Thursday, May 26, 2011

Should you take notes during the sermon?

Based on my recent post on preaching, I've received some really good feedback (and some not-so-good).  One of the 'not-so-good' e-mails came from a young person who seemed to take pride in never taking notes. Another was from a friend in another state who told me unless you take notes you can't grow as a Christian [yes, you know who you are...I love you man, but seriously how could you say such a thing?! :o)].

Certainly taking notes has been a beneficial activity for lots of Christians.So why would someone like Martin Llyod-Jones encourage his congregation not to take notes?  Lloyd-Jone's credentials as a Reformed, biblical preacher are unquestioned.  His sermons are the one modern-day preachers go to for good preaching.  You regularly hear men like Piper, MacArthur, and Sproul referring to and quoting Lloyd-Jones. Of the generation following Spurgeon, he was the finest example of expository preaching in the world. So why would someone with unquestioned loyalty to expository preaching tell his people not to take notes?

First, we need to understand that Lloyd-Jones went too far with this advice (as the quoted article from Jared Wilson pointed out in the my last post).  A total ban on note-taking isn't the cure. Keep in mind that he also was opposed to having his sermons recorded (they did it anyway), because he believed no one should be able to hit the 'pause' button when sitting under the preached Word.  In many respects, Lloyd-Jones was a product of his time.

Second, we do need to understand the problem Lloyd-Jones was reacting to.  There is an inherent danger in note-taking that, unless its users are aware of it, can be detrimental to to a true understanding of God's Word.  However, where Jones was wrong was believing that the danger could be avoided by banning the practice. What is the danger?  Sensitive expository preachers recognize at least two:

1. Note-taking focuses the mind on the intellectual facts of the passage, often to the exclusion of the moral demands the text is trying to make upon our heart.  Lloyd-Jones was an English rationalist, meaning he certainly believed in the importance of truth, facts, and precision (just read his sermons to see what I mean). But when we over-emphasize facts then the sermon is reduced to an intellectual exercise.  However, we dare not go too far with this caution, because we need facts in order to understand the passage.  This is why a ban on note-taking doesn't solve the problem.  It can create the opposite problem (e.g. a person who retains little understanding of the factual elements of the Bible passage).  Without knowing what the passage is saying, we are never going to understand what it is demanding.  But if we focus only on the facts, we will be equally ignorant of its meaning (though wrongly convinced we understand it).

B. Note-taking often tempts the congregant to focus on the words of the preacher instead of the biblical text.  Preachers like Lloyd-Jones, Martin Luther, Calvin, Spurgeon and others were painfully aware of this problem.  Understand that it actually pained Lloyd-Jones to hear people say "I love sitting under your preaching".  It depressed him that people would leave his sermons remembering his clever points or well-spoken phrases. Like John the Baptist before him, he wished to "decrease" that the Word of God might "increase" in his hearers hearts.  He suppressed note-taking because he didn't want his congregants remembering quotes, as he was only interested that they walked out thinking more correctly about the passage before them.  Of course, that can happen even if one doesn't take notes! As much as I appreciate and agree with his concern, we dare not minimizes the clear need for teaching and preaching within Christ's Body.  God wants teachers/preachers, and so banning note-taking as an effort to minimize the preacher goes too far. 

How should Christians approach note-taking:

1. If it helps you, do it.  It's that simple.  It is an effective learning tool for some (myself included).  I'm a "quote" guy, so I love writing down insightful quotes and sayings.  I've never really cared about getting all the speaker's "points" (less so if they are alliterated--a nasty little speaking device which has often been used to do considerable violence to the biblical text in an effort to make fit the third "P"-word or the fourth "S"-word). With that said, I do love writing things down. Our church recently had a guest speaker who taught on humility, and I furiously copied things down as fast as I could.  Conversely, one of my favorite speakers is Dr. Jim Grier, and I've never taken a note during any of his sermons, partly because the way he draws me into the passage rather than speaking about the passage.

2. Write down what helps you understand the biblical text.  If you sense its drawing you further into the 'heart' of the passage, write it down (yes, even the alliterated points if it helps).  When done well, these can be a tremendous aid when you visit the passage again in your Bible reading.  Particularly helpful are comments about key words, important cross-references, or information about the historical context.

3. What down words from the preacher that can clearly be substantiated from the biblical text.  Note-taking is not the place to copy down the pastor's opinion about President Obama, or opinions that are barely connected to the text.  Each week I listen to a couple of sermons by John MacArthur and John Piper (among other men).  A few weeks ago I felt one of these speakers was going way off base.  While his words were good and even biblically true, I felt he was over-using cross-references and was making points that weren't connected very well to the passage before us.  I stopped taking notes until I sensed he was getting back to the text again.

4. Don't focus so much on note-taking that you fail to sit and deeply listen.  Listening for the purpose of taking notes is often very different than listening for the purpose of wanting to hear Scripture. A few months back I was listening to an old tape of Pastor Dave Derlan (a former pastor of Grace Chapel), where he said "I want you to stop taking notes for a minute and listen to me."  The challenge for note-takers is to remember there are times when you can hear the Spirit best by putting your pen down---and, to be fair, maybe you non-note takers can actually pick up a pen once in a while (yes, another loving 'slap' to the young man mentioned above)!  

5. Don't feel it is required.  It is okay not to take notes. It doesn't mean your more mature in the faith if you do (after all, Lloyd-Jones refused to).  But it also doesn't mean your more mature if you don't.  Refusing to take notes shouldn't be used as a license to be intellectually lazy.  If you can focus more on what the Spirit is saying in the text without taking notes, then so be it.

6. The goal of note-taking should be to "get" the passage, not the preacher.  Go ahead and write down great quotes or good points, but also remember the fear held by some of the greatest expository preachers in the history of the Church.  Whereas God has chosen to use preachers to equip his people, remember your goal as a congregant is to be impressed with the biblical passage, not the one who is teaching the passage.  A true expository preacher hates to hear "I loved your sermon".  He would much rather hear, "I as really impacted by what Paul said the Corinthian believers in our passage this morning".  Those are two very different statements.

No comments:

Post a Comment