An English professor once told me that if you cannot briefly summarize a larger idea, then you may not understand the idea as well as you think you do. The professor followed this up with the suggestion that after each chapter in the book at hand, we write a brief summary of the chapter. This isn’t a new idea, and you’ve probably heard it expressed in a popular quote often attributed to Albert Einstein that says “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” I’ve found this to be a profound concept and useful in the area of personal growth and discipleship. Being good at summarizing helps us understand concepts more deeply in a few ways.

First of all, writing a summary ensures that I, or the person I’m training, pay attention. There’s some accountability that checks if we have really engaged with the text or simply glazed over it, not letting the words float past our eyeballs. Summaries are tangible proof of comprehension (or evidence that I need to try again).

Secondly, writing a summary helps us understand more practically because it forces us to re-express the abstract concept(s) in terms that are more concrete to us. Rather than being parrots that echo back the same words with no understanding, writing a summary in our own words helps engage with the essence of the concept(s) and not just the original words (which is the purpose of words anyway: a vehicle for concepts).

The ability to summarize also helps us train and teach others because it is essentially the act of teaching ourselves. When I’m planning a lesson, I’m confronted with the problem of how to present a concept in terms that others will understand. I normally do this by putting it in terms I can understand. Once my lesson is accessible for students, I find I’m the first student it teaches. It only makes sense; put a complex concept in simple terms and it will be more accessible to me as well as others. When I understand concretely, I can teach it more clearly, equipping others more practically.

I’ve come across multiple helpful tools for becoming a better summarizer and I’ll share a couple. In Grace Polaris U courses, students are asked to use a study tool called a three-column study to focus on a particular passage of Scripture. The three columns are as follows:

God’s Word: Read the passage and write it out as-is. My Words: Write the passage in your own words. I Will: Write out how you plan to obey what you’ve come to understand.

Another tool is to ask certain summary questions about a text of Scripture and answer it in your own words. Ask yourself these questions:

What does this teach me about God? What does it teach me about myself or mankind? How can I obey?

These are great questions to ask yourself or someone else as you read a passage together.

There are also tools to summarize the Gospel itself. Pastor Zac often emphasizes the four-word Gospel:

God (our perfect creator) Man (our sin) Christ (God’s atonement for our sin) Response (repentance and faith)

If I may summarize: summarize!

Have you found summarizing to be helpful, or is it just frustrating for you? Leave us a comment with any helpful tips.

Like what you’re reading?

Each Thursday we send out our Training Resources Newsletter, which shares a new ministry tool and an encouraging story about God’s Spirit preparing someone for service.