Chapter Four | Research Methodology

chapter Four

Research Methodology and Design


My research will focus on adult spiritual formation in suburban ELCA churches. It will specifically explore how the discussion of the social Trinity might impact the congregation’s understanding and practice of spiritual formation, with the hope that it might move the congregation into a fuller missional imagination. The specific research question is:

How might an increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity impact the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation in a suburban ELCA congregation.

Methodological Rationale

The methodology for this research is Mixed-Methods Transformative. I will use Action Research to engage multiple congregations in an educational discovery process over the course of one year. I have chosen action research for both theoretical and theological reasons. Action research is based upon communicative rationality and seeks the emancipatory transformation of the community it studies through a participatory, democratic relationship between the stake-holders-as-researchers and the professional researcher.[1] This methodology is the praxis of the social Trinity.[2] The process of doing action research will, in itself, demonstrate the communicative relational ontology that is the core of the social Trinity.[3] The local congregation is the body of Christ, and throughout the New Testament the church is instructed to follow the various “one another” commandments: love one another, pray for one another, teach one another, encourage one another, etc. This is most clearly demonstrated in Jesus’ teaching in John 13-17 where he describes the mutual indwelling of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with the disciples and the world.

Methodological Design

Action Research allows for the researcher to be an active participant within the community being studied so that the community can participate in bringing about social change within and through its own system. Therefore, I plan to work within my own context to pursue this research. I am a rostered ELCA pastor serving a call at a suburban congregation (GLC) as the Associate Pastor of Spiritual Formation. It is my intention to perform this research with GLC and partner with two other ELCA churches from within the same conference (three congregations in total). The criteria for the selection of these partner churches will be twofold. First, they must be from a similar suburban setting. Second, they must be willing to fully engage in the research process over the course of a year.

I will invite a cohort of eight to twelve people from each congregation to join me as a team of researchers. There are three qualifications for being a member of the cohort. First, the member must be interested in the topic of spiritual formation. Second, the member must be a good listener.[4] Third, the member must be available to invest the time required to engage in the meetings over the course of the year-long research project. A list of these qualifications—along with a time-line and time commitment—will be posted in the congregations via bulletins, posters, announcements, etc. one month prior to the launch of the cohorts. I will also discuss possible candidates for the cohort with church leadership and allow the leadership to invite members they think would work well on the team.

Each cohort will focus on their particular congregation and report back to the larger team with data. I will initially meet with the cohorts from all congregations in a neutral space (library conference room, YMCA meeting room, etc.) for a six-week learning experience. During this period we will explore the topics of social Trinity and spiritual formation in a suburban context. I will lead the group through both quantitative and qualitative processes that will attempt to capture a snapshot of their current understanding and practices of spiritual formation and Trinitarian theology. I will also lead the group through a process in which they create ways to research their own congregations through ethnographic inquiry and action research methodologies to pursue the research question within their own congregations over the next several months.[5] At the end of the period I will reconvene the cohorts and debrief on the experiences to create meaningful interpretations of the process.

The following design is a potential model that will be available to suggest to the research cohorts as the project unfolds. It includes both quantitative and qualitative instruments. The quantitative survey will measure the individuals’ ideas and practices regarding spiritual formation and Trinitarian theology. The qualitative interview protocol will be used with a sampling of individuals across the spectrum of people as identified by Church Future Finders,[6] as well as longitudinally with those same people over the course of the project.

Who Will Be Studied?

The sampling of people researched in this project will fall into three categories. First, I want to gather a snapshot of the entire congregation as to its ideas and practices regarding spiritual formation and the Trinity. This will happen through a quantitative survey administered to a random sampling of church members. It will also happen through a representative sampling of ethnographic interviews as described in the CI methodology[7]. This same sample will be interviewed in the same way at the end of the year.

The second category is the research team itself. The cohorts will collectively form a group of between twenty four and thirty six people. This group will not only be researchers, but will experience, perhaps, the most direct form of interventions regarding social Trinity and spiritual formation during the course of the project. It will be important to capture their initial quantitative data, according to the same survey administered to the larger congregation, under a special category, at the beginning and the end of the year. I will also interview each cohort regarding their ideas and practices about the Trinity and spiritual formation at the beginning and end of the year.

The third category includes the specific groups that will be engaged by the cohorts in action research projects throughout the year. Each cohort will gather qualitative data along the way to record any changes that may be taking place in the process of the action-reflection-action process.

The data collected from these three layers of samples will be robust. It will require an organized coding system to track which data are associated with which category. The thick description and textured data will provide rich insight into the research question.

Introduction to the Quantitative Design

Action research expects to bring about change within a community. It will be helpful to determine some variables that can be measured to determine if change has taken place over time. This will require the administration of a quantitative survey to the entire congregation at the beginning of the year-long process and at the end.

It is difficult to quantify spiritual formation. There is no general consensus on the definition of spiritual formation, let alone how to measure it. However, it will be beneficial to capture some sort of quantifiable measurement of how people perceive the concept of spiritual formation and the practices they associate with it. These issues are equally true for the topic of Trinitarian theology and how people perceive it.

I will administer a questionnaire that will have three main categories. The first is general background information that will place the individual on the socio-economic landscape. The second will explore the individual’s ideas and practices associated with spiritual formation. The third will explore the ideas about and value placed on the Trinity. This same questionnaire will be administered at the beginning of the process (January-February) and at the end (November-December) for the purpose of comparison.

The Population of Interest

This research is interested in suburban people involved in ELCA churches. Not all suburbs are the same, so it is necessary to narrow the focus further. Myron Orfield identifies six types of suburban populations. This research will focus on those people within what Orfield calls the bedroom/developing (B/D) suburb.[8] The B/D suburb is comprised primarily of residential neighborhoods that are separated by great distances from shopping centers, schools, and civic centers. The B/D communities are primarily populated by middle and upper-middle class people. The B/D suburbs are predominantly racially homogenous (white) and geographically and socially segregated. This is rapidly changing however, as a growing number of immigrants are moving to the suburbs.

The B/D suburban ELCA congregation—especially those in the upper Mid-Western United States—are an important focus of study because this population represents a dominant social class of white middle-class U.S. Citizens who hold a great deal of power—through vote and white privilege—to bring about change in metropolitan society, for better or worse. It is imperative that the church and the academy pay close attention to what God is doing in these suburban congregations.

The Sample

The quantitative portion of the research will involve the distribution of a questionnaire to the members of each congregation.[9] I will treat each congregation as a separate population in order to do comparative studies between congregations later on. I will apply a simple random sampling technique to each congregation’s database, using Cochran’s formula to determine the numbers of questionnaires that need to be distributed to gain a reliable sample. Once the recipients have been determined I will create a separate database in an Excel spreadsheet for each congregation to include the mailing lists for my sample population.


The questionnaires will be  generated using Survey Monkey[10] and a designated URL will be established for it. The randomly selected members will be sent a letter indicating that they have been chosen and invited to participate in the online survey and instructed to visit the URL to complete the questionnaire. They will be given a user ID and insured that their identity will remain anonymous. They will be given the option to submit a paper form of the survey if they do not wish to participate online. Those who wish to use a printed form will be invited to email or call me and a printed copy will be mailed to them along with a stamped envelope. The return address will be pre-printed as my address and a specific ID number corresponding to the recipient to assure anonymity for the responder. Announcements will be made verbally during worship services and through the various means of communication (newsletter, website, bulletins, etc.) in each congregation during the three weeks prior to the mailing of the questionnaire. The announcements will explain that the congregation has volunteered to enter into this research project and that several members of the congregation have been randomly selected to answer a questionnaire. Participation will be strongly urged and the importance of this study for the health and future of the church locally and universally will be stressed. The questionnaire notifications will be mailed to the sample population. Three weeks later a follow-up postcard will be mailed to those who have not yet returned their questionnaires. Two weeks after that a final postcard reminder will be sent to those who have not yet responded. They will be notified that in the sixth week the window of time for receiving questionnaires will be closed.

I will allow six weeks for people to complete and return the questionnaires either online or by mail. The completed questionnaires will be automatically processed on Survey Monkey. Any questionnaires sent my snail mail will be entered into Survey Monkey by either myself or an assistant as they come in. The Survey Monkey data will be linked to my account on[11] for analysis. The completed paper questionnaires will be kept in a sealed envelope and stored in a secure file cabinet for privacy. The same procedure will happen at the end of the year.

Field Test

It is important to field test the questionnaire before it goes to final distribution. I will create the random sampling from the congregations’ databases at least six weeks prior to my intended mailing date. I will choose ten to twelve members from those congregations who were not chosen in the random sampling to personally invite to field test my questionnaires. Their responses will aid in fine-tuning the questionnaire to insure that it accurately measures the pertinent variables of my research.

Introduction to the Qualitative Design

The quantitative research described above will provide a broad description of the congregations with regard to a very shallow understanding of their ideas and practices regarding spiritual formation and the Trinity. This will be helpful to shape the initial direction of the action research and to see if there was any significant change in the overall congregation at the end of the process. However, the particularity and depth of spiritual formation requires a more thorough investigation deeper into the lives of individuals. This will require qualitative personal interviews. I am interested in how an increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity might impact the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation in the suburban ELCA congregation. In action research the goal is to elicit change in a system. In order to determine whether change has taken place it will be necessary to interview people prior to the action process to ascertain what their ideas and practices are about spiritual formation and the Trinity. Once that data is gathered then the action-reflection-action process can begin. Much of the qualitative data gathered during this research will be in the form of recorded large group sessions and personal reflections from the participants. At the end of the process the initial interviewees will be interviewed one more time to determine if any change has taken place.

Field Test

It is important to field test the interview protocol before it is officially used. I will invite two or three people from one of the congregations to field test the protocol. Their responses will be entered into and coded. Their responses and the test coding will aid in fine-tuning the protocol to insure that it accurately measures the pertinent variables of my research.

The interviews will be focused on individuals. Each interview will last between forty-five minutes and one hour.


Accessibility will not be an issue in this study. The participants are members of congregations within the same geographical area as the primary researcher. There are no significant socio-political barriers that would inhibit the congregations from fully participating in the research project. I am in relationship with the pastors of these congregations and will have full access to them.

There are two major types of cost in this project. The first is financial, the second is time. The anticipated financial expense will be accrued in two places. The first will be printing, postage, and online data processing fees[12]. The second financial cost will be room rental for the cohort meetings and possible food, refreshments, and office supplies for the meetings. The second cost is time. The cohorts will be asked to invest six weekly sessions in the beginning of the year, several personal interviews and group action projects during the course of the year, and three follow-up cohort sessions at the end of the year. This is a substantial commitment for the average busy suburbanite. It will require a clear initial disclosure of the commitment involved at the time of recruitment to insure a successful project.

Anticipated Theory Related to Analysis

The primary theory that informs this study is communicative rationality espoused by Jürgen Habermas,[13] specifically as it is applied to adult learning by Stephen Brookfield.[14] I am also interested in how Robert Kegan’s theory of the five orders of consciousness[15] relates to spiritual formation and the social Trinity as it is described by Jürgen Moltmann.[16] Another layer of theoretical conversation that runs through this research is one that exists between different streams of thought regarding the nature of spiritual formation itself. Is spiritual formation primarily an inward journey that cultivates a personal relationship with God,[17] or is it an external, communal process that builds a better society in harmony with God’s activity?[18]

It is my hunch that most suburban ELCA Christians will lean more toward the inward, individualistic idea of spiritual formation. I will explore whether an interaction with the social Trinity will create a more robust, communicative ideation and praxis of spiritual formation.

Protocol Design

My qualitative research will happen in three phases over the course of one year.

Phase 1

1.1 Working with the cohorts

In phase 1.1 I will engage cohorts from the participating congregations in participatory, experiential, learning exercises in which we will explore the topics of spiritual formation, social Trinity, and suburban issues. These session will happen in January and February of 2014. I will gather data through audio recording the sessions, transcribing and coding them,  and my own journals. During these sessions I will train the cohorts to administer qualitative, ethnographic interviews, following the Church Future Finder methodology. The cohorts will also create their own action research projects to be carried out in their own congregations over the next several months. These projects will be discussed in phase 2.

1.2 Initial Congregational Interviews

The cohorts, upon completing the initial six-week training, will be sent back to their congregations to conduct ethnographic interviews. The data from these interviews will be submitted to me for transcription and coding.

Phase 2

The cohorts will create action learning projects for their congregations during Phase 1. These projects will be carried out during the months following Phase 1 (March through November). Various forms of qualitative data will be gathered during these projects, but those will be determined based upon the processes created by the cohorts.

One example of a possible action project is a small group study on the Trinity. I will prepare an initial study guide prior to meeting with cohorts. I will lead the cohorts through this study and invite them to help me co-create a better version of it. This material will be available for the cohorts to invite members of their congregation into the study.

Another example of action projects is the methodology exemplified in Mark Scandrette’s book Practicing the Way of Jesus[19]. Mark’s book promotes action learning as the way to grow in the way of Jesus and the Kingdom of God. His theology is christocentric and could be considered a form of christopraxis. I have been in communication with Mark and he and I will be working on a way to modify his methodology and create a Trinitarian version of this methodology[20].

One example of his action learning methods is to lead a group on a “resonate walk” in which the group walks through public spaces and seeks to find how God is at work in that space. Another example is “have two, give one” in which the group members sell their possessions ub a garage sale and give the money to the poor. These action projects may naturally flow out of the small group study mentioned above, or they may be stand alone projects that are sparked by the cohorts.

The nature of action research is that the stake-holders generate their own questions and methodologies. While I will strongly suggest the two examples mentioned above, the process is open to creativity and the leading of the Holy Spirit in many diverse directions. Part of the rich texture of the data collected in this study is to see how each congregation followed the Spirit in different ways.

Phase 3

In October the cohorts will re-interview the initial interviewees with the same protocol from Phase 1.2. The data will be gathered and coded for comparison to the initial interviews.


The interviewees for the ethnographic interviews of the category One sample will be representatives of three types of people that stand in relationship to each individual congregation. The categories are those presented by Church Future Finder. They are: The Family, the Inside Stranger, and the Outside Stranger. The Family consists of people who are at the core of the power structures of the congregation. The Inside Strangers are those who are regular attenders, but do not necessarily make functional decisions in the operations of the church. The Outside Strangers are those people who are tangentially related to the congregation through some form of relationship, but they do not necessarily attend worship on a regular basis. The sample of interviewees will represent 25% from the Family, 50% from the Inside Strangers, and 25% from the Outside Strangers.

It will require a meeting of the church leadership to analyze the church database and determine which people fit into each category. Once that delineation has been made, then at least twenty-four people from each congregation will be invited into the interviews by the cohort from that congregation. That means six people will be from the Family, twelve from the Inside Strangers, and six from the Outside Strangers. If there are eight people in the cohort, that means each person will interview three people.

The interviews will be held at the congregation’s building in a classroom or comfortable lounge setting. It is important that the environment be welcoming and comfortable in order to set the interviewee at ease.



This will be a collaborative effort between multiple congregations and pastors. I will strive to follow-up with each congregation.


Each cohort will be trained in the ethnographic interview process as prescribed by Church Future Finder. The interviewee will be allowed to review their transcribed interviews and edit as necessary. I will train one member from each cohort to enter the data into the account. Each member will do an initial coding following a line-by-line, word-by-word process[21].

The data will be analyzed using This is a mixed-methods research software designed to integrate quantitative and qualitative data and report the results visually and accurately.


This will be volunteer participation by those who have a desire to learn more about the Trinity and spiritual formation. There is no reason to question believability. The data collected will be mixed-methods, representing both a random sampling of each congregation as well as a focused group that was involved in transformative learning. This rich texture will avoid any possible tendency toward unnecessary bias.


I will make it clear from the beginning that this is an exploratory process and there is not a pass/fail to it. I will make myself available to the cohorts and encourage them to create a relaxed atmosphere of transparency for the interviewees throughout the process. All data and results will be made available to participants for review and revision.


[1] The Action Research: Church and Society project (ARCS) at Heythrop College, University of London is an excellent example of this. Helen Cameron, Deborah Bhatti, and Catherine Duce, Talking About God in Practice: Theological Action Research and Practical Theology (London: SCM Press, 2010).

[2] This is the argument I hope to make as a result of this research.

[3] Moltmann; Zizioulas and McPartlan.

[4] This is important because much of the research will require ethnographic interviewing and good listening skills. This is a highly subjective qualification, but listing it in the invitation will communicate a sense of the process and hopefully attract the right kind of people to the team.

[5] Please find specific examples of possible action research projects in the qualitative protocol design below.

[6] Church Future Finders is a product of Church Innovations (CI). CI identifies three types of people in relation to a congregation: the family (core involvement), the inside stranger (regular attenders), and the outside stranger (those who are tangentially related to the congregation).

[7] 25% from the family, 50% from the inside stranger, 25% from the outside stranger.

[8] Orfield.

[9] It is important to note that I am using the term “member” not in its strictest sense. Here i mean any person who is affiliated with the congregation by appearing on the database. This will include regular attenders and those who may have enrolled children in Sunday School or attend only occasionally, i.e. Christmas and Easter.

[10] This is an online survey tool.

[11] This is a web-based mixed-methods research analysis tool.

[12] for Survey Monkey and accounts.

[13] Habermas.

[14] Brookfield, The Power of Critical Theory: Liberating Adult Learning and Teaching.

[15] Kegan, In over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life.

[16] Moltmann.

[17] Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002).

[18] Sheldrake, Spirituality and Theology: Christian Living and the Doctrine of God.

[19] Mark Scandrette, Practicing the Way of Jesus: Life Together in the Kingdom of Love (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2011).

[20] It is not that Mark is not Trinitarian. His spirituality is influenced by Dallas Willard and the evangelical/emergent conversation. Part of my study will be in conversation with this and the process of how the social Trinity might impact Mark’s praxis.

[21] Kathy Charmaz, Constructing Grounded Theory (London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 2006), 42ff.