What do suburbia and spirituality have in common? This sounds like the set-up for a bad joke. The term suburbia often conjures up caricatured images of plastic, white, middle-class Americans driving gas-guzzling Suburban Utility Vehicles past white picket fences into cavernous garages that swallow them up into isolated fortresses behind automatic garage doors. The term spirituality often conjures up equally caricatured images of bald-headed, robed monks sitting in the lotus position, precariously perched on the precipice of a majestic mountain peak. These two images could not be further apart in how they relate. This study will explore the intersection of these two worlds. Further, it will explore how the specific doctrine of the Trinity might weave a connective thread between these things. The questions and conversations pursued in this study will be framed within the larger conversation that many call the missional church.
The specific research question is this. How might an increased awareness and understanding of the Social Trinity impact the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation in a suburban ELCA congregation? Many assumptions and preconceived definitions lie behind this question and much definition and clarification is required to proceed. There are four major fields of academic discipline that create the broad frame and converge on this question in an interdisciplinary exercise. Some are apparent, some not. The first, and least apparent, discipline is that of adult learning, and more precisely, the field of adult religious education. This research will get inside of a local congregation and explore how the conversations around the topic of the Trinity contribute to the spiritual formation of adults. Second, and closely related to the first, the research will explore the newly emerging academic discipline of Christian spirituality. Third, this research will delve into the mystery that is named the Trinity. It will, more specifically, introduce a local congregation to the late twentieth century theological conversation centered around the economic, or social, Trinitarian formulation. Finally, the research will function within the larger conversation of missional ecclesiology—the missional church—within the specific concrete manifestation of a congregation that is a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in the context of a particular type of United States surburban social and geographical location.
The Importance of this Question
This is an important question on three levels. It is important for me personally, for the academy, and for the whole church.
This topic is important to me for many reasons. First, spiritual formation is both my passion and my vocation in the local church. I want to know how to create spaces in which the Holy Spirit can ignite the members of my congregation to be active participants with God’s mission in their local context. Second, I am specifically interested in how the Social Trinity impacts spiritual formation because I feel that my understanding of spiritual formation has been limited by Western Trinitarian ideas that seem to limit spiritual formation to that of a process that emphasizes individualistic, inner, personal transformation to the exclusion of communal interaction and social justice. I want to explore how an understanding of the Social Trinity and its corollary concepts of communicative praxis and relational ontology might impact spiritual formation in a missional congregation.
This research question is an interdisciplinary one that weaves together three fairly new fields of study—Social Trinity, missional ecclesiology, and Christian spirituality. Each of these disciplines has found its own academic footing only recently. Therefore little academic work has been done on their interdisciplinary connections. This research will offer a very helpful new lens into each individual discipline by demonstrating how they are vitally connected in the life of the local congregation.
This question is also important for the local church for the same reasons it is important to me personally. The term suburban church is broad and requires clarification for the purpose of this research. Suburbia is not a homogenous or monolithic location. This research will focus on the bedroom-developing (B/D) suburb. The B/D suburb is comprised primarily of residential neighborhoods that are separated by great distances from shopping centers, schools, and civic centers, and populated primarily by middle-class and upper-middle class, white people. The B/D suburb is dominated by a Western, individualistic, consumerist mindset that has a tendency to sequester the idea of spiritual formation to the enclave of the private life, thus rendering it disconnected from the public, social arena. A communicative praxis of spiritual formation may be a key component needed to encourage the local suburban congregation to grow toward a reimagined and/or deepened missional identity.
The goal of this research is to measure, qualitatively, what, if any, change might take place within both the ideation and the praxis of spiritual formation within the members of the congregation. Thus, these are the dependent variables. The challenge will be to discover how to identify and discuss adequately those things which would properly fall into the category of ideation—thinking about—and praxis—the intentional acting out—of spiritual formation.
The independent variable is that which acts upon the dependent variable to produce change. This research will employ a Participatory Action Research methodology, thus, one of the primary independent variables will be the researcher himself. All of my positionality and situatedness bears heavily upon both the interaction of the study and the interpretation of the process. Another independent variable is the prior ideation and praxis, or lack thereof, that the congregants bring to the twin topics of spiritual formation and the Trinity.
The congregation itself is an intervening variable. These variables are numerous. Some of which are quantifiable, e.g. age, gender, race, length of time in congregation, socio-economic status. Other variables are more qualitative, e.g. attitude toward the study, general responsiveness to adult formation versus traditional worship participation, length and depth of prior involvement with the ELCA. More variables will undoubtedly emerge as the process unfolds and will need to be attended as to how they impact the research.
These variables will be operationalized through a mixed-methods research approach. First, a quantitative survey will be distributed among the congregation that will gather core data regarding the intervening variables (demographic information). There will then be two major sections of the questionnaire. The first will ask questions regarding spiritual formation, eliciting both ideation and praxis. The second will ask questions regarding concepts of the Trinity and the amount of exposure the individual has had to teaching about the Trinity. Further operationalization will emerge through the action research cycle as the participants create their own process, act on it, reflect upon it, refine, and repeat.
 Myron Orfield, Metropolitics: A Regional Agenda for Community and Stability (Cambridge, MA: Brookings Institution Press; Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 1997), 42.