May 11, 2023

Welcome to Wrexham: Welcome to Church

I mentioned in my previous blog post that a friend (a Melbourne pastor who also works with City To City Australia with me), managed to get to a match involving the famed Wrexham FC from the Disney + series. Here’s a great guest post reflection from Pete Greenwood on how we can do church “Wrexham style”.

It’s an unexpectedly sunny day in the United Kingdom in March, and I’m on holiday with my family. My family has graciously allowed me to drag them far into a not-at-all touristy part of northern Wales. Why? Because I wanted to go to Wrexham and watch some soccer.

You’ve probably heard of Wrexham by now. Until recently, the team was in the National League, the fifth division of English football, where it had been for 15 years. Wrexham AFC was plagued by corrupt management and unpaid debts. Just like the now closed coal mines and demolished factories, the football team seemed only one more bad season away from collapse.

Then to everyone’s complete surprise, two would-be saviours stepped onto the field – Hollywood actors Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds. 

After their successful takeover bid, a fly-on-the-wall documentary was commissioned for Disney Plus called ‘Welcome to Wrexham.’ The cameras follow the new co-chairmen as they inject money and capital, make hard decisions, battle the peculiar politics of English football, build relationships with staff, players and fans, and experience the extreme highs and lows of winning and (quite a lot of) losing.

Although it’s about a football team, ‘Welcome to Wrexham’ is not really about sport. It’s about people. It’s not unusual for English football teams to have American ownership, but it is unusual for foreign owners to throw their heart and soul into the team, which is precisely what Ryan and Rob have done.

Ryan and Rob are not really the stars of their own program, they are more like tour guides, spotlighting the players, the staff and, particularly, the fans, all of whom share an undying love and devotion for their club. In the often emotionally raw interviews, you can see the mixture of fear and hope in the supporter’s eyes. Will these Hollywood types be just another great disappointment? Or will they be a lifeline for a sinking club?

The next (football) season told a different story, which will make for a very different (TV) season. A breath-taking season-long battle against arch-rivals Notts County eventually ended with Wrexham gaining promotion, 15 years to the day they were relegated. The moment when promotion was assured saw thousands of fans rush the field, lifting the players high onto their shoulders. A moment of utter jubilation made all the more transcendent because only 24 months ago it was all far beyond their wildest dreams.

And ‘transcendent’ is the right word for it.

J.R.R. Tolkien coined a word to describe the moment in a fantasy story when the heroes’ fortunes take an unexpected turn for the better. ‘Eucatastrophe,’ literally ‘good catastrophe.’ In his essay On Fairy-Stories, he wrote, “[Eucatastrophe] is the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears.”

Wrexham is experiencing a eucatastrophic moment. No one could have imagined that two American actors would decide to invest millions of pounds in the most undesirable of teams and the most obscure of towns. And yet, for reasons known only to themselves, they did. They deftly avoid clearly answering the oft posed question “Why Wrexham?”

My guess? I reckon part of the answer is that actors, better than most, know the power of a great story. Go watch the video of the promotion-clinching game. Or of the victory parade where the men’s and women’s teams (the women won their league as well) rode atop double-decker buses through a throng of thousands. Or watch Welcome to Wrexham, and see how over the course of the season doubt, disbelief and suspicion are replaced by confidence, faith, and hope.

It’s a great redemption story, and all such stories are just shadows of the Great Redemption Story. Tolkien himself wrote that “the Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest Fairy Story…”. The inherent problem with all lesser stories is that their redemption arcs are based on fallible human beings, not on the One Infallible God-Man. So, yes, Jesus Christ is the true and better Ryan Reynolds!

Under the crushing weight of sinning and being sinned against, we were all destined to be relegated to misery and death. There was nothing attractive about us, nothing to mark us out as worthy of anyone’s attention. And yet God chose us.

Why humanity? Because God, at the very core of his being, just loves to love. He poured into us his infinite wealth in Christ, defeating the undefeatable enemies of sin and death, and promoting us to a place of glory and honor in His Kingdom. It’s true, the cosmic victory parade of 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 is scheduled for a future day. But the final match at Golgotha against the powers of sin, death, and darkness has already been conclusively won. Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney may yet disappoint in the end. But Jesus never will.

Over the last year, I found myself increasingly wrapped up in the Wrexham story, culminating in my own pilgrimage to the Racecourse Ground in March. That I managed to get tickets to the game is a story of miracles in and of itself.

And as I enjoyed a pint in the Turf Hotel, in a sea of Red and White, joining in the joyful chants, I found myself wondering, “Why doesn’t church feel like this?”

Now hear me out. I’m not saying, “Why doesn’t Sunday church sound like a packed football pub, complete with cheers and chants?” The Church has had to adopt a more measured emotional range as she has waited through the long centuries.

But the Wrexham experience highlighted for me a few disconnects between Christian belief and church experience.

Joy: “We’ve got Mullin, super Paul Mullin!” Wrexham supporters chant with abandon about their star goal-scorer. Too often church in my neck-of-the-woods feels more like a university classroom than a victory celebration. Have we focused so much on the facts and figures of our faith that we’ve lost a sense of joyous wonder at the story that is unfolding around us? Surely, in a society that has settled on a future that’s either 1984, Brave New World, or some combination of both, our unbridled joy should stand out from the crowd.

Goodness: Ryan and Rob have taken great pains to inject goodness into the club and town. Fans with disabilities were given new access and visibility. The women’s team has been showered with a similar level of praise to the men. Violence and bad behaviour have been soundly condemned, and a new culture of respect and honour promoted. The implied message has been “As the Club rises, we will bring everyone else up with them.”

The church has infinitely more reason to inject goodness, that underrated fruit of the Spirit, into every aspect of our existence. We have been raised with Christ, so how much should we be raising up others, particularly the poor and marginalized? How much should a local church be seeking to maximize goodness in how we treat each other and our neighborhoods? It seems instead we often fall back into a Christianity largely based around going to and from Christian events, rather than seeking out opportunities to become a ‘church called Tov’ to borrow the title of Scott McKnight’s book.

Humility: Particularly remarkable in the world of professional football is how Ryan and Rob have spoken about their opponents. Notts County, whom Wrexham narrowly defeated for automatic promotion, could easily have been positioned as an enemy worthy of gloating over. Instead, Ryan’s first act after victory was to question the fairness of a league that only gives one automatic promotion spot, saying “We should be celebrating two great teams being promoted today.”

It seems we are prone to forgetting that we are playing on the same team as other churches, let alone playing the same game! Why don’t we spend as much time promoting the success of other denominations and networks as much as our own? When one church or network grows to the heights of fruitfulness and success, why is it they are soon hanging out with other ‘premier league’ types and rarely, if ever, acknowledge those in the minor leagues? Wrexham and Co. seem determined to bring others up with them on their road to greatness. Whether or not they succeed, it’s admirable to say the least.

Embeddedness: As they await a new season in a new league, and with no signs that they’ll be content at that level, Ryan and Rob are already trying to assure fans that Wrexham is, and will remain, first and foremost a local club for local fans. Whether they will succeed in keeping that promise remains to be seen. But so far, there seems to be a true desire for all this football success to flow back into the town. I call this ‘embeddedness’ – proactively positioning yourself to be in and for a neighborhood. Just a month ago, Ryan Reynolds bought a house in an even tinier town outside Wrexham. He seems to want to live and breathe that Welsh air as much as he can.

For a long time, the trend in the church world has been to plant and grow ‘churches for the city’. They have big vision statements about transforming the city for the sake of Christ. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the reality is no single church, network, or even denomination will ever do that. But if a community of faith – overflowing with the joy and hope of a victory won for them – truly embeds itself in a neighbourhood… if they seek to impact one little patch with the gospel of the Kingdom… if they quit looking at the horizon so much, and just look down at the ground they are standing on… then maybe a decent bit of goodness and kindness could have an outsized impact. Maybe then they might see doubt and suspicion begin to make way for joy and hope. We might say, with new meaning, “Welcome to church”.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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