Category Archives: Research Methods

The Research Project Design

2014 Journal P122

I designed the Deep in the Burbs project around three phases. The first phase would consist of six large group meetings. The group would meet for two hours on six consecutive Monday evenings, starting on February 24, 2014 and ending on March 24, 2014. The second phase would run from April – October, 2014. The RT members would carry out action plans of their own creation during this period and reflect on their experience in these projects through journaling. The journals would be sent to me via email and/or posted in the online discussion forum on the project website. The third phase would consist of two meetings in November, 2014 in which the RT would come together to communicatively make sense out of their experience in the project.

Phase One

Phase 1.1

Phase one was further sub-divided into three groups of two meetings each. We will call these Phases 1.1, 1.2, and 1.3. Phase 1.1 would consist of two meetings. These meetings were structured around three topics: Spiritual Formation, the Trinity, and Suburban Issues. I would ask the group open-ended questions that would invite them to describe their previous experience with spiritual formation, the Trinity, and the suburbs. They would also define their understanding of spiritual formation and describe their current practices of spiritual formation. Finally, they would name their hopes and fears for the church in regard to spiritual formation in the context of the suburbs.

I must, again, confess my own evolution throughout the course of this project. My original intention for Phase 1.1 was to establish a type of “base-line” in the topics of Spiritual Formation, the Trinity, and Suburban Issues. I entered the project with the expectation and assumption that the RT members would indicate a particular way of discussing these three topics that was similar to my paradigm prior to my experience with the social Trinity. I even entered the project with predetermined categories of inward-focused spirituality and communal-focused spirituality, anticipating that most of the RT would be more inwardly focused coming into the project. I was aware, theoretically, that I must guard against instrumental reason, but my lack of experience in PAR, combined with my previous tendencies, made this an internal battle throughout the project. I will discuss my surprise and continued evolution in chapter five. For now, let it be known that my initial design was flawed and colored by my lack of understanding regarding the true nature of PAR and the open-mindedness necessary for good PAR to happen. It is by the grace of God that the methodology itself allowed for good data collection throughout the process. This allowed me to redeem my distorted perception in the end and process the data according to PAR methodology.

Phase 1.2

The middle two sessions were designed to introduce the RT to the social Trinity. I chose to utilize my skills as an animator to create four short animated videos that presented the social Trinity.[1]⁠ I would post these videos on the project website and make them available to the RT to watch at any time, and as often as desired. We would spend two sessions processing the information presented in these videos and relating it to spiritual formation in the suburban context.

Phase 1.3

The final two sessions were designed to allow the RT space to create action projects that would be carried out in their own congregations and/or neighborhoods/spheres of influence during Phase Two of the project. The creation and implementation of action projects invited participants to imagine practical ways that the engagement with social Trinity impacted the RT members’ ideation and praxis of social Trinity. I would provide one example of a possible action project to prime the pump of their imagination, but, other than that, the RT was free to create any project that they wanted to pursue.[2]

Phase Two

Phase Two was planned to run from April 1, 2014 to November 9, 2014. The RT members would be invited to engage in their chosen action projects and provide data in two ways. First, they would journal and email the journal to me directly. Second, they were encouraged to participate in the discussion forum on the project website.

Phase Three

Phase Three would consist of two large group meetings in November, 2014. The purpose of these meetings was to regroup after having completed the action projects and communicatively make sense out of what happened. These two meetings would serve, not only to debrief the group, but also, hopefully, to launch the RT on further plans of action that would take them beyond the limits of the research project .

I must revisit my earlier confession regarding the evolution of my understanding of PAR methodology. It was my continual struggle to resist trying to either manipulate the RT to have the same experience that I had with the social Trinity, or to “prove” something about the relationship between the social Trinity and spiritual formation with the project. It was crucial to the integrity of the project that I facilitate a space in the final phase in which the RT felt completely free to critique the project, question the methodology, and create their own meaning out of the experience. I would craft a list of open-ended questions to facilitate this type of conversation.

Dwelling in the Word

One way in which I attempted to cultivate a safe, communicative space for the RT—and to increase their awareness and understanding of the social Trinity—was to begin each large group session with a Dwelling in the Word exercise.[3] I planned to dwell in John 14:15-24 for the first three sessions, and then dwell in John 15:1-17 for the last three sessions. The process would run as follows: I would frame the exercise by asking the group to either (a) pay attention to where their imagination was captured during the reading of the text, or (b) think of a question that they would like to ask a Bible scholar regarding what they heard in the text. Next, one male and one female would read the passage out loud, allowing time in between each reading for silent reflection. Then the group would break into dyads, connecting to a “reasonably friendly looking stranger,” to discuss what we heard in the text and “listen each other into free speech.”[4] We would, then, gather as a large group and each person would report to the large group what his or her conversation partner had said. Finally, we would have a large group discussion about what we had heard as we listened to each report.

Why Dwelling in the Word?

Dwelling in the Word has a two-fold purpose that offers a corrective for the Western church and fit nicely with PAR methodology. First, it is designed to deconstruct the Modern Western fixation with talking. It retrains us to listen to another person, no matter who that person may be.[5] Listening, I would argue, is a key component to the missional church and a necessary aspect of PAR.[6] The second purpose is connected to the phrase “a reasonably friendly looking stranger.” Dwelling in the Word demonstrates that theology is a public act and anybody can do it. Everyone can hear a text and have either their imagination captured or have a question about it. This kind of conversation can happen with a stranger on a bus or in a coffee shop. This lesson attempts to break down the public/private schism in the West in which faith—and any conversation about God—has been relegated to the private enclave.[7] The church, in its gathered worship, is called to imagine itself, not as a private gathering of family members, but as a public forum in which strangers are welcome.[8] PAR is a public gathering of reasonably friendly strangers to discuss important topics. In our case, the topic was biblical and theological, thus the Dwelling exercise was a perfect fit.

Since the purposes of Dwelling in the Word matched so closely to PAR and the nature of the DITB research project, I chose to begin each session with it for three reasons. First, it would open up communicative space for people to engage the Word of God in the text and in each other.[9] Second, it would implicitly create a biblical foundation for the social Trinity rather than an explicit imposition of this idea onto the group. In other words, I chose texts in which the three persons of the Trinity are named in relation to each other, thus confronting the RT with the biblical paradox of three-in-one implicitly rather than explicitly stating the issue. Third, the exercise would cultivate a space in which the RT members could get to know each other throughout the course of the project in ways that may or may not have happened spontaneously.

Why the Upper Room Discourse?

Most Dwelling in the Word exercises focus on Luke 10 and the story of Jesus sending out the seventy disciples. I chose to focus on the Upper Room Discourse found in John 13-17. I made this choice because I believe this passage presents relational ontology through the perichoretic relationship of the Triune God with the world. However, this is a large passage and it was difficult to determine which specific section in which to dwell. I decided to run an experiment in the months leading up to the launch of the project to explore this dilemma.

I called the experiment Dinner with Jesus and offered it as part of the adult formation opportunity in my local congregation in the Fall of 2013. The idea was to create a space in which adults would gather to experience the Dwelling in the Word process in the Upper Room Discourse. I simply facilitated the process and took notes on what everyone shared in the large group sessions. This was a type of pilot group experimentation for the Deep in the Burbs Research Project.[10]

Lessons from the Experiment

I learned three important things through the Dinner with Jesus experience. First, on a practical level, I learned that the dwelling is most effective when a single passage is dwelt in for a minimum of three sessions. My original design was to dwell in the entire Upper Room Discourse, so I divided all five chapters into 8 readings and planned to dwell in one per night. After the first three sessions I realized that this was ineffective because people were only scratching the surface of the passage in the first session and then moving past it. After the third session I modified my plan and spent the remaining sessions dwelling in two passages for three weeks each. This made a dramatic difference in the level of insight and conversation the people experienced. This helped to reinforce, for me, the true purpose of Dwelling in the Word. The process has one of its greatest impacts when people realize that every time you dwell in a particular passage you see a new dimension of God’s Word at work. This reinforces the power of slow reading and the fact that Dwelling in the Word is a form of lectio divina. It deconstructs our Western compulsion to conquer and acquire the text as mere factual data and invites us to slow down and encounter the Word of God that is present in the scripture and in the community, and then bring it into a process of discernment in dialogue with the World.

The second thing I learned is also practical and connected to the first. I needed to focus my choice of texts for the RT to two passages so that we could dwell in each of them for three weeks per text. This was a difficult task. How could I decide? I chose John 14:15-24 and John 15:1-17. The purpose for dwelling in these texts was to provide a way for the RT to engage with the scriptural witness to the three persons of the Trinity naturally, rather than having me present the idea directly. John 15 focuses on the indwelling of the Father, the Son, and the disciple. However, John 15 does not explicitly name the person of the Holy Spirit. That is why I chose John 14:15-24. It names the Holy Spirit and describes the functions of the Spirit. I thought that, between these two texts, the team would have ample opportunity to have “an increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity” while safeguarding against my use of instrumental reason and power.[11]

The third thing I learned is that I was wrong about how people learn about the Trinity. I was amazed to discover throughout the Dinner with Jesus experiment and the RT Sessions, that people did not find the language of the three persons of God perplexing. I expected people to immediately have their imagination captured and their questions framed around the obvious problem with the fact that Jesus talks to the Father and the Father sends the Son. I expected them to exclaim, “How can this be?” in rational disbelief. They rarely did. Their imagination was captured in so many other, much more tangible and everyday ways. I will discuss this further in the next chapter.

The Use of Digital Media

Another way that I attempted to cultivate communicative and participatory spaces in the project was through the use of digital media. There are three ways in which I used digital media in this project. First, I created the deepintheburbs.com website. This site served several purposes. One purpose it served was to create a safe, private space in which the RT could communicate when they were not physically present with one another. Another purpose it served was to allow me a public outlet for my scholarship.[12] I structured the website to be a public, interactive expression of my dissertation as I was creating it. I shared my research journal entries as blog posts. I also posted an illustrated and annotated book review of over one hundred books and articles that related to the project. These posts and pages were shared via Facebook, Twitter, and Linked In. It was my hope to engage with a larger audience of scholars, congregational leaders, and community members along the course of the project.[13] The website also served as a time-based chronicle of my research progress that would both demonstrate my work, and also safeguard any proprietary issues that might arise in the future.

The second way I used digital media in this project was through illustration and animation. I have been a professional illustrator/animator since 1990 and have produced digital art since 2002. I created four animated videos for the purpose of introducing the RT to the social Trinity. The website is full of other animations that seek to visualize complex ideas and/or articulate the arguments of specific books or authors. These animations are posted both in the website and also on the corollary YouTube channel, where they have engaged thousands of people[14]. I have also created illustrations and visual maps of nearly every book that I have reviewed on the website. I am a visual thinker and must process concepts this way in order to make sense out of them. The RT had access to all this information and often interacted with it of their own volition.

The third way that I used digital media was through Prezi.[15] I created visual, interactive bibliographies that go beyond the interactivity of hypertext technology and allow the viewer to pan and zoom through images and animations that illustrate the bibliographic material of particular topics.[16] For example, I would show the image of the front cover of a book, and embedded within the book cover are my illustrations of the book, an author biography, key quotes, and a hyperlink to my review of the book on the website. These Prezis exist on the website, but also on exist on the Prezi.com site and are searchable by anyone. They can be downloaded and used by anyone for any purpose.

It was my assumption and intention that these digital media would embody the relationality of the social Trinity and spiritual formation that the research question attempts to explore. It was my desire to experiment with these media as a means to explore community building in the ever-flattening digital world of the twenty-first century. This, I believe, has important implications for both the academy and the missional imagination of the church.

Data Collection and Analysis

The data generated through the project would be collected in four types. The first type would be audio transcripts from each large group session. I would record the sessions using a Zoom flash recorder, transfer the audio file into Express Scribe[17] on my Mac, and transcribe the audio into a document in Scrivener.[18] The second type of data would be collected via personal notebooks. I would assign a small 8.5×5.5” notebook of ruled paper to each RT member and ask him or her to write in them in response to various prompts throughout the large group sessions. I would collect the notebooks at the end of each session and either type them into Scrivener, or take a digital photo of each page and store it in Evernote.[19] The third type of data would be gathered through online discussion forums on the deepintheburbs.com website.[20] The fourth type of data would be collected via direct email to me. Each RT member would have the option to send his or her journals directly to me if s/he did not want them to be read publicly.

I planned to take all four types of data and enter them all into NVivo for Mac to be organized and coded. The data types would be placed in large folders under the headings “Phase One,” “Phase Two,” and “Phase Three.” Further subfolders would be created under each of these folders to sort out the session transcripts, personal notebooks, discussion comments, and emails. I would follow the basic qualitative coding methodology outlined in Charmaz to detect dominant themes that might emerge across the various data.[21]

Footnotes

[1] See appendix A for a full transcript of each video. The videos can be viewed at http://www.deepintheburbs.com/theoretical-frames/trinity/ (accessed March 20, 2015)

[2] I offered a sample of action projects practiced by the group at Re-Imagine San Fransisco. Mark Scandrette, Practicing the Way of Jesus: Life Together in the Kingdom of Love (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2011).

[3] Dwelling in the Word is a specific exercise developed and utilized by Church Innovations. See Patrick R. Keifert, Testing the Spirits: How Theology Informs the Study of Congregations (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2009); Pat Taylor Ellison and Patrick Keifert, Dwelling in the Word (St. Paul: Church Innovations Institute, 2011).

[4] I place these two phrases in quotation marks because they are important aspects of the Dwelling in the Word process. I made it a point to speak these words each time I facilitated the Dwelling exercise at the beginning of each session.

[5] The modern Western anthropology is based on a narcissistic, atomist, radical, buffered self. We are trained, in the West, to understand ourselves as radical free agents in the universe whose primary goal is self-sufficiency and survival. This buffered self, as Charles Taylor calls it, cannot afford to listen to the other, unless listening to the other can provide an angle to oppress the other for selfish gain. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 170-71.

[6] Simpson proposes that the church is called to be a prophetic public companion with the world. Gary M. Simpson, Critical Social Theory: Prophetic Reason, Civil Society, and Christian Imagination, Guides to Theological Inquiry (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002). Hunter makes a similar argument that, if the church wants to make significant cultural changes, perhaps it should take a generation to stop talking so much and start listening and engaging with the stranger. James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 281.

[7] Newbigin frames this as a plausibility structure of the modern world in which only reason and empirical science are submissible as public discourse. Faith and theology are quarantined along with fantasy and fairy tales, appropriate only for the weaker minded in society. Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1986), 35.

[8] Patrick R. Keifert, Welcoming the Stranger: A Public Theology of Worship and Evangelism (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 96.

[9] See my comments on encountering the Word of God in chapter three.

[10] I expanded the opportunity and advertised that I would also offer the Dinner with Jesus experience on Monday evenings at 7:00pm, Tuesday mornings at 6:00am, and Wednesday afternoons at 2:00pm so that more people might be able to access it. Forty people came to the Sunday evening forum, a small group of women that was already meeting used this opportunity as their study on Monday nights, no one came to Tuesday morning, and a handful of retired women attended the Wednesday afternoon session.

I was inspired to offer these alternate times after I heard a presentation from Jannie Swart at a Dwelling in the Word conference in the Spring of 2013. He said that he used this method with a church when he first came to be the pastor as a way to open up the communicative space of the Word for the congregation.

[11] It could be argued, of course, that I am demonstrating power in the simple fact that I chose the passages in which we would dwell. This highlights the necessity and reality of power and leadership issues in spiritual formation.

[12] I used the Membership and BuddyPress plugins for WordPress. Membership Plugin https://wordpress.org/plugins/membership/ (accessed March 20, 2015); BuddyPress plugin https://wordpress.org/plugins/buddypress/ (accessed March 20, 2015)

[13] The site was created in November, 2012. It has 333 posts, 43 pages, 322 comments, and has received 16,506 visitors and 35,766 views as of March 20, 2015.

[14] One example is an animation I created to explain Kegan’s theory of the five orders of consciousness. I posted it on the deepintheburbs.com site on October 17, 2012. It has received 9,431 views as of March 20, 2015 and has been cited in one PhD dissertation and one Masters Paper, to my knowledge. It has also received many comments as to its helpfulness in understanding this theory. Steven P. Thomason, “Thketch of Kegan’s Five Orders,” (2012).

[15] The Prezi website. http://www.prezi.com (accessed March 20, 2015)

[16] See the Visual, Interactive Bibliography. http://www.deepintheburbs.com/prezi-helps-me-study-for-comprehensive-exams/ (accessed March 20, 2015)

[17] Express Scribe Transcription Software by NCH Software. http://www.nch.com.au/scribe/ (accessed March 20, 2015)

[18] Scrivener is a writing software produced by Literature and Latte. http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php (accessed March 20, 2015)

[19] I have been using an Evernote Premium account throughout the course of this dissection to collect and organize my resources. http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php (accessed March 20, 2015)

[20] The Research Team members were given personal accounts and access to a private discussion forum that I created using Membership and Buddypress plugins on the WordPress platform.

[21] Kathy Charmaz, Constructing Grounded Theory (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2006).

Again, I think you might want to reflect on how you had particular intentions that maybe even sought to ensure that something was to happen, but your commitments to the methodology forced you to back off a bit and see what would emerge, and to listen when your participants objected to what you were doing, or raised issues.