Sermon Notes: Vexing or Valuable?

Emilie Bouvier, "Fertile Soil." (Split Rock Lighthouse State Park; Two Harbors, MN)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

What good are sermon notes? Who dreamed up the idea? What motivates us to torture already angst filled pre-adolescents with a task requiring so much concentration on one of their few free days in life?

Do sermon notes written even willingly serve any purpose? Surely, our hearers are not merely cognitive beings, taking information in only to spit it back out. Surely, preaching is not the occasion for a test, the passing of which leads to the exodus of our youth from church in that great ritual called confirmation.

In spite of potential risks and hazards, I have become convinced of the value of occasional sermon notes. To drive home that point, when our students must take sermon notes, if I am not preaching, I fill them out as well.

There will be a difference in how we put together sermon notes–and hopefully in what people put in and get out of them–if, instead of the questions, “How do I know confirmation students paid attention so they meet the requirements of the program?” and “How can I get the junior high students in the back row to stop passing notes and listen?” we begin with the question, “How can we help our people hear and experience the life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ?” The latter question suggests that sermon notes have worth beyond just the requirements of a confirmation program and for more than just junior high youth.

Churches that draw new or non-Christians might hand out sermon notes that follow verbatim the preacher’s words or the biblical texts. Handy fill-in-the-blank spots keep the hearer’s attention throughout and offer an opportunity to teach scripture to those who may know little of it. While there may be real value in this, the proclamatory nature of preaching should caution against focusing solely on didactics.

Over the years as parish pastor, I have experimented lots with sermon notes. Not exhaustive, the following list suggests their possible benefits:

1. Relevance and retention. “When and where, specifically, will this text and sermon challenge or help you most this week?” The question itself assumes what we teach and proclaim: the Word of God matters in daily life. An idea is more likely to stick with us if it bugs us more than once or if we are given opportunity to chew on it in more than one way. As a seminary intern, I found myself jotting down on the bulletin a bit of a text or sermon that struck me in a particularly new or meaningful way. Sometimes that bit would remain with me through the week, both confronting and comforting me in the trials and joys of life. It’s a habit I have continued.

2. Further conversation. The possibilities here are broad. In one congregation, students are asked to take 15 minutes to dialogue about the sermon after the service with the confirmation sponsor. In this case, notes for both students and sponsors could contribute much to the dialogue. I often include questions for youth and their parents to tackle together after the service is over. Notes could be designed specifically to be used for follow-up bible studies or devotional groups. Notes could be designed to go home for family devotions. I make it a habit to write brief comments on sermon notes and hand them back. The comments are normally conversational rather than corrective, resulting in a brief dialogue about the sermon between pastor and youth.

3. Feedback for the preacher. The simple act of reading through returned sermon notes tells me much. When the sermon is mine, I am given an opportunity to examine my own preaching and explore my communication skills and gaps. I see more clearly what and how people hear. I learn their concerns, I might learn what keeps and what loses their attention, I see what strikes their hearts. These are invaluable gifts for one called to preach, not just to people, but to these specific people.

4. Curiosity and questions. A sure way to avoid the pat-answer garden variety sermon notes is to ask for questions from the hearers. The questions I have asked, not of, but from youth and their parents on sermon notes over the years have driven energy into the program and stimulated curiosity about biblical texts and the one whom they proclaim.

5. Creativity. After noticing the immense amount of unrelated doodling on turned-in sermon notes, I opened a section on the page for optional doodling specifically on the sermon or the text on which it is based. It is one the highlights of my week to look through the material in this section. It very often provides me with more ways to see and hear a text, as well as more ways to consider how the text and sermon are speaking to others.

In stunning words of comfort to a defeated people, the prophet Jeremiah announces that the Lord promises to put the law within them and to write it on their hearts. The heart is far from a sheet of paper filled out in worship, but perhaps the text is itself is a distant relative of a ‘sermon note.’ This ‘writing’ of God, this final gesture of forgiveness and love, eliminates even the need for teaching, since all will then know the Lord, from the least to the greatest. If this ‘writing’ has such profound worth, perhaps the bits of writing and scribbling we do on little pieces of paper while hearing God’s promise can help us recall it in the chaos and craziness of life.

Sample questions that could be included on sermon notes:

1.What is the text on which the sermon is based?
2.Optional doodle space: write or draw in the space below anything related directly to the text or the sermon on which it is based.
3.Use 3-4 adjectives to describe how you react and respond to hearing this text and sermon.
4.Use 3-4 adjectives to describe [God, Jesus, or Holy Spirit] in the text and sermon.
5.What did you hear?  List anything and everything!
6.What jumped out at you in the sermon?
7.At what point did the sermon have your complete attention and why?
8.Where did you get lost?  Be specific.
9.What was unclear?
10.What does the sermon say about the human condition?
11.What does the sermon proclaim about the “God condition” or the nature of God?
12.What does the sermon say about Jesus Christ?
13.Who is Jesus Christ for you in this sermon?
14.How does this text or sermon challenge and confront you?
15.When and how, specifically, will this text or sermon challenge you in your life this week?
16.How does this text or sermon comfort and help you?
17.When and how, specifically, will this text or sermon comfort and help you in your life this week?
18.What disturbed you in this text or sermon?
19.What was promised to you in this sermon?
20.How does this text or sermon speak to you at your age and in your specific life situation?
21.How do you think a friend of yours who doesn’t go to church might respond to this text or sermon?
22.Write here 1-2 questions you have about the text or the sermon.
23.What new insight about yourself did you gain from the text or the sermon?
24.What new insight about God did you gain from the text or the sermon?
25.What new insight about the world did you gain from the text or sermon?
26.What spoke to your heart in the sermon?
27.Recap the sermon’s message in one sentence.
28.Ask a [parent, confirmation sponsor, another adult, sibling, etc.] to recap up the sermon’s message in one sentence, and compare it with your recap.
29.Every sermon should announce good news to you: God’s promise of love and forgiveness for you in Christ Jesus.  What’s the good news (gospel = ‘good news’) for you in this sermon?
30.Write down a prayer or a specific prayer concern that comes from hearing this sermon.