One of the biggest weekly challenges I face is getting my children to pay attention in church. My kids are probably no worse than any other. And, let me be clear, they are generally very well behaved in church. They sit quietly and participate in the worship service, although my four-year old sometimes gets a bad case of the wiggles. But worship is more than sitting quietly in church. As Reformed Christians, we believe that word, sacrament, and prayer are means of grace, but benefiting from the means of grace involves more than sitting in front of them. All Christians have to pay attention to the word of God—listen, meditate, and actively pray—so that word, sacrament, and prayer are a means of grace.
Early on I would ask my oldest son, “Do you remember anything from the sermon?” Each week he struggled to answer the question. He was three years old at the time. My wife and I would prompt, remind, and coax him to recall portions of the message and then review it with him in the hopes that something would stick. But as a seminary professor, I knew that his retention would go way up if he took notes. Students who take good notes, generally speaking, perform much better on exams than their non-note taking counterparts. At first, my wife and I encouraged my son to draw pictures of words that he heard in the sermon (except of the godhead, cf. Westminster Larger Catechism, q. 109; Heidelberg q & a 98), and this really helped him recall portions of the message. As he became older and learned to read and write, we had him write down words that he heard, and eventually he was writing down sentences. My middle child is eight years old and his note-taking skills rival many adults, and if his notes are good, his sermon listening skills have dramatically improved.
So if you want your children to do a better job of listening to the sermon, have them take notes. But what is good for the goose is also beneficial for the gander. If you find your own attention-span waning, then bring a notebook and take notes. You don’t want to make a transcription of the sermon, but writing down key statements and biblical references can greatly increase your sermon comprehension and retention. In the end, taking notes isn’t about the acquisition of knowledge or remembering what the pastor said. It’s about taking the word of God and planting it deep in your heart so that by the Spirit’s outpoured grace you can grow in your conformity to Christ. This is a worthy goal for children and parent alike.