriting makes content more memorable (though those may be factors). There are two other important findings that should push us to put pen to paper during a sermon.

The first is the simple fact that writing is slower than typing. This forces us as listeners to become authors, paraphrasing what we hear down into short clauses we can get onto paper quickly. It is this act of using our own words, summarizing what we are discovering (rather than copying down exactly what the speaker says) that helps us remember more in the longer term.

The greater value of rewording over recording is especially stark when it comes to “conceptual-application” issues (as opposed to a list of facts).2 Understanding Scripture and deciding what to do with its truths is more important than knowing the exact mountain where Noah’s ark came to rest. The latter may help you win the church trivia night, but the former will help you every day—and it’s more likely to be what the preacher was praying that you’d get from the sermon as they prepared it.

The second reason that handwritten notes proved more helpful to learning than typing notes is due to the fact that devices are designed to distract. Each software/app developer needs you to use their program for them to make money. It is in their best interests for you to stop what you are doing and do their thing instead, and it is a very difficult urge to ignore… especially when our flesh seems so set on undermining the things of the Spirit. You have to battle many other factors in your fight to stay focused on the sermon, so why allow an optional foe?

This multi-tasking doesn’t just distract the person with the machine, by the way. Those seated in the same area, who can see that you’re no longer paying full attention, are also likewise distracted and miss out on what’s being said.3 Being “the one by whom the temptation comes” is probably not what you intended, but it is an unhelpful by-product regardless of intent.

You don’t need to write notes directly on the sermon outline for them to count. In fact, having your own organized system, like the sermon notebook, will make it easier to keep and really benefit from your notes in the future. And of course, if you have a disability that makes writing difficult, use technology to help you get things done! At the end of the day, any notes—paper or electronic, summarized or verbatim—are superior to no notes. They can be revised and referred to, and help stop the brain from wandering away from the task of delving into God’s word. But it turns out that the person who first suggested that their church provide a pencil to everyone present was really on to something.


1. See James Doubek, ‘Attention students: Put your laptops away’, NPR, 2016; Michael Friedman, ‘Notes on note-taking: Review of research and insights for students and instructors’, Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching, 2013; Jessie S, ‘Note-taking: Writing vs. typing notes’, StudySkills, 2016, all viewed 12 March 2018.

2. Doubek, ibid.

3. Friedman, ibid.