I am a suburban pastor. I love the suburbs and the busy suburbanites that live in them. It is my native environment and I would not trade it. However, I must confess something. It is difficult to be a suburban pastor. It is especially difficult to be a suburban pastor who is trying to cultivate spaces for spiritual formation and a missional imagination for a Lutheran congregation.
Suburbanites are busy people who are pulled in a hundred directions and feel immense societal pressures to be successful and productive in every area of life. Beyond that, they are expected to produce even more successful children. The suburban Lutheran family has the additional pressure to make sure that their children are not only the best in sports, academics, and the arts, but are also properly baptized, catechized, and confirmed along the way. Suburbanites find themselves running from one activity to the next, constantly trying to decide which is the most efficient use of their precious time to yield that greatest result to meet all of the expectations placed upon them.
The suburban pastor is faced with a challenge. How do we cultivate spaces of spiritual formation when church involvement is merely one item on a vast menu of choices? Is it possible to cultivate missional spirituality in the suburbs? Can we be deep in the burbs? That is the heart of the question I will try to address in the pages that follow.
Outline To The Introduction
- Life Is Story
- Every Story Has A Prologue
- How Am I Writing?
- To Whom Am I Writing?
- Why Am I Doing This?
- Why Is This Question Important?
- Warning: There Be Monsters Here
This dissertation is more than an academic endeavor. It is a story. It is the convergence of four stories, actually. First, it is my story. Deep in the Burbs is not merely a research project for me. It is part of my ongoing spiritual formation and a direct result of how God has led me to this place in my life. Second, this dissertation is the story of the Deep in the Burbs research team. Eighteen people from three suburban ELCA congregations joined me in a participatory action research project to explore spiritual formation in the suburbs. Third, it is the story of the church in Western society and how we currently find ourselves in an era of massive cultural shifts that cause us to reimagine what it means to be the church. Finally, this is God’s story from which, in which, and for which all these other stories exist.
It is also the story of a single question. We asked: How might an increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity impact the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation in suburban ELCA congregations?
I had an idea about the social Trinity and I wanted to see what would happen if I introduced this idea to a group of suburbanites. I invited people from ELCA congregations in three adjacent suburbs to form a participatory action research team at the end of Feburary, 2014. We met eight times to discuss and reflect upon our ideas about the Trinity, spiritual formation, and life in the suburbs. I invited the team to dream new dreams about spiritual formation in the suburban context. The team members created action projects that expressed their new ideas about the social Trinity and spiritual formation. They carried out those projects in their own contexts over the course of seven months. Finally, the team regrouped in November, 2014 and tried to make sense out of what happened in our experiences. This dissertation is the story of that team, what we learned, and why we think it matters for the missional church in the suburbs.
There is a theological reason for presenting this dissertation as a story. Life is story. Notice that I didn’t say life is a story, as if it were a single story being told by a single narrator. No, life is story, or, perhaps more accurately, life is the communicative process of living in and making sense through story. Perhaps we might call it storying. It is the human activity of shared, lived experiences. Stories do not exist in a vacuum. They require personal interaction. They are the interaction between the narrator, the audience, and the meaning-making that happens in the process of the telling, the listening, the retelling, and the acting. It is a dynamic process that is created by and carried out within human community. Human beings are creatures that live into and make meaning through stories. We are more than homo sapiens, we are homo narrans.
Before I move any further into the story of this dissertation, let us first address some questions that will serve as an introduction to the story and the storytellers. There are four basic questions that will provide an outline for the introduction. How am I writing it? To whom am I writing? Why am I doing this? Why is this question important?
I will intentionally write in the first person and imagine my reader as an individual who brings his or her own story to the telling of mine. I do not believe this diminishes the scholarly pursuit in any way. Further, I think it enhances the scholarship since it tears through the facade of objectivity and invites you, the reader, to engage in your own experience of these stories as you read them in your own time and in your own way.
I will also write with the RT specifically in mind. This creates an interesting challenge for me as an academic writer. No one on the RT is a professional academic. I will strive to avoid academic jargon as much as possible and to communicate with clear, accessible language. Please do not misunderstand me. This has nothing to do with intelligence. Each member of the RT is a well-educated professional within his or her own context. The issue at hand is the tendency of any group to create a vocabulary that serves as insider shorthand to communicate a large set of assumptions in concise language. Academic theologians have a large vocabulary that may be helpful for scholars to communicate with scholars, but the same vocabulary tends to create a rigid boundary between the academy and the local congregation. It will become clear throughout this dissertation that one of our primary findings is that the work of the missional church leader is to cultivate spaces in which these types of rigid boundaries become more porous and a more democratic communication can open up between previously divided groups. The barrier between the academy and the church needs to become more porous. It is my desire to write this dissertation in such a way that I maintain both academic integrity and communicate clearly so that the church can connect to the research findings and use them for fruitful ministry.
I attempt to write clearly for the non-academic reader in this dissertation, but let the readers take note: Not all chapters are equally successful. Each chapter has its own flavor—and degree of academic jargon—that reflects its intention. Chapter two is the least narrative and the most academic chapter of them all. The goal of chapter two is to provide the theoretical and theological framework for why I asked the question and how I framed the project. It covers a large landscape and often requires the efficiency of language that can only be achieved through academic shorthand. Chapter three is the most narrative of them all. It simply tells the story of the RT, using a human life cycle as a motif: conception, gestation, birth, life, and death. Chapter four is the bravest attempt to communicate the findings of the RT in clear, accessible, narrative language that maintains academic integrity and also provides useful suggestions for missional suburban church leaders.
I have three intended audiences and one accidental audience in mind as I write this dissertation. It is important to name these audiences, since the process of storying is an embodied one in which my lived experience meets yours. Keeping you in mind—whichever audience you may be—will help to focus my telling of this story.
The first audience is the Deep in the Burbs Research Team. This project, and the findings that emerge from it, belong to the RT as much as they do to me. Yes, I invited the team members to be part of the project. I asked the question. I set the table for discussion. Beyond that, however, the team participated in a communicative, collaborative, co-creative process that took this research to places that I could have never imagined on my own. It is my job to express, in writing, what we discovered and created together. I write this dissertation with them and for them.
The RT is comprised of eighteen people from three ELCA congregations in three adjacent suburban cities in an Upper-Midwestern Metropolitan area. One of these congregations is my own congregation where I serve as the Pastor of Spiritual Formation. The other two congregations are members of the same conference and synod in which our congregation is a member. All of the RT members are white, middle-class, educated, English-speaking, adult, male and female suburbanites that grew up in the Midwest United States and are actively involved in one of these congregations. Some are life-long Lutherans, others are not, and thus they all bring to the conversation a fairly diverse range of Christian experiences. It is important to note these demographics because this research focuses on spiritual formation in the ELCA suburban context. The RT is a good representation of the kinds of people that comprise the majority of the three congregations, and most suburban ELCA congregations in general.
The second intended audience is the academy. You might find it curious that I have placed the academy second. Is this not an academic, doctoral dissertation? I place the academy second, behind the RT, for one simple reason. I know my own academic context within the department of Congregational Mission and Leadership at Luther Seminary. Our goal in this program is to explore and live into a new imagination—a missional imagination—that will encourage church leaders to discern what God is doing in the world and join God in God’s mission. We believe that a reasonably adequate Christian theology is done in, with, under, against, and for the local congregation. The purpose of this dissertation is not to demonstrate my ability to use academic jargon and join an elite club. The goal is to engage in robust academic research and then clearly communicate the findings to the RT and the church. I believe that one of God’s primary callings on my life is to be able to bridge the gap between the academic world and the local congregation. I seek to practice that calling in the writing of this dissertation.
It is important that you understand how I understand God to be present in, with, and through the research process and the writing of this paper. I write this paper as I participate in the Trinity—the three persons of God in dynamic, creative, sustaining relationship. The first person—God the Creator—has given me life and calls me into a preferred and promised future in which my vocation as a pastor and theologian is an integral part. The second person—God the Redeemer—has embodied this calling through the incarnation of the Word-became-flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus, recorded in the canon of scripture, embody God’s self-emptying, other-oriented love that demonstrates, in physical ways, how God invites me into the way of the cross, to be emptied of my false self, so that I might fully engage with other human beings for the purpose of love and peace. It is through the reconciling advocacy of Jesus with the Creator that I am at peace with God and find direction for my vocation. The third person—God the Sustainer, the Holy Spirit—is the ever-present, animating force of life that moves throughout the world like wind, fire, and water. The Spirit is that which indwells, illumines, empowers, convicts, and compels me to follow the way of the cross and unites me to all things in God’s created universe and, ultimately with God. It is the dynamic relationship of these three persons that creates my life and in which I live and move and have my being. I write these words cognizant of the fact that it is for the Creator, through the Redeemer, and in the power of the Sustainer that I am able to write anything and contribute anything of value to anyone.
Finally, it is important to note one last audience. The accidental audience. A text like this takes on a life of its own and may be read by many different people over a long span of time. This is especially true in the digital, internet age. You may be reading this in the year 2073, orbiting around Mars, or you may be in the year 2016, in the next suburb over from me, with no idea that we’ve walked past each other in WalMart. I invite you, the accidental, but beloved reader, to engage in your own experience of these stories as you read them in your own time, through your medium of choice—laptop, tablet, phone, printed copy—in your own space—coffee shop, office, public bus, bamboo hut—for your own reasons, and interpret them in light of your own story. My hope, and prayer, is that you will learn something new, see something in a new way, and be inspired to move further into your own set of stories with hope for God’s preferred and promised future.
The reason I am writing this dissertation boils down to one simple word. Love. I love God, the church, and the world. I realize that this may sound trite, but I truly mean this. Let me explain. First, when I say love, I don’t mean that sentimental feeling we get when we watch a Hallmark movie, or see a cute puppy, or go on a first date. No, love is something much deeper than that. It is like a root that burrows deep into the core of your being that wraps so tightly inside of you that when it seems that all else has been stripped away by the storms of stress and conflict, the root remains.
I cannot explain God. In fact, the more I study theology the less I can explain anything and the more I stand in awe at the complexity, beauty, and incomprehensible love and grace that is the Triune Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of this amazing universe. I have known God’s love since I was a child. It was first manifest through my parents as they demonstrated faithful love to me, to my brothers, and to the congregations they served. I have always wanted to live my life in service to and for the glory of God. My understanding of God has been viewed through my experiences in the Baptist lens, the Mega-church Evangelical lens, the Emerging/House Church lens, and now is expanding exponentially through the missional/Lutheran lens. The constant throughout all these lenses is my personal experience of God’s love and grace in my own life and the deep sense that God has led me to each place that I have lived and served. I have followed these leadings, because I love God and trust in God’s love and faithfulness to me and to the world God is creating. Now, I believe that God has led me to this research project. It is my prayer that the things we learned will help others grow deeper into the love of God.
My love for the church is not a naïve love. I grew up as a pastor’s kid and watched the church repeatedly abuse my parents through angry disagreements and church splits. I have been a pastor in the local suburban church for over twenty years and have also experienced the same kind of anger and division in the church. So, why do I love the church? Because the church is people and people are a wonderful mess that are loved by God and are in the complex process of growing up and growing into the grace of God. I am just as messed up as anyone else. The Church, with all its faults, is the only place where people are gathered around the risen Christ and, in the power of the Holy Spirit, are sent to be prophetic partners in the world.
I write this dissertation because I think the church is deeply divided over many issues. These divisions cause a destructive polarity—an us against them mentality—in the body of Christ. If the church is going to be the prophetic public companion that it is called to be, then the things we learned in this project may prove helpful for the church to find a third way of peace between warring factions. Hopefully, this will create spaces for God’s love to flow more freely in the church and in society as a whole.
I’m not referring to the world that the Apostle John noted when he said, “Do not love the world” (1 John 2:15). He was referring to the distorted thinking of human systems that is contrary to the grace of God. That is not what I mean when I say that I love the world. What I mean is that I love this universe that is God’s creation. The universe is eternally being created by the relationship of the Triune God. The vast complexity and diversity of the universe is the natural reflection and essence of God and the medium through which God is continually speaking. I love the world because I am part of this world and cannot be anything other than that. Additionally, the world that the Apostle John mentioned—the broken human systems of pain and violence—needs to know the grace and love of God that is a peace that passes all understanding, demonstrated through Jesus, and made accessible through the Holy Spirit. This is God’s mission in the world and we are invited to join it every day.
The question that drives this story is: How might an increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity impact the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation in suburban ELCA congregations?
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. I have already stated that this dissertation is part of my story. It is not merely an academic exercise. It is a spiritual practice in which I am engaging. It is also an expression of my vocation as a pastor of spiritual formation and a theologian. I want to know how to cultivate spaces in which the Holy Spirit can ignite the members of the congregation to be active participants with God’s mission in their local context. The process of engaging with the RT for nine months has changed me and plunged me deeper into the life of the Triune God.
The research question is interdisciplinary. It weaves together three fairly new fields of academic 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.
The research question is important for the local church for the same reasons it is important to me. The DITB project is the story of a specific group of suburban Christians who experienced an encounter with the social Trinity and made some important discoveries. Our findings regarding spiritual formation, the Trinity, and life in the suburbs may offer helpful suggestions to encourage the local suburban congregation to grow toward a reimagined and/or deepened missional identity.
Sandra Schneiders identifies two dangers inherent within the academic study of Christian spirituality. The first is its inderdisciplinarity. The second is its self-implicating nature.
The study of spirituality itself is an interdisciplinary field as it covers history, sociology, psychology, theology, etc. My research is even more interdisciplinary than that since the interdisciplinary field of spirituality is only one of the disciplines I will explore. The research also looks at Adult Learning Theory, Epistemology, Suburban Studies, and Theology. The fear for me is that, in an academic sense, I will be a mile wide and an inch deep. Schneiders says,
One implication of this intrinsically interdisciplinary character of the study of spirituality is that the scholar in the field is usually not an ‘expert’ in the traditional sense of one who dominates the subject matter and controls the literature in a particular recognized academic sphere. I venture to affirm that no one is, or ever will be, a universal expert in spirituality. Rather, the scholar becomes a specialist in some area or aspect of spirituality and continue to learn throughout his or her career. However, the panic or sense of generalized incompetence that this can generate in students, and even in established scholars is probably unfounded….What we need to avoid in ourselves and prevent in our students is, on the one hand, and ‘undisciplined’ mixing of methods used without sufficient attention to the demands of the disciplines involved and, on the other hand, imprisonment in narrow disciplinary enclaves through fear of being less than expert.
Interdisciplinary methodology, then, requires a fine balance between breadth and depth. It must be “sufficiently broad and sufficiently focused that the [researcher] will be neither a shallow generalist nor an academic lone ranger.” Kenneth Reynhout explores this issue through an investigation of Paul Ricouer’s work. Reynhout warns that “one discourse should not colonize another discourse, or carelessly co-opt terms and ideas as if they are automatically univocal from one disciplinary context to another. This can result, Ricoeur warns, from ‘the hegemonic tendency of every scientific discipline to redefine the aims of adjacent fields in its own terms.’” How then can we have interdisciplinary study? Reynhout continues, “Interdisciplinarity…involves a form of hermeneutical translation where terms and concepts from one discipline are appropriated (and interpreted) by another. This is more than an academic exercise; for Ricoeur it is also a matter of ethics: ‘To translate is to do justice to a foreign intelligence, to install the just distance from one linguistic whole to another.’”
Another danger in the study of spirituality is its self-implicating nature. Modern scientific methodology is built upon a positivist notion that the researcher is a detached, objective observer of reality. The researcher is looking for “just the facts, ma’am.” The data retrieved from quantitative research is believed to be broad enough and statistically viable so that it can be generalized and construed as an accurate representation of reality. The study of spirituality is difficult to fit into that positivist mold. Schneiders says,
Many of us probably felt drawn into spirituality precisely because our questions about spirituality were not heuristic devices to generate research projects or ways of participating in a scholarly guild. They were real, intensely personal questions that had implications for our own lives….Hidden in the attraction to the study of spirituality is probably, for many people, a deep yearning to see God….Somehow, the researcher has to gain methodologically valid access to subjective data without denaturing the experience or getting mired in the purely private and idiosyncratic.”
Schneiders’ statement is most definitely true for me and for the motivation behind this research project. I am not interested in dead facts about spiritual practices, the church, or God. I am vibrantly involved in a relationship with God, the church, and the world and I believe that this research has changed me in the process of its unfolding.
Schneiders offers us a perspective that brings comfort and legitimacy to the interdisciplinary and self-implicating nature of this research.
While we affirm the critical ideals of modern scholarship, it is past time to admit that the Enlightenment ideal of scientific objectivity is, and always has been, an illusion. A benefit of the recent explosion of “social location” theory has been to make us all aware that the only kind of knowing available to us as humans is subjective. There is no presuppositionless, non-perspectival knowing mind that conforms to a free-standing object known in its totality and without affecting it. All human inquiry is self-implicating and all knowledge is personal to some degree. The only true critical approach to the knowing process is self-knowledge and honesty about our social location and presuppositions, and methodological control of their effects.
Schneiders claims that this form of research has found its place within the academy with the rise of constructive postmodern thought. She contrasts this to deconstructive postmodern thought which, she claims, leads only to nihilism. However,
Such constructive postmodernism is perhaps a context in which Christian spirituality as an academic discipline can find dialogue partners. The conversation will be humbler, no doubt, but perhaps more in tune with reality than either the totalizing discourse of medieval Christendom which knew it was the only game in town, or the inflated rhetoric of the Enlightenment “man” who was the exultant measure of all things, or yet the deconstructivist who makes and unmakes a tinker toy reality as a playful diversion until cosmic bedtime. For the immediate future, spirituality, in the context of the modern academy, will have to march to a different drummer. But the postmodern beat is getting louder. In a constructive postmodern context, spirituality as a self-implicating discipline will be no stranger.
I name these dangers and I claim the limitations involved in qualitative, interdisciplinary research. The findings that I will present in chapter four cannot provide grand generalizations that are universally true, according to the measurements of statistical reliability. I will only be able to name the lived experience of this very small group of people, in one small section of a tiny part of a Metropolitan area, which is only one of thousands in the world. I am also aware of how much my bias is present in the data.
Some scholars may dismiss this research as anecdotal. Yet, I believe that the lived experience of this group of people is valuable. It is like the sparrow that Jesus mentioned in Matthew 10:29. It is small, but it is an important particularity in God’s vast universe. It is worth studying, and, in the studying, we encounter God. You are invited to bring your story into conversation with our story. As you dwell in this text, I pray that you hear the Word of God as the Word, through this story, dwells deeply in you.
 See Walter R. Fisher, Human Communication as Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason, Value, and Action (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1987).
 Fink argues for a conversational, first person style in his dissertation. He claims that the nature of his topic—public discourse—necessitated his choice. I make a similar move here. I will be making a case that spiritual formation flows from the relationality of God and is embodied in a communicative rationality. We are called to listen to God in the other as well as tell God’s story as it is lived out in our experience. By directing the reader in the first person I am embodying the very thing that I propose. See Ben Fink, “Organized Ideas, or Defeating the Culture Wars (What We Need to Know, and How We Need to Know It)” (Dissertation, University of Minnesota, 2014), ix-xii.
 Here I am writing to the fictitious, disembodied “reader” which is a larger category that addresses any potential reader. The process of writing sometimes requires language that speaks to all audiences, even though specific audiences are identified. You, as a specific reader within one of the identified audiences are invited to grant me the necessity to slip in and out of the direct address as the context demands.
 Ages range from 30-75 years old
 This is speculation, of course, but the demographic data from the ELCA indicate that the RT represents the majority of the ELCA in all regions–urban, suburban, or rural.
 This is the missio dei. This concept has been at the heart of the missional church conversation since it first came to the forefront during the IMC meetings of the 50s and 60s. I choose not to dwell on the term missio dei because it has become muddied in the last decade as different camps have tried to frame it within their own imagination of the God-Word-World relationship.
 I am indebted to Dr. Patrick Keifert for this theological imagination.
 See Samuel M. Powell, Participating in God: Creation and Trinity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003).
 I also name the accidental reader to acknowledge the theoretical bias from which I am writing. I will explore this more fully in the postfoundational frame in chapter two. For now, let me simply acknowledge that this text will take on a life of its own—a horizon—and become a subject with which the reader will engage and bring his or her own horizon. May the fusion of those horizons produce the fruit of God’s Spirit in the world.
 I am indebted to Dr. Gary Simpson for the phrase prophetic public companion. I will expound more fully on this concept as we progress. Gary M. Simpson, Critical Social Theory: Prophetic Reason, Civil Society, and Christian Imagination, Guides to Theological Inquiry (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 144-145.
 I will articulate this theological perspective more clearly in chapter two under the Trinity frame.
 Sandra Schneiders, “The Study of Christian Spirituality: Contours and Dynamics of a Discipline” in Elizabeth Dreyer and Mark S. Burrows, eds., Minding the Spirit: The Study of Christian Spirituality (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 14.
 Ibid., 13.
 Ricoeur quoted in Kenneth A. Reynhout, Interdisciplinary Interpretation: Paul Ricoeur and the Hermeneutics of Theology and Science, 221.
 Ibid., 226.
 An allusion to the character Sergeant Friday on the 1960s television show Dragnet.
 Sandra Schneiders, “The Study of Christian Spirituality: Contours and Dynamics of a Discipline” in Dreyer and Burrows, eds., 17-18.
 Ibid., 20.
 Ibid., 21.