Sermon Handouts and Listening Notes: Pros and Cons

To do or not to do, that seems to be the question when it comes to sermon handouts and listening notes.

Every pastor has their own opinion on this topic. Some avoid sermon notes because they feel it restricts their freedom during sermon delivery. If they provide an outline of their sermon and then opt to skip over some points, everyone in the room knows. Gotcha.

Others like the benefit of printed sermon notes for the exact opposite reason: it gives them the opportunity to provide additional content that they won’t have time to cover in their sermon, but can provide in the notes.

Regardless, as we saw in the post on Learning Styles, when it comes to preaching and teaching, it’s not about you. Your question should not focus on what you want or prefer, but on what will make you a better preacher and what will help your congregation learn more from your sermon.

Here are some quick pros and cons (from my perspective) concerning sermon notes:

Pros of Sermon Notes:

  • It is an easy way to engage more learners because you are using a different medium (the written word) to communicate.
  • It gives your congregation an opportunity to engage through notetaking. Research shows that hearing and writing helps learners stay focused for longer periods of time.
  • It gives your congregation something to take home and to archive to help them as a disciple and growing student of the Word of God.
  • It allows you to put text on the handout and use PowerPoint for graphics, visuals, and videos.
  • It allows you to show cross-references in the Bible which you can point to during your sermon without causing everyone to turn to the verse in the Bible.

Cons of Sermon Notes:

  • It is tempting to provide too much, thus causing people to read your handout during your sermon rather than listen and engage.
  • If you use fill-in-the-blanks, you can cause people stress if they miss a blank and have an empty space in their notes. Some overly perfectionistic people have been known to drop dead at moments like these. (Not really.)
  • It can cause pastors stress if they don’t get everything covered in a sermon and everyone in the congregation knows it because they have your notes in front of them.
  • Creating worth-while sermon notes is an extra step in the sermon preparation process that can get side-stepped too often. The result will be lame excuses for sermon notes that have the title at the top, the date, the text, and three lines of text that say Point 1, Point 2, Point 3 with a lot of space.

What’s my advice on providing sermon notes?

I am in favor of the practice. Again, thinking as a teacher, I know that this extra step provides a significant learning opportunity for a wider variety of people. I will almost always provide a handout of some sort or a link to an online handout. This gives me the opportunity to provide a much more in-depth learning experience where I can connect people to many of the resources and research I used in developing the lesson. I also like that it provides an “as-needed” resource for those who want to dig deeper, but it provides the basics for those who are there just for the potluck but hope to pick up something from the teaching. So, in short, I’m a fan.

How Can You Make Your Sermon Notes Better?

Here are some tips that will help you create better sermon notes that will engage your congregation:

  • Don’t use a lot of fill-in-the-blanks. This works better for older congregations, but for anyone 35 and younger, this will seem tedious. Plus, it often causes people to micro-listen for the word to go in the blank and miss the bigger narrative of your teaching. TIP: If you do prefer a lot of fill-in-the-blanks on your handout, be sure to provide a link at the bottom where they can go online and see an answer key with all the blanks filled in.
  • Stick to one page. There really isn’t any need to provide more than a one-page set of notes. That’s plenty of room. If you want to provide more content, then put a link at the bottom of the page that will take them to an online version of the notes, where you can link to other resources. (Make sure to make the link simply. Many will access this on their phone or tablet, so typing in a 200 character URL will only frustrate. If you have the skill, provide a QR code with the link.)
  • Provide space for notetaking. Rather than provide a point-by-point outline of your sermon, give the broad points with room for notetaking. Keep in mind, however, that you want to provide more than just Point 1, Point 2, and Point 3 with whitespace. That’s not helpful.
  • Be sure to include the exact wording of key points or take home truths you will reference during your sermon. If you have a summary statement in your sermon or a list of key points you want people to focus on when they leave, be sure to provide these on the sermon handout word-for-word. It will frustrate people if your summary is five key sentences and they can’t write fast enough to keep up with you, but you are telling them this is important… remember these points. Give it to them. Don’t make them hunt for it or come up to you have the service and ask you to repeat them or force them to frantically try to snap a picture of your PowerPoint slide.
  • Provide a short quiz at the end of your sermon handout. Believe it or not, a quiz is an excellent teaching method to help people process and learn information. Even though we hated quizzes when we were in school, for adult learners in a church setting, a quiz can be fun. It’s almost like a game or puzzle at the end that will challenge them to see if they learned the key points of your sermon. As with the fill-in-the-blanks option, be sure to provide an answer key someplace so they can check their answers.

What about digital sermon notes?

More and more you see people using their phones instead of a bible during the sermon. Personally, I’ve come to think this is not a good idea. Again, there is a significant amount of research that is showing the value of analog tools (books, notebooks, paper, pen) when learning. As you get familiar with your Bible, your brain will actually begin to associate the page location and text with lessons you’ve learned while reading a portion of Scripture. Moreover, based on personal observation during sermons, I believe a phone is much more of a distraction during a sermon than we realize. People will open a Bible app at the start of the sermon, but all it takes is one notification of a new Facebook or text message and their mind is off to the races. Even if they are disciplined enough to not follow the notification, the short interruption will take them off course as far as learning is concerned.

In addition, I do not believe digital notes are very practical, especially on a phone. Unlike a computer, that truly can multitask and you can have several apps open at a time, mobile devices tend to fake multitasking when in truth they are not. If you are reading your Bible on a tablet and then switch to a notetaking application to make some notes, you can see your Bible reload when you return to it. Likewise, with your notetaking application. Unless you are a true geek and both comfortable and familiar with notetaking on a digital device, it can be confusing, especially for older folks.

I am a fan of providing a digital copy of your note sheet. I believe this is an excellent way to connect people with additional resources and it is another step in your quest to develop a long tail.