One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given, is that ideas you have now, are not always for now. Sometimes an idea needs time to grow, evolve, develop. It needs to be pruned and refined. It needs to be pulled apart and criticized by people who love you and understand the context of the idea. I love ideas. I have them all the time. Sometimes I have so many ideas they drive me insane. I am thankful for my ‘ideas’ notebook, which is filled with projects, dreams, film ideas and book plans. Some of those ideas have been done, some of them will get done and some of them may never happen. Ideas are fun.
I want to tell you about one idea, because it’s an idea I would like to be refined and pruned. It’s one of those ideas that won’t leave me alone, and I think that even though it’s kind of a big one, one day it might actually happen. It’s shaped from all the different parts of me – my experience as a youth worker, my love of art, film and creativity, my desire to see as many people as possible come to know and love God in a way that is meaningful and relevant to them…and my weird obsession with abandoned buildings and large empty industrial spaces (I once cried in the Turbine Hall in the Tate Gallery in London because it was so beautiful. It was empty). So here goes, drum roll please, introducing…The Shell.
The idea in a nutshell (see what I did there) is this: ‘A multipurpose, flexible, urban warehouse space engaging and empowering young people holistically through seven innovative, educational, fun, transformative and creative youth projects.’ Catchy, isn’t it? We’d probably shorten it for the T-shirts, pencil sharpeners, snow globes and other Shell related merchandise.
I love activity based love youth projects. I think they work. I think having a tool that enables strong relationships with young people to be built is essential. The best projects I have been involved in, the ones that worked, the ones that really saw huge transformation in the lives of the young people that were a part of them, have fitted into this category. Now that doesn’t mean I’m slating unstructured, drop in, youth cafe, detached type youth work. I think it has a place and if I ever did The Shell, I hope it would have a place there too. But the best way to build a relationship with anyone, is to do something together. So many people I speak to have best friends they did a course with, went to school with, worked with, played a sport on a team with. When you’re not thinking about making friends with someone, it happens naturally, as a result of the thing that you are doing together. My best friends are people I have been through stuff with, made things with, served with. The Shell would enable that.
The building contains two large spaces. One is made of concrete and the other is made of wood, like a sports hall. There are few youth projects that need a space made from something else. Around these spaces would be seven ‘garages’. In each garage would be equipment for a different youth project. In between the garages would be space for all the essentials like a kitchen, toilets and storage. On top of the garages would be a mezzanine cafe/viewing area on one side, and space for some offices on the other side. The walls would also be constantly changing art galleries, where local artists would be commissioned to create different pieces around themes that are important to them.
Each garage would contain everything needed for one particular project, doing one particular thing. It might be a boxing gym, with wheel out punch bags and a supply of gloves and pads. It might be a skate park, a parkour/gymnastics training gym, sports equipment or a mechanics project, that enabled young people to do up bikes or go karts, then race them around a track made on the concrete space. Some garages would contain fixed spaces, like a beauty salon or a recording and film studio.
One of the problems with project based youth work, is that it can be based around an activity that is temporary in its popularity or appeal. I used to run a skateboarding project for YFC in Bath, and this shut down in 2011 simply because skateboarding stopped being mainstream and went a bit underground again, as it always does. Seven years for a project was good I think, but its major flaw was that it was always based around one thing and if young people stopped doing that one thing, then there was no reason for them to continue to come to the project and we lost contact with them. The reason I believe The Shell would work and why it will never need to be closed for the same reason, is that it is timeless. If a project activity became redundant, it can simply be replaced with another project. The garages would be evolving spaces, blank canvases that are repainted whenever the picture fades or becomes outdated. It is simply what its name says – a shell, an empty space, waiting to be filled with whatever it needs to be filled with, to meet the needs of the young people in that community, in that time.
Another feature to The Shell would be that each garage would have a shutter door on the inside, but also on the outside. Projects could be made portable and mobile, so that The Shell would be both attractional and incarnational. Young people come to The Shell to engage in an activity, but that activity could also be taken to wherever they are in the local area and maybe even further afield.
I’m not sure who would own or maintain it. It would make a great church building, and a decent sized church could also provide the sustainability, resources and enthusiasm needed to make it work. It could also work as a separate charity, a YFC centre, or even a multi-church collaboration where different churches take responsibility for different garages/projects within it, creating a central fund to employ staff to manage and maintain the building. I would love to see a youth congregation emerge from it, where the projects themselves are seen as expressions of church but where there can be centralized points of contact and community, to allow a fuller and deeper expression of the Body of Christ.
A few months ago during a bit of a transition stage in my life, I was chatting with my Mum about what I wanted to do next. I told her about the idea, but I also told her it was a bit of a stupid idea and was way too big for me to do. She reminded me that when I was 15 I had a bit of a stupid idea about a skateboarding project, that would use skateboarding to reach young people and enable them to encounter God. She also reminded me that I used to think that was a bit too big for me to do as well. I laughed, and told her that if God wanted me to do it then he would have to make it super clear, something ridiculous like someone coming up to me at church and putting a seashell in my hand or something.
Then the next day in the post, this arrived.
This was from a friend I had told about the idea months ago, who I hadn’t spoken to in weeks. She felt like it was a God idea and I should be praying about it and pursuing it. The timing freaked me out. It freaked my Mum out. Our reactions freaked the cat out. This shell now sits on my shelf at home reminding me that just maybe once again, like so many other ideas in my life, this stupid idea might actually be a God thing. So I think it’s worth putting it out there. It’s worth saying hello world and youth work friends, what do you think? Also, if anyone wants to steal the idea and do it for me, that would be great. It looks like a lot of work and stress and heartache and filling in complicated forms I don’t understand and blood and sweat and tears and to be honest I’d much rather be sat in a coffee shop reading a book or rearranging everything on my desk until it’s all symmetrical again.
So what do you think? A stupid idea, or do you think it could work? At this stage I am still dreaming, researching, plotting, planning, drawing and praying, and I would love any feedback at all, negative or positive. Also if you know of anyone, anywhere doing anything similar, please let me know.
Over to you.
(Big shout out to my friend Phil Goldney from YWAM for spending hours with me on Google Sketch Up to create these amazing images. All I gave him in return was cheese toasties and orange clubs. But there is a lot of chocolate on those biscuits. Phil does great stuff at www.ywamfreesports.com and devotes his time to encouraging weirdos like me to pursue their stupid ideas)