Sketchnoting Sermons

I've experimented with sketchnotes on and off since 2016. I would attempt drawing some notes, be frustrated, and forget about it for months. In each effort I would see how translating what I hear into pictures stimulated connections and built appreciation for biblical concepts. However, feeling discouraged that I couldn't quite draw cleanly or organize my thoughts, I'd throw it down until the itch to try came again.

Here's an early attempt circa 2016. Most my traditional outline notes, but with some meaningful marginalia.

I have always doodled in the margins… and one day my 4YO child whispered in the pew "Daddy, why did you draw that?" I saw that not only could it help me grow but encourage my children to pay attention and be engaged. After that I decided to really commit to a season of constant practice, and I am so glad I did. After church it's pretty common for Sunday dinner to be going through the sermon via the pictures. I choose to draw in a notebook so that they can see what I'm doing: focusing in the present, worshiping, and not drifting on my phone.

Here we have the first entry in my recent weekly streak. It's still a lot of bullets, a couple pictures, not much structure. It's not much better than 2016, but check out the growth that comes from weekly practice in the second! 💪

I continue to sketchnote every week because of how effective it is at implanting the word in my head. By constantly trying to recommunicate the spoken word into images and layouts I discover wonderful things.

I love symmetry in the Bible. I realized Joseph's life is framed by three sets of two dreams while trying to draw a quick summary in the corner.
The essay He Who Grasps the Heel about Jacob's wrestling match began while imagining the physical positions of the wrestlers for the sketchnote.

If you are new to the idea of sketchnoting, it's a visual note-taking practice pioneered by Mike Rohde. Here's a brief introduction. I encourage everyone to give this practice a try to see if it fits them.

Here are a few lessons I've learned over the past year of sketch noting Sunday morning sermons, for both beginner or experienced sketchnoters:

Learn Your Pastor

Practicing sketchnoting encourages listening and anticipating the structure of the sermon. This practice has helped me become more in tune with my pastor. I try to understand the outline, I anticipate the arrival of main points by learning his intonation and style. It makes me a better active listener… and helps me hide the word in my heart.

I like to give my pastor a little home in my sketchnote for their jokes and calls to action. I’m pretty bad at portraits, so it’s pretty much a little man in a suit. I’m still working on it!

Stay Simple

Mike Rohde contends that everyone can sketchnote. All you need is a circle, square, and some lines… he’s not wrong. Simple visuals capture complex ideas.

I really like using the “box-style” stick figure as canvas for recognizable bible characters. The rectangle becomes a canvas for drawing whatever object usually represents that character on a felt-board: the diagonal sash for Jesus, stripes for Joseph’s coat of many colors, etc. I’ve developed a small library of adornments to tell characters apart: belts, swords, different collars. Just stay simple.

Sketch What Matters

Do not try to capture every point in the sermon. Just draw what really sticks out to you. It is a tool to help you remember, so record what you want to recall later.

It is tempting to attempt to capture the whole sermon. I fight this every week. Capture only what resonates and the process is much more enjoyable. Perhaps you’ve heard this line of thought about a passage… but you’ve never heard this one detail. Pay attention to what resonates and capture that. Maybe a sermon illustration grabs your heart… draw it.

This is 45m compressed into a few seconds, but some things to note:

  • I spend a fair amount of time just twiddling my pen and listening.
  • If I don't know what to to draw, I leave a space and move on until I figure it out. (I leave the seventh block unfinished for quite a while.
  • You'll always finish feeling you could have done better… I don't love the layout of the conversation at the bottom. That's ok. We get to try again next week with that knowledge and growth.

Two tricks to keep the “capture everything” monster at bay:

  • Wait and listen before starting your layout. The structure may reveal itself if you just hold two thoughts in your head and choose which to draw… or maybe find a visual connection between the two.
  • Scrawl the outline on scrap paper to persuade the monster that you aren’t forgetting anything.

Think in Series

Sermons exist in the context of the series, topical or exegetical. Because ideas, characters, and themes recur you can practice sketching the same concepts over and over. I have found that as I hone my images the concepts burrow deeper in my heart, and I discover meaningful connections.

Evolving Joseph's story in Genesis:

  • Joseph's first appearance. He's identifiable by his coat of many colors and youthful zeal… gets him in trouble!
  • Joseph now in different circumstances, but the "Tintin" hair keeps him consistent with his previous appearance.
  • Joseph trading the slave collar for the vizier collar… same master, new slavery

By re-using and evolving simple drawings across a whole series you can craft timelines and callbacks to enrich your sketchnote. I do my sketchnotes in a Bullet Journal threaded collection alongside the rest of my life. It's really cool to be able to flip backwards and see the progression and connection of these ideas and principles.

And discovering a background character who becomes a foreground character: Judah. I had to find a random angry brother from the first Joseph note to represent him!

  • Judah sorrowful for his sin against Tamar.
  • A rare true repentance.
  • Judah restored, blessed by Israel, ancestor of Jesus.

I hope to encourage you to try and try again. Googling for sketchnotes can be overwhelming. There are some amazing thinkers and artists out there. You may say "I'm not an artist," but if you find yourself filling all the “o”s in the bulletin or doodling stick figures and geometric shapes… give sketchnoting a try. I stick with it because it helps me listen, remember, and teach my children. It has been encouraging and humbling to see how many of my sketchnotes end up with arrows pointing at a simple cross to remind me how much of scripture points to The Story of Redemption.

You will get a chance to try this and practice this coming Sunday… and I have sloooowly improved with practice over the past hundred or so Sundays I’ve brought my journal to the service. (I still can’t draw Holy Spirit doves… yet. I’ll get to try again Sunday.) I retain more, I encounter the ideas in my journal throughout the week, and I share it with my kids at the table Sunday night.

Give it a try, and please email me your beautiful sketches. 🙏

Resources and Thanks

Sketchnoting is a visual note-taking practice named by Mike Rohde. The following video is the best introduction:

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