It’s impressive. Whether you are moved by the message or not, and whether you like the pastor or not: the skill to deliver a sermon completely from memory – seemingly with no sermon notes – is impressive.
When we watch that articulate pastor speak for thirty minutes or so without even glancing down at a single sermon note… it is easy to admire. It’s easy to think, “did he even write a single sermon note?” (Spoiler: yes, they almost certainly did even if they didn’t reference it on stage)
More than that, if we are honest, it is easy to think that this style is the standard to which we should aspire.
God has seemingly gifted some people not only with teaching abilities but a supernatural memory and a captivating public speaking style as well. How easily we believe that this must be the ideal, maybe followed by “why can’t I be like them?” It doesn’t help when we observe this talent not just in the church, but in motivational speakers, in TED talks online, among some media personalities, or with certain educators.
But are we admiring the wrong thing when it comes to preaching?
Could we actually be losing something important about what sermon notes can do for pastors?
Think for a moment…
Just because they are preaching from memory doesn’t mean they didn’t take or create elaborate sermon notes during preparations…
- Does preaching a sermon completely from memory – without referencing any sermon notes – create a life change within your flock?
- Does the apparent lack of sermon notes help a pastor deliver the truth of the text more accurately?
- Does a sermon completely from memory do anything to impact the heart and mind of your congregation?
Yes, this public speaking skill may help captivate an audience, but we think there’s a strong case for the benefit of sermon notes that needs to be revisited. You may find that there is more than one way to use sermon notes to your advantage in your preaching.
The Case for Using Sermon Notes
Taking sermon notes at different parts of the sermon writing and creating process helps build a sermon.
You already know those basics, but there are rich benefits to drafting good sermon notes that go beyond the benefit of a single sermon. Preachers improve themselves and their craft by consistently using sermon notes.
Here are five ways sermon notes help pastors improve their preaching.
Taking notes helps you internalize and remember information better. This isn’t limited to sermon notes, but rather, it is an across-the-board truth.
This article from the American Journal of Psychology goes into detail about what teachers and students have known for years: taking notes helps you retain information.
In other words, when you take notes — and by that we mean the act of writing down a thought or idea — you increase your ability to remember that piece of information even if you never look at it again.
This is one of the biggest benefits of note-taking, especially because you have nothing to lose! You win the moment you take notes.
Here it is again: If you never look over your notes — no matter if it is a beautiful outline or one word on the back of a piece of junk mail — you still increase your brain’s ability to remember that information AND you improve this brain muscle overall.
Taking notes will help you remember people, places, points, and the purpose of your sermon.
We lose 40% of what we learn for the first time within the first 24 hours. Yes, yes, even “that guy” who says he can remember everything he learns without study or repetition fits into this study. The Forgetting Curve was established in 1893 to measure how humans learn and forget information.
Believe it or not, taking and using notes (we are including sermon notes) is a huge area of study. Colleges and universities spend millions of dollars teaching, researching, and using notes.
Let’s remember what else is at stake with our memory…
“But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel on that day,” says the Lord. “I will put my laws in their minds, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. And they will not need to teach their neighbors, nor will they need to teach their family, saying, ‘You should know the Lord.’ For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will already know me,” says the Lord. “And I will forgive their wickedness and will never again remember their sins.” -Jeremiah 31:33 – 34, NLT
God intends for us to know His will, and the presence of the Holy Spirit is the driving force behind our ability to hear from God. Better knowledge of God’s Word, combined with the imprinting of God’s Word on our hearts and minds, frees us to do God’s will.
So, if taking notes could help you and those you lead become more imprinted with the Word of God, wouldn’t that be a good thing?
Taking notes can help!
Study and Review
Study your sermon notes to remember and learn even better.
Learning and memory are not static. God made the human brain to be pliable and elastic — our brains grow and change. We can learn new habits, ideas, behaviors, and attitudes because our brains can change throughout our lives.
Every sermon is a study and review session for your church. We expect people to walk away differently and changed from the inside out.
As sermon writers and preachers, why don’t we treat our study habits the same way?
When we study a text, when we review a text, and when we take notes on a text, we change, we learn, and we grow. That growth is AMPLIFIED in the presence of the Holy Spirit.
But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you. -Jesus, John 14:26
When they arrest you and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but it is the Holy Spirit. -Jesus, Mark 13:11
Spending time in the presence of the Holy Spirit, together with the notes we have taken under the influence of the Holy Spirit, is a powerful combination that makes our learning even better!
Even if you have never uttered the words, “Where are my keys?” you are part of humanity and have forgotten something. (Hopefully, you haven’t forgotten the big ones like your spouse’s birthday or anniversary!)
Notes create a source of personal reference material. Keeping your notes serves to jog memories and becomes a personal education center.
Reviewing reference notes can give an extra point in a sermon when you are stuck. Research is a great way to overcome writer’s block and get new ideas. Why not start with your ideas and use what is stored in your notes?
Reviewing previous notes also helps you grow as a preacher. Admit it — you have at least one “stinker” sermon just like everyone! Keeping your notes and occasionally reviewing them, allows the sermon writer to evaluate why that sermon (or sermons) was a stinker.
Evaluating and recording sermons by video and audio is a wonderful exercise. However, your notes, the record of your thoughts before a sermon, are more valuable for growing as both a sermon writer and a preacher.
Every preacher uses notes! Even the preachers who are skilled and blessed with the ability to memorize sermons will use notes.
Some preachers might only use a Scripture text with some underlines and ideas in the margin. All of it, including the text itself, is a form of a note.
Every word that triggers a memory is a note.
The preacher using a fully written manuscript and the one using only a Bible passage are both using some form of notes to trigger memories and deliver a sermon.
The most important part of using notes when we preach is finding a system that works. When preachers are comfortable and feel confident in what they want to share with the church, the church can receive the Word of God with more ease.
One final benefit seems to come particularly from handwriting your sermon notes… while that might be crazy to most pastors in our digital age, we thought it was worth at least offering it here:
The Power of Handwritten Sermon Notes
Several studies show physically writing something down activates our brains more than making digital (typewritten or voice-recorded) notes.
Pro tip: Drawing with pen or colored pencils, highlighting essential points, will help you remember EVEN BETTER!
This article from The Conversation is a good summary of the studies. The benefits include:
- Improved memory
- A physical notebook
- Places to draw
The better you remember points, quotes, summaries, and illustrations for your sermon the better your delivery will become. Whether or not you have a great memory or if you love your MacBook more than paper, physically jotting down notes will help you remember.
Most sermon writers and preachers are digital creatures. However, if we take the time to physically write down important points, it will benefit us and the congregation.
Popular Pastors And Their Sermon Notes
We made this point above, but it’s important to see from real examples that nearly every popular sermon writer and preacher makes notes and uses them. Even the ones delivering the sermon completely from memory.
As you observe these examples, remember sermon writing and preaching are unique to each person and so are taking and using sermon notes. Our hope continues to be that you find a method that best fits and works for you — a method that you will use again and again and again.
To help inspire your note-taking process, we’ve gathered sermon note insights and uses from great preachers to help you create and write your next 100 sermons.
Charles Stanley Sermon Notes
InTouch Ministries has an entire resource of sermon notes which accompany every Charles Stanley sermon.
In this article, Dr. Stanley’s approach has been briefly captured. Notice how he reminds preachers to first and foremost be right with the Lord in sermon preparation. According to Dr. Stanley, the meat of sermon preparation (steps 5 – 9) requires the use of sermon notes.
Also, note how Dr. Stanley prepares notes for his congregation and others to use. Sermon writers might find this a helpful tool for preaching and leading the congregation.
Rick Warren and Saddleback Church Sermon Notes and Preparation
Rick Warren uses a method he calls “CRAFT” to prepare his sermons. The five steps are each aligned with a way to create, grow, change, and trim sermon notes for sermon writers. In this article, he neatly summarizes his approach to making and shaping sermon notes.
- Collect and Compare
- Research and Reflect
- Apply and Arrange
- Fashion and Flavor
- Trim and Tie Together
Notice how Dr. Warren’s notes grow through the first two idea stages, then become a sermon outline in the next two stages, and lastly, take final form with good editing. Sermon notes make the experience work!
Saddleback Church offers sermons, seminars, small groups, and other resources in video and audio formats along with sermon notes for you to learn from and use.
Charles Spurgeon Sermon Notes
The “Prince of Preachers” was noted for the few notes he took with him into the pulpit. Spurgeon would dismiss himself at 6:00 pm every Saturday to finish preparing for the next morning’s sermon. He usually focused on a small piece of text and how to bring a practical understanding to his church.
Charles Spurgeon wrote in-depth notes and sermons for reprinting after preaching his sermon. The collections of notes and sermons we have today come from his work of reflecting on his notes and adding insights he gained while preaching.
The Spurgeon Center of Midwestern Seminary offers many resources from Dr. Spurgeon.
JD Greer Sermon Notes and Preparation
JD Greer summarized his approach to preparing for sermons. Leading a church of 12,000 might be different from your context, but Pastor Greer uses sermon notes and research available to all sermon writers.
- Planning a sermon series in advance
- Deep reading of the scriptures
- Consulting voices similar and different from his preaching style
- JD Greer regularly consults Tim Keller, Tony Evans, John Piper, and Louie Giglio, all of whom he identifies similarities in style and ministry.
- JD Greer also consults Steven Furtick and Andy Stanley preachers with whom he sees ministry differences.
- Writing a sermon manuscript for practice and preaching
- Making a small note for stories and illustrations
TD Jakes Sermon Notes
TD Jakes usually memorizes his sermons and is known for his extemporaneous and spontaneous preaching style. Yet, he too jots down notes to use when preaching. Here are five reasons why TD Jakes uses notes before, during, and after the sermon.
1. It helps him remember things he needs to say in his sermon. Like all sermon writers, TD Jakes captures ideas so he can go back and use them in his sermon.
2. It helps him remember important things that would be forgotten otherwise, like someone’s name or an anecdote. He may have a story, date, or other illustration to make and a small note triggers his memory.
3. It gives him a way of using his notes when he feels ready to preach. Preaching is delivering a message from the Lord to an audience–it is not a set of notes or an outline. Good notes help us preach, but we are not bound to preach what is in our notes. Also, TD Jakes and other sermon writers can feel free to jot a simple note without feeling like they must stop and write down everything that comes into their heads right then and there.
4. It helps him come up with good ideas for talking points when he feels ready to preach. Sermon notes are part of the creative process, give us good ideas, and relate ideas to one another. TD Jakes can tailor their content to his audience’s needs instead of having it dictated by what’s already been said before (which is often not very well thought out anyway).
5. It helps him keep track of what’s going on with his sermon so he can see how much time remains for the service itself, how many people are still present at the end (and how long it takes them to leave), and whether people leave early or not (which usually means that more preaching material will be needed later).
A Comment On How Bishop TD Jakes Sermon Notes
It’s surprising how much of the preaching we do is just a rebroadcast of what we’ve been thinking all week. When a sermon writer jots down sermon notes, even if it is right before preaching, it helps them think critically about what they are about to say. A quick note or a full set of notes can help a preacher remember points and say something “exactly right.”
Some of the most important notes we take come just before we speak. A song, prayer, or just the Holy Spirit will crystalize a thought in your mind and soul.
Sometimes that thought is an important point you had not considered before. Other times it is emphasizing a point already in your notes that seemed minor during prep time.
TD Jakes’ sermon note-taking practice, along with other successful preachers, also includes adding notes after the sermon. When preaching, we have times of clarity and inspiration, and we need to record them in the sermon notes for future reference.
Tips to Create Effective Sermon Notes
Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials, and Gen Z have many choices of note-taking tools. Like all parts of taking notes, the most important type of tool is the one you like to use and use often.
Your best sermon note-taking tool helps you to capture, use, store, and retrieve information.
Your best note-taking tool helps you to capture, use, store, and retrieve information. Different tools fit different people and all have pluses and minuses.
- Capture – “How easy is it to get my thoughts down?” A unique combination of familiar technology, ease of use, type of learning style, availability, and pleasure make a note-taking tool fun to use.
- Use – “How easy can I arrange, play with, and present my thoughts?” Some tools are easier for us to use in study and preaching than others. What tool helps you see ideas, move them around, add ideas and notes, delete ideas, and put them into a sermon?
- Store – “How easy is it for me to find an old sermon?” Preachers and sermon writers produce large amounts of material and notes. The “future you” will be thankful for stories, sermon ideas, good resources, and theological reflection you leave in your sermon files.
- Retrieve – “How easy is it for me to go through my files and use my old notes?” Ah, yes, there is a difference between “storing” a piece of information and “finding” that piece of information in the future. Which tools and practices do you use to make finding things easier?
Each sermon writer and preacher will have a “most important” element. The key to finding your best tool is to strike the right balance of purpose.
An “Old School” example would be preachers who love the feel of paper and always carry notecards and notebooks. The preacher might hand write those notes into an outline on a yellow legal pad and then file everything in a manila folder in his filing cabinet.
The system works. Every week, the sermon writer makes notes, creates an outline, and preaches a sermon. Success!
Let’s face it, if you are reading this article, that is probably not you. 🙂
You might have one tool that takes you from the beginning to the end of note-taking, through outlining, and through your sermon. Chances are, you will use a few tools.
You might have a favorite tool for capturing notes and another tool for “processing” or working with your notes. This is how a lot of pastors who use Sermonary will prepare their sermons.
Successful note-taking gets the job started, gets the creative juices flowing, makes your insights easier to use, and every thought you have on the passage easy to find.
Types of Tools for Taking Sermon Notes
Good news preacher — you do not get paid or evaluated on the quality of your notes! No one is going to look at your phone and see all the voice memos, saved web pages, podcasts, videos, and emails to yourself.
However, in the long term, you are evaluated by God, and in the short term, your sermons will be evaluated by your congregation. How well and appropriately you use your notes will go a long way in preaching a faithful message.
James’ truth bomb about the seriousness of preaching and teaching should be in your mind while making and using sermon notes.
Dear brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly. Indeed, we all make many mistakes. For if we could control our tongues, we would be perfect and could also control ourselves in every other way. -James 3:1-2, NLT
Every preacher and teacher carries a massive responsibility for the words spoken on behalf of the Lord. Your notes are your frontline offense and defense for using your words correctly.
- Physical tools include scraps of paper, post-it notes, notecards, journals, memo pads, notebooks, legal pads, blank copy paper, book margins, Bible margins, and the back of a junk mail envelope.
- Audio tools include voice memos, podcasts, and audio journals.
- Soft-copy tools include transcriptions of audio files, computers, notebooks, tablets, and a wide range of software tools.
- Softcopy formats include text files, presentations, charts, notes, gathering tools like Evernote, organizers, and many more.
How to Make (and Use) Good Sermon Notes
By now you hopefully see sermon notes as an asset and not a crutch. If it isn’t apparent, successful sermon notes have little to do with what app you use, the type of paper you write on, or what type of device you are taking notes on. Quality sermon notes have everything to do with identifying how you learn, how you process, what helps you internalize your ideas, and then being able to reference and use everything you’ve notated.
So, let’s get into the mechanics of drafting sermon notes in a way that not only works for you but provides intrinsic benefits that you’d otherwise miss out on without notes.
Good note-taking uses the same four basic elements in all media.
- Note Making
- Note Interacting
- Note Reflecting
This formula certainly applies to classroom learning, but it is useful for us as sermon writers in our approach to study. The steps for taking good notes are also good for us to use as we preach and teach.
Preachers, remember our calling is not just to pass on information. We also want our church members to know and use the Bible to change their lives.
Remember Paul talks about this in 1 Corinthians 13:1 – 3, NLT.
If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.
Preacher, if taking good notes helps you learn what the Holy Spirit has in mind for you, your family, your church, and your community don’t you think it is worth spending time on making good notes?
Do you think that if you can learn, your congregation also might be able to learn?
If so, you are on the track of moving from “milk to meat” as the Hebrews’ writer would say and getting from information to loving the world.
Most studies and resources on taking notes deal with students, especially college students. The principles we present are based on this research, but tailored to sermon writers, preachers, and teachers.
Whatever method and tools you use, from notebooks to computer software, pick a form that works well and stick with it. The habit of uniformity lets you skip some choices that make studying and taking notes less enjoyable and productive.
Once you identify the media or medium that is most effective for you to take your notes with, here are some suggestions for doing so effectively.
- Keep each section in your notes simple and clean. Your stories, illustrations, and references can easily get jumbled together so strive to avoid this and keep them separate and easy to identify.
- In the margin for you to interact with the information. This could be adding a side question, referencing a media source, or drafting an additional thought related to the notation.
- Take notes in your own words. Stating something your way is a form of learning and making a memory.
- Leave space in whatever system you choose to jot down other ideas later.
- Make an abbreviation system and use it often. A good set of abbreviations is like a personal shorthand system.
- Use phrases,not sentences, to make it easier to remember your notes.
- Use bullet points and lists as much as possible in your sermon notes.
- Different colors help us see and use information differently. Pens, highlighters, and such help with handwritten notes. Computer highlighting, bolds, underlines, etc. also help us see and remember information.
These are just a few of the high-level insights that can help you develop a strong note-taking system that works well both for individual sermons and as a cumulative library of notes.
Sermon Note Making
Sermon note making is when you begin interacting with your notes. This is the refinement of initial thoughts, ideas, or scribbles. This goes from simply capturing an idea to refining that idea into its basic substance in a way that is easy to understand and refer to.
Some of us begin this while listening to a lecture or podcast or pausing during reading to capture and refine an idea.
Depending on the situation and habits, many people will come back to their notes later after taking in all the information and resolve their thoughts and notes.
Both ways are fine. Both include these types of steps. If these types of steps are natural to you — great, keep up the good work.
If this type of interaction with notes is new to you, don’t worry about doing everything all the time. Pick something to try, see how it works, and use it if it help you make good notes.
Sermon writers are unique and so are note-takers. The important thing is to take and use notes, not to have the “perfect system.”
- Review what is written. Make changes and updates.
- Write questions you have or that are triggered by something.
- If you write a question and then answer it with information in your notes, it will increase memory and make the information more useful.
- Connect some ideas with colors and/or symbols
Sermon Note Interacting
The practice of interacting with your notes is where deep learning and new ideas are found.
At this point, you’ve written some notes and captured ideas and information from a few different sources. You may have even drafted a few questions to explore. Note interacting is where you go deeper and begin to make the information your own.
Examine all the information you’ve gathered and draft a summary, being certain to answer all your questions. This is the best way to learn and not plagiarize someone’s work.
A thorough interaction with your notes is where the work becomes your own. Yes, cite sources. Yes, attribute quotes appropriately. But as you gather all the information and begin to sift that information into your sermon outline, your quest is to massage that information into a message that supports the scripture, enforces your big idea, and is preached in a context that resonates with your congregation. Make it your own.
Before the interacting step, you are reflecting on what you have learned and trying to determine if and where the information makes sense to include in your sermon.
Once you have completed this step — drafting a summary of your notes — you move from reflecting on what another person has taught to a simple statement or understanding that will strengthen the understanding of the text being taught.
Sermon Note Reflecting
Sermon notes reflecting is essentially the step where we build the sermon. This is where we dig into the different sets of notes we’ve taken from different sources and start linking ideas together.
Throughout the entire process, we gathered notes to learn information. As we examine the text we are to preach on, the better we understand the nuances and technicalities of that passage, the easier it will be to work our notes into the overall message. Understanding things such as timelines, particular phrases, social settings, and more gives preachers better command of the passage and the message.
As you understand the text, you can pair your notes of stories, illustrations, interesting statistics, and other tidbits with those individual sections. The result? You are creating a system by which you now remember the core message of the text as well as your supporting content.
Taking Sermon Notes from Different Media Sources
Preachers have many different places to access information that can be useful in understanding a passage or explaining a passage in their sermons. Print, podcasts, YouTubes, textbooks, maps, digital encyclopedias, Wikipedia (maybe a little too much), and so many other resources are at our fingertips (and voice search) in the Information Age.
It is very easy to access too much information — even useful information — to where we become overloaded with details and possibilities and lose sight of what we were setting out to do in the first place.
Creating a system for taking notes will not only help with your creativity, memory, and sermon organization, it will also help you separate good ideas for your sermon from the right ideas for your sermon. Over time you’ll discover that certain sources are easier for you to use than others, not to mention that certain sources will be more reliable than others.
Here are a few pointers for effective sermon note-taking from different forms of media.
Non-literate people use rote memorization and repetition to learn and recall information, which serves as verbal note-taking.
Missionaries use storytelling as a means of teaching the Bible. The story is told to a small group and members of the group take turns retelling the story and correcting each other.
Listening is a different form of memory than visual or written memory. Interestingly, listening can easily access and stimulate visual senses.
When we hear the bubbling brook gently singing a song of sorrowful joy as it winds down the mountain, we take a mental picture.
As you listen to a podcast or sermon, your mind is engaged in making mental images and other experiences. This is the power of exercising mental note-taking: we are using multiple senses.
When taking notes while listening, capture the auditory cues and hints dropped by the speaker. Here are a few ways we naturally emphasize something which we can use to make a better set of notes.
- Changing volume
- Key phrases: “This is important…,” “First…,” “Next…” etc.
- A longer point with more evidence
Make sure you put these types of points into your notes… and use verbal cues in your preaching.
Also, drawing pictures, figures, and doodles helps to increase memory. The mere action of listening and moving a pen or pencil to make a note, or even a scribble, will help you remember.
One of 21st-century America’s favorite ways of obtaining information is also the least effective for long-term recall and use. Viewing material uses less brain energy than listening or reading.
Writing and reading your notes from a video has many benefits over just watching for information’s sake. This article compares reading a book to watching a video in 10 different ways, and this article from Business Insider talks about stress and sperm count differences between reading and watching.
Taking notes is much more important for keeping and using information gained from online courses, tutorials, and videos than just listening or reading.
All the tips from the listening section apply to video, after all, the video experience also has an audio component.
- Look at charts and diagrams – Just like in a live classroom, what a teacher puts in print is considered important and useful.
- Use slide decks for the base of your notes – Many videos either take you through a slide presentation or make one available after viewing the video. Use that as a place to start your thoughts.
- Interact with the information as much as possible – The key for all note-taking, and especially true for video, is do something with the information you capture. “Use it or lose it” applies in this situation. Whether it is handwriting your notes, typing up notes with your thoughts, or telling what you learned to someone, make sure you interact with what you learn from a video.
- This web page from the University of Reading gives more tips and ideas on getting the most information from video resources.
Video information is awesome! We can listen, watch, and learn an incredible amount of information from millions of videos.
Sermon writers who go beyond watching the information to interacting with that information will get more benefit from videos than those who watch but do not take notes.
Getting information from a book is already stimulating your brain to engage with what you learn. Reading gets our minds moving and connects dots we might not see just sitting and thinking about a sermon on our own.
- Use chapter and article headings as an outline – Nonfiction authors usually organize their work to make it easier for the reader to follow. Use their guideposts of headings, lists, bullets, italics, bolds, infographics, and other print clues to find important ideas.
- Write down one big idea from your reading session – Making summaries about information is a huge form of interaction. You might have two or three big ideas, so go one step further and make one big idea.
- Copy quotes that stand out to you – If something stands out to you from your reading session, there is a reason. Copy it (cut and paste, type, handwrite it on a sticky note, etc.). The quote and the core of the quote are more likely to stick with you.
- Write down what you are thinking about the quotes and summaries – Go one step further with the information that has your mind going. Jot down what you are thinking. Maybe it is a personal story or struggle. Perhaps it is a story you read somewhere else. Whatever it is, this is a research nugget and application you might use in your sermon.
Keep in mind that you should credit sources you quote in your sermon or learn the concept so well that you can summarize it on your own. That’s the goal of writing summaries and ideas in our notes—the information is deeper inside us and ready to use at a moment’s notice.
Using Abbreviations and Highlighting
Make your notes easy to use with color and abbreviations. When you take notes, use colors to indicate different or important types of information. Maybe something really important is underlined in red or has a yellow highlight.
When preaching, the visual – the color on the page, can often be enough to remind us of the point we are making.
Abbreviations can be helpful… or confusing. Make a system of things that work for you and use it often. Some examples are:
- ‘w/’ for with
- ‘w/o’ for without
- ‘Ø’ for theology
Pick a few words you’ll use in the sermon that week and make a good abbreviation. It will help you think faster.
Sermonary uses color coordination to help you visually separate different elements of your sermon and mentally categorize each section based on the color assigned.
Types of Note-taking
Note-taking has many different forms. Some forms fit the person and the purpose better than other forms. The best form of notes is the form you will use as a sermon writer and preacher. One form is not necessarily better than another–only the method you find that works and use again and again.
Linear notes are recorded as information is given. The notes follow the line of thinking and reasoning of the presentation with or without interaction between the note-taker and presenter.
- Outline – This simple form uses a title, main points, and subpoints based on a numbering and/or lettering system. It’s a simple and effective tool for straightforward presentations.
- POINT 1
- Subpoint 1
- Subpoint 2
- POINT 2
- POINT 3
- Sentences – This system does not organize material by point and subpoint, but rather captures bits of information as sentences–often the very sentence used in the presentation.
- Bullets – Making a summary point with bullet points is a very effective form of learning and note-taking. The summary is direct interaction with the information and means the sermon writer is learning. After gathering the information in bullets, the preacher will need to organize items for later use.
Nonlinear notes are note-taking systems for deeper learning and creativity. The advantage of linear notes is getting ideas down on paper or in a document. The advantage of nonlinear notes is making relationships between ideas and going deeper.
- Charts – Making a chart with facts helps to crystalize thoughts and show direct and indirect relationships between facts. For sermon writers, one might make a chart of terms and books in the Bible. How Jesus uses the word “divorce” in the Gospels is an example of how one might use a chart.
Two additional advantages are storing information and using the chart in sermons and lessons.
- Mindmapping – A free creative thinking process of ideas sprouting from a central idea. Mindmapping has become a popular form of brainstorming and creative thinking for individuals and groups. You can learn more with a Google search or start here at Mind-Mapping.org.
Visual learners and those needing a fresh perspective on an idea will benefit from using mindmaps. Again, the advantage is moving information we know and letting it interact to create deeper wisdom and creativity.
- Cornell Notes – A system used by many universities for taking, summarizing, and reviewing notes from lectures. The advantage of this method is combining the gathering of bullets and then interacting with new data all in one document or page.
Sermon writers and preachers might want to use this method to listen to podcasts and make a learning file. Not only will the preacher grow from listening to the sermon but taking notes will help them write future sermons.
If the sermon writer keeps these notes, they will have a place to go back to for reference ideas and to see what their favorite teachers and preachers have to say about a subject.
SQ3R – This is another academic note-taking and learning method focused on reading material versus listening to lectures. The acronym stands for the 5 steps of reading for learning: (S)urvey, (Q)uestion, (R)ead, (R)ecite, and (R)eview.
SQ3R is an excellent way for sermon writers to learn from commentaries, websites, Bible Dictionaries, theology books, and more. Deep diving into difficult topics or reading in-depth books can feel intimidating. SQ3R gives a preacher a research plan.
- Guided Notes & Study Guides – Use the notes a speaker or teacher gives you! For example, Charles Stanley’s sermon notes are archived and ready for download as PDFs at InTouch Ministries. Also, consider slide decks and presentations for sources of study guides and notes.
The immediate advantage is having part of the work done for you by the speaker.
Looking to manage a full range of ideas, illustrations, stories, and more for a lifetime of preaching, teaching, writing, and more?
You might be interested in making a Zettelkasten system.
Zettelkasten is German for “note box” and was popularized by Niklas Luhmann, a sociologist who wrote 70 books and more than 400 articles using this system.
(FYI: An average 20-30-minute sermon contains about 2,500 words and 70 books which is about 22 years’ worth of preaching! 😀)
The Zettelkasten (note box) system is good for sermon writers looking for:
- An organization system for important information
- A method to find information–even years later
- A place to develop your ideas from research
The advantage we have today is digital record-making, keeping, sorting, and storing. Niklas had a huge card catalog full of index cards. You can use software subscriptions or create your databases for research, sermon prep, keeping illustrations, articles for newsletters, books, and more.
Here are articles by two different software subscription services that can give you more ideas on how to organize using this system. Roam Research is used by several academics, journalists, and writers. ZenKit provides tools to manage staff and projects. Sermon writers and preachers can effectively use Hypernotes for sermon notes.
A Self-Improvement Exercise
From time to time, we need to refresh and validate our skills. We’ve all been taking notes for a few years and sometimes we do better than at other times.
This top 10 list offers ways to refresh and learn what you are doing correctly. The list is simple, and we are not going to expand on it here.
The exercise is simple.
- Read the list
- Notice which ones make you think about doing it better
- Do a Google search on that term
- Make a note from one article you read
- Get back to writing sermons!
Here are the 10 ways:
- Don’t Write Down Every Word
- Decide What Is Important
- Be an Active Listener
- Use Symbols & Abbreviations
- Use Color
- Read, Review, and Revise Notes ASAP
- Be Consistent
- Improve Handwriting and Typing Skills
- Ignore Grammar
- Paraphrase or Give Credit
How to Take Good Sermon Study Notes
You now have methods and some dos and don’ts for taking notes. So, what does a set of good sermon study notes look like?
- Cites A Source – Where did the idea come from? Write it down.
- Has A Quote or Idea – What made an impression on you? Write it down.
- Contains Your Response and Thoughts – What does it make you think about? Jot down your own stories, experiences, ramblings, etc. about the quote or idea.
Notice that every system mentioned allows sermon writers to make these kinds of notes. The best system is the one you like and use. The more you cite sources, grab quotes, and respond, the better you will become at taking notes.
6 Mistakes for Sermon Note-Takers to Avoid
- Writing Without Listening – We are all guilty of writing down what we think someone should have said without really listening. Use the notes to help zero in on what the speaker is saying.
- Thinking “Highlighting” is “Note-Taking” – Coloring words in a book is not taking a note. Yes, a highlighter points out important words, but notes are about interacting with important information in your own words.
- Writing Down Everything! – New topics, exciting seminars, expensive courses, and other situations can overstimulate us and keep us from discerning and figuring out what is important. Take time to listen and summarize the information.
- Unfocused Notes – If a speaker is talking about “The Number 7 in the Book of Revelation” and your notes wander from bowls to dragons, church potluck dinners, the Island of Patmos, 24 elders, and a disfigured lamb, you just might have missed the topic. Yes, all those things could be mentioned in such a talk, but your notes are not on point.
Look into the note-taking systems we mentioned earlier for help in staying focused and making good notes.
- No Reading or Review – Every preacher has a collection of notebooks, slips of paper, pdfs, handouts, and workshop handouts they will “get to later.” Taking notes is good. Reading, reviewing, and interacting with our notes is much better.
Take an extra few minutes to process your notes and your learning will grow.
- Never Taking Notes – Notecards, phones, or a journal are all handy to capture a thought on the go. Showing up to meetings or seminars without a means for taking notes is a lost chance to grow. We don’t get the time back and just might miss a life-changing insight.
Always be ready to catch an idea or story for a sermon.
Using Sermon Notes When Preaching
You may have read this article hoping to gain instruction on how to eliminate the need for using sermon notes in the pulpit. Now you are wondering, “Why did they save this section for the very end?!”
That’s the secret. If you desire to preach your entire message without notes, everything covered in this article will help you achieve your goal!
But the question should not be, “How do I eliminate notes from my preaching?” but rather, “To what extent should I use my notes to make sure I communicate more effectively?”
The goal of our preaching is to present the truth of the text so that we may know God better and experience Him more fully. If using notes on stage helps you stay focused and more clearly articulate your key points, why would you want to get away from your notes?
Admittedly, notes can become a distraction, however, using all the techniques mentioned in this article can help you better integrate your notes into your preaching. Maybe you will eventually be able to eliminate the need for notes, but that should not be the goal.
God can, does, and will continue the work of preachers to reach the hearts of His people, regardless of whether they use notes or not. It is your responsibility as the preacher to do the hard work of understanding the text, communicating the text clearly, and ridding the sermon of as many distractions as possible. Your sermon notes will play a huge role in fulfilling this mission, no matter what shape they take on when you preach.
Use the Sermon Note System that Works Best for You
If you’ve read this far, hopefully, you not only have a better appreciation for sermon notes, but you realize there is no one “correct” way to do them.
We hope this frees you from only admiring the pastor who can preach from memory and allows you to embrace the pastor that YOU have been called to be.
We also hope you gained a new love for sermon notes and a few tips that will help you as you prepare to preach. For more research, tips, and tools on preaching and pastoral ministry, make sure to sign up for our newsletter below before you go.
7 Sermon Outline Templates
Besides helping you speak your messages more clearly, outlines can also save you a TON of time when it comes to researching Bible passages and collecting illustrations.