BIO: John Symonds pastors the Corbett Avenue Wesleyan Church in New Brunswick, Canada, a suburban intergenerational church. John has been in ministry for 28 years. His preaching advice is to “stop preachin’ before the folks get done listenin’.” His sermon was preached at the Beulah Camp Meeting on the topic of grace.
Lenny: Tell us a little about Beulah Camp and some of the dynamics of preaching in a camp setting.
John: Beulah Camp is “the meeting place” for Atlantic District Wesleyans. Some would say it is the heart of the district. The 1200 seat tabernacle is comfortably full most evenings and even mornings see 500 to 600 hundred in attendance. I have been attending Beulah Camp all my life. This past summer it was my great privilege to share the camp with Dr H C Wilson. Camp meetings indeed are unique places to preach….At least Beulah is! Many are in a vacation mode and would like to be entertained and stroked….not so much challenged and convicted.
Lenny: We Wesleyans, at times, have often diminished grace in our well-founded desire to emphasize the importance of holy works. You handled the challenging theological issue of grace carefully but forthrightly. What was going through your mind as you sought to balance “grace and truth,” tact and boldness, in your message?
John: Never have I written a sermon that is so “out of my own experience” as this sermon is. I grew up hearing messages on holiness. But somehow I missed grace. I was forever feeling my spiritual pulse to see if I really was a Christian. I used to think I was quite alone in my dilemma, but over the years I have discovered that there are many just like me. We overdosed on holy works, and failed to truly get a grip on grace.
Lenny: You used the phrase “getting a grip on grace” probably 10 or more times in the sermon. This phrase was not repeated redundantly but skillfully at just the right points in the sermon. It kept us anchored to the big idea of your message. Do you often use a refrain/mantra in your sermons? Why or why not?
John: Yes, I often do use a refrain/mantra in my sermons. And I use it for the purpose you mentioned—to anchor my listeners to my big idea. I suppose there is always a risk that you can overuse this technique but the alternative is unacceptable- leaving listeners with some vague idea of a vital Biblical truth.
Lenny: Your sermon introduction gave people a window into your long-time struggle to get a grip on grace. Why did you feel the need for self-disclosure in this area of your life?
John: I don’t recall who said it, but a long time ago one wise instructor of preachers said, “Let people know you have feet of clay but don’t show them your feet.” I take that to mean that some degree of self disclosure is important—-very important in my opinion. And this Beulah crowd knows me so well because I grew up there! They need to know I am a fellow pilgrim. I have since discovered that in this grace/holy works matter I have many fellow pilgrims.
Lenny: I was listening to your sermon for contextual clues that would help me discover the predominant demographics of the group you addressed. You quoted several hymns, which leads me to believe one of the primary groups in your context were seniors. What other devices did you employ in your sermon to connect with various segments of the congregation?
John: The Beulah camp crowd has a majority of “white heads.”I also had some input into the song selections that preceded the sermon. Those choices were more contemporary. Every time I re-use a sermon I find I need to adjust (especially the application) to fit the demographics of the group.
Lenny: This is a loaded theological question, but one with which many of us have wrestled: What does holy living look like when one has a grip on grace?
John: I believe one of the fears that the older folks in the holiness movement have is this…..”If we preach too much grace then believers will not press on to holiness.” However, all the scriptures I read and all the Christians I have observed through the years testify to the opposite. Those who have the best grip on grace have the best grip on holy living.