Your nose can discern and recall more than 10,000 unique scents. Some researchers have even concluded that number to be much higher, capping it around 50,000 unique scents.
Of course, you inherently know that if you’ve ever traveled in a church van with students on a long mission trip. Can I get a witness?
There’s a sort of “debrief” process that happens when you smell something:
- Receive: Molecules of whatever you’re about to smell enter your nose.
- Interpret: A patch of neurons at the top of your nasal passages interpret the particles through hair-like projections called cilia.
- Frame: Your brain processes the unique DNA of what you’ve encountered, looking for previous data to match it to.
- Respond: Based on what your brain concludes, you’ll either recoil in disgust or lean in for more.
Helen Keller once explained, “Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of miles and all the years we have lived. The odors of fruits waft me to my southern home, to my childhood frolics in the peach orchard. Other odors, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief. Even as I think of smells, my nose is full of scents that start to awake sweet memories of summers gone and ripening fields far away.”
All in all, there are 10 dimensions or categories of these smells:
- Fragrant (florals, perfumes)
- Citrus (lemon, lime, orange)
- Fruity (non-citrus fruits)
- Woody/resinous (pine, fresh cut grass)
- Chemical (ammonia, bleach)
- Sweet (chocolate, vanilla, caramel)
- Minty/peppermint (eucalyptus, camphor)
- Toasted/nutty (popcorn, peanut butter)
- Pungent (blue cheese, cigar smoke)
- Decayed (rotting meat, sour milk)
Those last two categories are typically grouped together as a “sickening” odor. I imagine you’ve likewise come across this one on random road trips with teens.
Years ago, my wife and I led a group of students on our first-ever summer serving trip. Surprisingly, we found out she was pregnant the day before we left. It was a fact we wanted to keep secret, but ultimately proved to be quite a feat since she developed a heightened sense of smell overnight. The various odors that were floating around in our van included a cheeseburger that had gotten lost on the first day and a number of sweaty guys who hadn’t yet learned about deodorant.
About two-thirds of the way into our trip, my wife broke down and had us pull into a do-it-yourself car wash. She instructed everyone to get out of the van in order to clear out every item. We took advantage of all the cleaning solutions the place sold to get the vehicle smelling like it was habitable again.
Smelling isn’t just a physical thing, though… it happens as we work with teenagers and catch a whiff of their character (while they catch a whiff of ours).
Serving opportunities and mission trips provide this opportunity in droves. Kids can put on a good mask for a while, but as you rub shoulders with them throughout an extended experience you’ll eventually begin to “smell” their actual character. To take a cue from my wife, you may even want to do something about two-thirds of the way into each experience to process the kind of aroma everyone’s been giving off:
- Receive: Have a fearless conversation that lets students talk through the different aspects of your experience thus far. Receive the good, the bad and the ugly.
- Interpret: Decide what your criteria will be for processing the data. For example, did everyone know the purpose going into the trip? If not (or when in doubt), ask students what they sense are some good biblical values to remember as you serve together.
- Frame: Look for opportunities to give grace for mistakes and accountability for laziness. Perhaps go around the circle and have each student begin with, “I need some forgiveness for…” or “I need some challenge on…” to put the ball in their court.
- Respond: Help you group identify what to do differently moving forward. In other words, what should they recoil away from and what should they lean into?
Odor is powerful, be it physical, spiritual or relational. Perhaps that’s why the Bible challenges, “For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. 16 To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task?” (2 Corinthians 2:15-16)
I’m assuming you’ve caught the smell of Jesus somewhere in your life. Now share that data with your students so they can begin to interpret his presence when they come across him. The debrief process you build into the rhythm of your ministry might provide the kind of bath everyone needs.
Thank you for loving students!