Roy Keane, one of the greatest footballers (‘soccer players’ if you must) of his generation, current manager of Sunderland, and former captain of Manchester United, may not be everybody’s idea of a model for church members. Foul-mouthed, angry, and sometimes violent, his unquestionable talent and passion was too often eclipsed by all-too-public rants at almost anybody. He belittled his team-mates, the fans, his national team, and most of his managers (although never, at least publicly, Sir Alex Ferguson). But I’ve preached in several dozen churches over the past few years, and not met one that would not benefit immensely from listening to Keane’s views on prawn sandwiches. And I can tell you that, as an Arsenal fan from childhood, it costs me something to say that!
It was in 2000. United were playing Dynamo Kiev in a big European game. They were 1-0 up, and the atmosphere in the stadium was dead-not unusually, in Keane’s view. He announced ‘At the end of the day they need to get behind the team. Away from home our fans are fantastic, I’d call them the hardcore fans. But at home they have a few drinks and probably the prawn sandwiches, and they don’t realise what’s going on out on the pitch.’ (quoted from The Guardian, 24/8/06).
A week tomorrow, I will preach again in St Salvator’s, the University Chapel here in St Andrews. The pulpit there, removed from the town church, claims to be the one from which John Knox delivered his Reformation sermon; it maintains aspects of the traditional pulpit furniture of Scotland: an hourglass, turned as the preacher began, with the instruction that he should not stop before the sands ran out; and a lock on the outside, so that the congregation may confine the preacher to the pulpit until he has adequately preached the Word.
This was a land where people were more eager to hear the Word of God than their ministers were to declare it. No longer, except in odd places (I pay public tribute to the congregation of St Andrews Baptist Church, who do still value the preaching of the Word). My suspicion is that, almost regardless of the gifts or efforts of their ministers, the people heard better preaching as a result. As a preacher, you know when people care about the Word–you can feel it as you stand up to preach. And where the people are excited, eager, expecting to hear from God through the Word, you preach better. And where they have been praying for you through the week, taking their part in the corporate ministry of the Word, there is a chance of a miracle.
And where they are more interested in the prawn sandwiches, or the after-church coffee, they will get the preaching they deserve.