Ever wondered who came up with the idea of ‘word and deed mission’? A smelly imaginary 15-year-old, that’s who. We’re now over halfway through the 12-part series which originally ran in Youthwork magazine. I hope someone, somewhere is enjoying this. If you’re joining the story late, you might want to start here.
I’ve worked with young people, on and off, for the last eight years. When I was at Mitthögskolan University, I helped out with a church youth group in Örnsköldsvik, and learned how to teach the Bible. A year into my course, I did some street work with teenage heavy metal fans, and learned how to do body piercings. And then, when I was placed with the church back in Stockholm, I started a range of youth projects – from a Bible study club to a body piercing studio – and learned how to justify blowing my budget.
When I left for England, I assumed that all my experience with young people would stand me in good stead to do youth work here. But the trouble was, when I got here I couldn’t find anyone interested in studying the Bible, or indeed anyone willing to offer me a hot meal, let alone a budget. And if I got involved with the kind of body piercing they seem to like over here, I’d probably never be allowed to work with young people again.
So I’ve had to start from scratch. Gone are my preconceived ideas that youth work here would be the same as it was in my last job. Gone also is my ‘Torvald Thorgursson’s puncture-it-yourself’ home piercing kit. In their place are wide eyes and not inconsiderable fear. Instead of 40 smiling, well-bred Christian young people and a full-time salary, I’ve now got two new Christians who know as much about the Bible as they do about the digestive system of the penguin, and a depressingly small amount of spare time to spend with them. Big to small; rich to poor; Bible knowledge to penguin digestive knowledge. It’s all so different and confusing.
Despite the detached experience I had back in Örnsköldsvik, I have to admit I’ve always centred myself in a nice comfy church group. It’s always been the bedrock of everything I’ve done – a group of teenagers who, when my best laid plans for a young offenders dinner dance or a mixed sleepover have fallen apart, have always been there to make me look half-decent. But Dave and Tommy aren’t going to be that anytime soon. They’re great guys of course – bags of potential in both of them, and a real hunger to know God – but they’re just not, well, comfy. So we’ve had to take a different approach.
I’ve already told you plenty about Dave – the guy who found God in a book, dresses like a Milanese artist, is reading and absorbing theology at a rate above the land-speed record, and is now on a one-man mission to save the world. I haven’t yet told you about Tommy – who Dave led to faith on the kerb outside St Eric’s, and who’s now harder to get rid of than a red wine stain on your mum’s new duvet. Small, round and seemingly lacking any concept of good personal hygiene, Tommy is 15 years old and not terribly smart. Following us (particularly Dave) around wherever we go like the bad smell that unfortunately follows him, he sits and listens to everything we say, nodding his head but replying with little. It’s only when you stop speaking, and ask him for his thoughts on the same subject, that you realise he’s actually been playing imaginary ping-pong in the inside of his head for the last ten minutes. It’s rather frustrating, but on faith issues he seems to have the attention span of an amnesiac gnat. Dave thinks he may have a demon.
Dave, Tommy and I – ‘the group’, as I affectionately like to call it now – don’t really meet with any structure. We just name a place – the park; the street outside the health club; McFatBurger – and we all turn up there. Then we just talk, or at least, Dave and I talk, and Tommy’s eardrum wins 21-9 against his sinus.
Now I’d been thinking – and I’m aware how dangerous that is – that perhaps this wasn’t the most dynamic way of advancing the group. After all, we’d numbered only two for a few weeks now, and since Dave had abandoned all his ‘heathen’ friends, and Tommy had never really had any due to his prevailing smelliness, our list of possible invitees was as short as Tommy’s deodorant supply. So if we couldn’t grow relationally, surely we needed to be reaching out in some way. Dave, Tommy and I needed to meet new people, and preferably somewhere with excellent ventilation.
‘Guys,’ I said, as I sat back into the bus shelter, ‘we need to decide how this group is going to look.’
Dave tilted his head with interest. Tommy nodded, but we all knew how little that counted for.
‘I mean,’ I continued, ‘it’s all very well meeting like this, but we’re not really growing, are we?’
‘In number Bjorn? No,’ said Dave. ‘But spiritually, we are definitely growing. The chance to meet like this and wrestle with the big issues – it’s like a lifeline for Tommy and me.’
I looked at Tommy, who nodded and appeared to demonstrate his agreement by emitting an entirely new smell. Then I looked back at Dave, thought through what he’d said, and wondered whether that evening’s discussion on ‘who would win in a fight between Jesus and Batman’ (Tommy’s question) had really been as spiritually edifying as he’d suggested.
‘I tell you what I think,’ said Dave. ‘I think we should keep meeting like this, and keep talking like this. But I also think we should do something else – something groundbreaking and original and brilliant which will attract every young person in Harley Newtown.’
I liked this. Okay, so we didn’t have a regular meeting time, or a regular meeting place, but maybe when you’re a small group you don’t have to do it that way. The only question was; what would this groundbreaking, original and brilliant outreach idea be?
I stood up, or at least attempted to. A tug on the seat of my trousers informed me that I had become attached to the bus shelter bench via some thoughtfully-placed used gum. Tommy giggled, and I swore in Swedish. Dave ticked me off, saying that the spirit had given him interpretation.
And then, as we were about to walk off, Tommy said something.
‘You know, Jesus would have probably cleared that up, so someone else didn’t sit on it.’
It was brilliant. Of course, he was right, but as my mind chugged, and Dave’s raced ahead, we both realised that this was what we could do to make an impact. We had our brilliant outreach idea. We would clean up Harley Newtown, and the young people would be so startled that they’d be compelled to ask us why. That’s what our youth work would look like.
A fragrant idea indeed. Now to put it, and Tommy and Dave, to work.
Keep praying for us,
Bjorn Argen is a volunteer youth worker based in Harley Newtown, in the North Midlands. Not really.