Providing Sermon Notes and Outlines

Encouraging note taking by your congregation will significantly improve their retention of the preaching. Often pastors concentrate on how dynamic the presentation of the teaching will be without as much regard to how they will help the congregation retain the information. But note taking is absolutely key to the sermon penetrating beyond the pews and being taken out beyond the walls of the church by the listeners.

According to author and study advisor Walter Pauk, people lose their retention of information they see and hear at the following rates:

  • 20 minutes – 47% forgotten
  • 1 day – 62% forgotten
  • 2 days – 69% forgotten
  • 75 days – 75% forgotten

Two starting observations come from this information. First, note that half of the listeners of your sermon will forget it within 20 minutes of hearing it. Second, note that nearly 80% will have forgotten it after two and a half months. Unless we help the listener retain the information, the reality is that only 20% of those who hear our words are going to commit them to long-term memory.

This is why note taking is so crucial. Notes provide cues to the listener that stimulate recall. A Berkeley survey of college professors nationwide ask them, “What one piece of advice would you give students to improve their academic performance in college?” By a wide margin, the top piece of advice was, “Learn how to take good notes.” Note taking is a skill that must be encouraged and made convenient for your congregation.

Many pastors provide sermon outlines in a fill-in-the-blank format each Sunday. Dr. Merritt’s church uses this format and prints the outline in the Sunday bulletin. The fill-in-the-blank outline is a great place to begin because it makes it easy on the listener. They are listening with intent for key words and phrases. The pastor has pre-selected those thoughts that he believes are most important to remember and has provided them to the listener. And the outline helps the listener keep the pace of the sermon.

Another method of encouraging note taking is simply to provide a blank note page for the congregation. Allow each person to take as many or as few notes as he or she desires, reflecting their own personal learning style. I found no definitive research comparing the two methods of note taking, so it is impossible to say if a blank notes style is more or less effective than a fill-in-the-blank outline.

Finally, the pastor must encourage his congregation to write things down. Go beyond just providing an outline or notes page, and pepper your message with key thoughts that you want people to remember. Actually say verbatim, “Everyone write this down…” You may from time to time encourage people to write in the margins of their Bible or to circle key words and phrases as you read and study.

How much will note taking improve retention of the sermon material? Way back in  1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus did a memory experiment to test this. He found that note taking increased retention by 20% of the test group. That is, instead of 47% of people forgetting your message in 20 minutes, if all took notes, only 27% would. That’s a significant improvement. At the two month mark, it means you are doubling the number of people who recall your teaching.

We can use—and should use—all of the teaching tools at our disposal. Music, drama, video, the creative and performance arts, all add to our words from the pulpit. But don’t forget to encourage and empower people to write down what they are learning. There are many aspects to memory and learning, just as there are to the styles and methods of preaching. But remember that note taking is a tide that lifts all boats, improving every teacher’s and every listener’s effectiveness.


Author: Eugene Mason, Communications Director for Cross Pointe Church under the leadership of Dr. James Merritt.