Category Archives: 02 Framing the Question

These are the theological and theoretical frameworks for the research question.

Theological and Biblical Frames

Chapter two explored the theoretical frames for the Deep in the Burbs (DITB) project and why it was necessary to use participatory action research to explore the question. This chapter will explore the theological and Biblical frames that formed the heart of the project. The research team (RT) team asked: How might an increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity impact the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation in suburban ELCA congregations? It is my conviction, as I have stated earlier, that a reasonably adequate Christian theology is done in, with, under, against, and for the local congregation.[1] Therefore, the DITB project was deeply theological because it was communicative Trinitarian action done within the context of the suburban congregation.

This chapter has four movements. First, I will discuss the hermeneutical shift of the twentieth century and place the DITB project within a postfoundational theological framework. Second, I will explain that the DITB project flows from and for a missional imagination of the church. Third, I will define the term social Trinity; place it in the context of the larger Trinitarian conversation; discuss why it is important for the missional church; and how it is the essence of participatory action research. Finally, I will describe my theology of the Word of God and establish the basis for why the practice of Dwelling in the Word was an essential element of the research process.[2]


[1] See chapter 1n3.

[2] See chapter four for a description of the Dwelling in the Word exercise.

Theoretical Frames

Deep in the Burbs (DITB) was a participatory action research project. It was a gathering of nineteen people from three suburban ELCA congregations that wondered how an increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity might impact our ideation and praxis of spiritual formation. We encountered the social Trinity in a communicative space and took action in our communities. In this chapter I will provide the theoretical framework for why it was necessary to use participatory action research as the methodology for this particular question. I will explore theories regarding adult learning and spiritual formation. I will also discuss the ELCA in a suburban context and the particular situation of each participating congregation of the DITB project within it. First, I will discuss the use of the term frame as a metaphor in this context.

Our Story of Dwelling in the Word

The Word of God, as I have described it, and dwelling in every aspect of the Word, was central to the DITB project. Each of the first six RT meetings began with a Dwelling in the Word exercise.[1] We dwelt in John 14:15-24 for the first three sessions, and then dwelt in John 15:1-17 for the last three sessions. One male and one female would read the passage out loud and then we would break into dyads to discuss what we heard in the text. After that we would gather as a large group and everyone would report to the large group what their conversation partner had said. Finally, we would have a large group discussion about what we had heard. This process took at least forty-five minutes of our two-hour session. It was a struggle for some of the team members to see the relevance of the exercise, because (1) it took up almost half of our meeting time, and (2) it did not explicitly contribute anything tangible to the described goals of the group. This was part of our learning process and I will report on that in later sections.

Chapters two and three have provided a theoretical and theological framework for the DITB project. It has become evident that participatory action research was a necessary methodology to pursue the question of how an increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity might impact the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation in suburban ELCA congregations. I will now turn my attention, in the next chapter, to the specific methodology and design of this project.


[1] Dwelling in the Word is a specific exercise developed and utilized by Church Innovations. I will describe it more fully in the next section. See Keifert, Testing the Spirits: How Theology Informs the Study of Congregations; Ellison and Keifert, Dwelling in the Word.

The Church is Invited to Listen, Discern, and Follow

It is with these two models in mind that I would like to propose what a missional engagement with the Word of God might be. We encounter the Word of God in three ways: in scripture, in communication, and in the world. We are then invited to listen to this word, discern the voice of God from the voices that move contrary to God, tend to the community, and be ready to move when the Spirit moves.

The three forms in which the Word of God speaks are not distinctive, separate modes, but are interdependent media that are at once separate and definable while also entangled and interdependent.[1] It is helpful, albeit somewhat artificial, to address them separately. We are called to dwell[2] in the Scripture, to dwell in the community, and to dwell in the world.[3]

Dwelling in the Scripture

I have already stated that the canon of scripture is the accurate and honest record of particular people making sense out of their particular encounters with the presence and movements of God within their own context. These stories, as they are retold throughout the generations, are formative and unitive for the gathered body of believers. The biblical narrative displays a panorama of God’s creative and liberative promise as it moves from the incarnation of the Word in the symbol of the Exodus story to the incarnation of the Word in the symbol of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. This panorama creates a substantive pattern of God’s creative, liberative movement throughout history. Each generation since the closing of the canon is invited to engage the narrative, meet the Word of God behind the text, in front of the text, within the text, and through the text, to discern and appropriate the Word and movement of the Spirit in its own context.

Dwelling in the Community

I am playing with the word community. I mean it in three senses. First, it is the gathered body of believers that we call the church. Secondly, it is the broader community—the physical neighborhood and the relational networks that include all people with which the church is engaged in everyday life—in which the church finds itself. Third, I mean it in the philosophical sense of the communicative process itself. The Word of God is experienced in the communication of human beings with one another. Human communication is a difficult process wrought with equal parts intimacy and agony. The important point here is to, perhaps, expand the typical understanding of the church’s relationship to the Word. We often imagine that the Word of God only exists within the church and within certain “holy” forms of communication, e.g. liturgy, catechesis, the eucharist, etc. It is important for the missional church to imagine that the Author speaks everywhere, at all times, and that through the physical media of the Community (in the tri-fold meaning that I have presented) the Spirit can help to illuminate God’s Word in this medium.

Dwelling in the World

I have nuanced the use of the term World from Community. Some may argue that to dwell in the Community, as I expressed above, is the same as dwelling in the World. The World, they would argue, is simply the sum of all human Community.[4] This is true, but my point for distinguishing the World from the Community has to do with power structures. It is one thing to have embodied communication with other human beings in the adjacent community. It is another thing to have a relationship with the powerful movements of sociological structures like economics and politics. We, as individuals and small communities, often watch in helpless awe as the events of the world unfold like gods and demigods wrestling in the cosmos. The power structures that rule this world—what the apostle Paul called the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12)—are spiritual forces that can either move with or against the movements of God. It is important for the church to be able to discern, through the illumination of the Spirit, what is from the Author and through the Medium and what is contrary to the rhythm of the Trinity.[5] It is also important for the church to remember the apostle Paul’s words that these power struggles are not against flesh and blood. When we dwell in the community, we dwell with people. We love people and find the person of peace to listen and receive. When we dwell in the world we stand in solidarity with those being oppressed by the evil power structures that threaten the peaceful rhythm of God.[6]


[1] I introduce the term entangled here as a foreshadowing for a central theme that I will develop more fully in the Trinity Frame. For now, understand entangled as a metaphor borrowed from Quantum Physics. Ernest L. Simmons, The Entangled Trinity: Quantum Physics and Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014); J. C. Polkinghorne, The Trinity and an Entangled World: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub., 2010).

[2] I am intentionally borrowing the term dwelling from the practice of Dwelling in the Word used by Church Innovations. See Keifert, Testing the Spirits: How Theology Informs the Study of Congregations; Pat Taylor Ellison and Patrick Keifert, Dwelling in the Word (St. Paul: Church Innovations Institute, 2011).

[3] See the distinction of community and world below.

[4] See Scharer/Hilberath’s discussion of We and the Globe. The group has its own culture, but the group also exists in the larger culture that shapes it. Scharer, The Practice of Communicative Theology: Introduction to a New Theological Culture.

[5] John encouraged his readers to “test the spirits” to discern which ones are from God (1 John 4:1).

[6] This is a bold statement that implies a certain flavor of liberation theology. The liberation hermeneutic reads all contexts through the assumption that God always stands with the oppressed in order to defy the destructive forces of the oppressor. The face of the Oppressor and the Oppressed changes with each context and each generation. Ironically, the face of the Oppressor in one generation can be the Oppressed in the next, or—even more complex—the face of the Oppressed in one context may be the face of the Oppressor in another cotemporal context.