The Power of a Giant Sucking Sound

A good educational forum should facilitate a lively sharing of diverse ideas.

With that in mind, I’m going to argue, respectfully, a counterpoint to a view expressed on this Web site concerning sermon notes.

I don’t do sermon notes with my confirmation students. Never have. Suspect I never will.

Sermon notes are the equivalent of book reports. The purpose of book reports is to get children to read. But as my wife, who teaches elementary school, will attest, they often accomplish the opposite of what is intended.

The most powerful incentive for a child to become an avid reader is pleasure in reading. Children who find reading enjoyable, inspiring, and enlightening will read on their own. It is a rare child, indeed, who finds doing book reports enjoyable, inspiring, or enlightening. The standard book report too often turns the positive experience of reading into a negative. How does that encourage reading?

The same goes for sermons. I want to teach my students to look forward to the sermon. From my brief sampling of young people and adults, it is a rare person in this world who can even imagine looking forward to sermon notes.

If the intent of sermon notes is to force kids to actually listen to a sermon, it’s a losing battle. They’ll listen to the extent they are forced and once enforcement is removed, they will feel blissfully free of that onerous obligation. I tell my students it is my job to preach a sermon they will listen to and remember. All I ask is they give the pastor half a chance. For that is the authentic environment of a sermon; it has always accomplished what the Spirit wills among those who give the proclaimer half a chance. 

I don’t believe sermons are meant to be outlined and studied, except by those who wish to improve their own sermons. I was once interviewed for a public relations position by a group of highway engineers some months after Ross Perot ran for president. We all agreed the Perot had done an exceptional job in the presidential debates. The engineers argued that it was because of the informative graphs used by Perot to illustrate his points.

I disagreed. I said I didn’t even remember what any of the graphs were about (which may be why I didn’t get the job). But I still remembered (and continue to remember more than a decade later) his statement: “That giant sucking sound you hear is American jobs going down to Mexico.”

Whether I agreed with any of his positions was immaterial; the guy had a way of saying things in a vivid and memorable way.

Similarly, sermons that are life-changing grab you. They get inside you and stay with you. Whether or not you experience this is entirely independent of note-taking. My guess is the full impact of a sermon is actually impeded by analysis.

I don’t know from reading sermon notes if the student will remember any of it a week later. I know in discussing a sermon with confirmation classes who have not taken notes what they carried away from that sermon.