Repentance and a Catwalk

Leah Wilson
April 9th, 2019

The blank stare. The glazed eyes. I glanced down at my small group questions, then asked my group of middle school girls, what is repentance? Without missing a second, one girl launched into a theological monologue that would rival most university students’ answers. I stared at her with my mouth gaped open. Their eyes still glazed over. It was the perfect answer, but it meant nothing to them. 

After a brief pause, I said, “wow, that was excellent! Can I share what I think of when I hear repentance? Stand up…” The blank stare turned into a quizzical look. “I want you to give me your best runway walk.” Off went a group of girls to strut up and down the room. I called them back and asked, what do you think a runway walk has to do with repentance?” An intrigued look spread across their faces. “When a model comes to the end of a runway, they have one of two options: keep going and fall off the end or do a complete 180 degree turn and walk back. Repentance is like that. Your actions have consequences, which lead to a choice: keep living the same life or make a complete turn around.” We, of course, went into deeper discussion, but this metaphor helped break through their doctrinal prejudices.

I would venture to say we have all been on the receiving end of a blank stare during a ministry night. When I see that stare, I immediately know there is a disconnect. Their answer may be “correct,” but does it have meaning? Does it have relevance for their lives? How can youth leaders and students bring meaning to what seem to be only empty words?

  1. Imagination – at this point, some readers are cringing because they are parsing the implications and shallowness of repentance compared to a catwalk. It is important to remember that every metaphor breaks down at some point. There is no such thing as a perfect metaphor, but there is such a thing as relevance. We want relevance and substance. The imagination is necessary for both. Sadly, it is also one of the most underused vehicles for meaning. C.S. Lewis once said doctrines and theology are like road maps based on the experience of hundreds of people. If this is the case, why does the map always have to be the same point by point directions? The presentation of the concepts can change and should change for relevance.
  2. Encourage – anyone can create new metaphors! It’s liberating to know we aren’t bound to one single way of expressing an idea. By encouraging not only leaders to be creative in how they approach theological concepts, but also asking the students to engage in new metaphors, both are in essence theologizing. But what if they are “wrong” theologically speaking? If they are incorrect, use their metaphor or example as a gauge to see where they are in their understanding. Bad theology is sometimes a better starting point than no theology. When my middle school girl regurgitated what she knew was “correct,” I had no way of knowing what her actual thoughts were. By encouraging leaders and students, you aren’t just telling them a correct answer, you are helping show them they can think and express theological ideas. 
  3. Practice – yes, anyone can create new metaphors or examples, but that doesn’t mean they are always great. Don’t be discouraged when an analogy you or a leader shares breaks down and you once again have that blank stare. We aren’t limited to a certain amount of creativity or imagination. It is a skill which can be developed. When it doesn’t work, this shows the students that even youth leaders have a difficult time expressing theological ideas in a meaningful way. It gives them an understanding that it is ok to “fail” at communicating, so long as we try again and we are open to discussing it. This vulnerability and transparency will open the students up to further discussion, as well as instill a confidence at communicating theologically. 

We want more than beautiful “correct” words. We want students to feel, touch, and taste the fullness of the Christian life. We want meaningful words that connect with their lives and make a difference. As youth leaders, we need to learn how to engage our imagination, encourage our leaders and students to engage their imagination, and lastly, practice creating new metaphors in order to break through empty words and bring meaning to theological ideas for students.

Looking for an inspirational starting point? Begin practicing with the following resources:

Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

Poetic Diction, Owen Barfield

Bluspels and Flalansferes, C.S. Lewis 

Leah Wilson

Leah Marie works with students as an academic advisor for a study abroad programme to the University of Oxford, where she recently completed a Master of Theology. Her travels have allowed her to work with young people across the US and in the UK. Leah loves strong coffee, a good book, and anything related to the Inklings.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.