Method Matters: How The Process We Used In The PAR Research Is Trinitarian Praxis

One of the most important findings from the DITB project is that method matters. The way in which we pursued this question is as much a part of the answer as any findings we may propose as a result. I will suggest, in this section, that the process we used in our project is a trinitarian praxis that can serve as a helpful model for missional leadership in the suburban context. The process to which I refer includes the following components: Dwelling in the Word, collaboratively creating action projects, creating spaces—both digital and physical—for ongoing communication and collaboration, and regrouping to engage in communicative, theological reflection on the actions.

I make this suggestion based upon two warrants. First, it has theoretical warrants. The team’s methodology reflects the established pedagogical models of Groome, Brookfield, Palmer, and Scharer/Hilberath. Second, it has experiential warrant. The data strongly suggest that each member of the team experienced significant impact in their ideation and praxis of spiritual formation as a result of the increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity. The increased awareness, however, happened through multiple modalities. First, it came through a propositional presentation through the videos. Second, it came through a narrative engagement as I shared my story and each team member was invited to join their story into the larger story. Third, it came through the experiential praxis of Dwelling in the Word.

Pedagogical Implications

One vital aspect of leading spiritual formation in the local congregation is that of instruction. This is increasingly true in our society as the biblical narrative becomes decreasingly a part of the public vernacular. The Lutheran church has always valued the catechesis of children through Sunday School and Confirmation classes. However, there is an increasing need for adult catechesis, especially if the church becomes truly missional and engages the neighbor who will most likely have little to no knowledge of scripture or Christian doctrine.

How then, should the missional leader engage in adult catechesis? I have already stated the pedagogical framework of Groome, Brookfield, Palmer, and Scharer/Hilberath in chapter two. The common thread of these pedagogical methodologies is that adult learners must engage in communicative, participatory, multivalent, practically oriented learning environments in order to learn and grow. A key word in this methodology is praxis. Praxis is reflective action. Adult learners must take action, then pause to reflect on this action, and then allow their reflection to shape the course of the next action. This is true in all adult education, but in adult catechesis within the local congregation the process takes on a new dimension. The reflective action is a theological process. The adult learner takes action, then pauses to reflect theologically by asking how is God present in this action, or what is God doing in this action?

The RT experienced theological praxis in two ways: Dwelling in the Word and action projects. First, let us explore how the Dwelling in the Word exercise contributed to the increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity in the RT as it relates to the various modalities of instruction.

I mentioned earlier that there are three ways in which the social Trinity was introduced to the RT. The first was through the animated videos. This method was the closest I came to the traditional lecture-style teaching most common in the modern pedagogy. Information was transferred in a one-way stream from the video to the passive, receptive viewer. The second method was a presentation of my own story as I encountered the social Trinity and experienced a transformation of my own ideation and praxis of spiritual formation. This narrative was presented both in written form on the blog and in a public lecture/interaction with the RT during session four. The presentation was followed by a large group discussion.

The RT team indicated that both of these methods were effective in communicating the information about the social Trinity, and were necessary to the process. However, I would argue that the third method of increasing the awareness and understanding of the social Trinity was the most effective. The third method was the Dwelling in the Word exercise. This was the most effective, and, ironically, the most imperceptible of the methods because it was less about information transfer about the social Trinity and more about the experiential knowledge of the Trinity as the exercise was taking place.

I would argue that Dwelling in the Word is a Trinitarian Praxis. I should point out that I was surprised by the Dwelling in the Word exercise in this regard. I chose the texts for the Dwelling exercises—John 14:15-24; John 15:1-17; and John 16:5-15—because they contain compelling scriptural evidence of the social Trinity. What surprised me about the exercise was that the RT very rarely spoke explicitly about the Trinity. I expected the RT team to read about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and the language of indwelling and raise logical red flags to protest the impossibility of such language. If there is one God, then how can there be three persons? That is the question that I thought the passage would evoke. Further, I thought the subsequent discussions about the text would raise Trinitarian issues and cause a transformation of understanding regarding the Trinity. This did not happen. Instead, the RT was very comfortable with the Trinitarian language. They readily accepted the relationship with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The conversations that happened during the Dwelling exercises centered more on cultivating the relationships that exist between the branch/disciple and the Vine/Jesus, the Vine/Jesus and the Gardner/Father, the fruit/branch and the world, and how the Holy Spirit worked throughout all these relationships to ensure stability and cohesiveness.

The RT articulated two ways that the Dwelling in the Word exercise helped the project. The first is in regard to the Holy Spirit. The Dwelling exercise heightened their awareness of the Holy Spirit as an active agent in the world and broadened their horizon as to where and how the Holy Spirit is present. The RT, having all been raised in a Christian context, was aware of the Holy Spirit because of the exposure to the Creeds. However, many indicated that the Holy Spirit was a confusing, enigmatic idea that seemed confined to doctrine. Now, they reported, as a result of the Dwelling in the Word and the DITB project they are beginning to sense the presence of the Holy Spirit, not just in the church but in their daily experiences and in the world in which they live and move.

The second way the RT indicated that the Dwelling exercise helped the project was in regard to how it prepared them to engage in the project itself. The Dwelling exercise forced the RT to do two things that are contrary to the normal suburban lifestyle. First, it invited them to slow down. The RT all reported that practicing the Dwelling exercise invited them into an uncomfortable place where they had to slow down. They were, at first, frustrated with the fact that we dwelt in the same text for three sessions. The modern, suburban mind is used to taking in data in short bursts and then moving on to the next thing. The slow process of dwelling in the same text was foreign to the team. Additionally, the text was read twice during each session. The slowness of the process, according to their reports, opened up pathways of awareness that they had not experienced before. They said that the slowing effects of the exercise allowed them to be more focused on the task of the discussion of the project once we got to that portion of the meeting. Without the discipline of slowing, they said, they may not have been able to get the fullness of the DITB project.

The second thing the Dwelling forced them to do that is contrary to the suburban lifestyle is to listen. The typical white, middle-class, suburbanite is used to being in a place of power and privilege in society. This is true of the RT. Each of them are leaders in their own way, whether it be in work, church, or the fact that they all are parents. People who experience agency in society tend to speak to others and share their own opinion, rather than stop to listen to the other. The Dwelling in the Word exercise invited the RT into the uncomfortable, and unfamiliar space of listening intently to the other. The fact that each person was invited to represent their conversation partner’s thoughts and words to the large group compelled them to listen in a way that all of them confessed was unnatural for them.

I said earlier that I expected the RT to experience transformation regarding the Trinity through the conversations that would emerge from the logical inconsistencies evoked from the text. This did not happen. I would suggest that the Dwelling in the Word exercise increased the awareness and understanding of the social Trinity, not through logical discussion, but through the actual experience of the social Trinity. The theological basis of the social Trinity is relational ontology, as I have argued in chapter two. A relational ontology suggests that it is through the humble submission of the individual self to the other, and the interdependent relationship that happens between them that constitutes the self. Further, it is the work of the Holy Spirit that is the medium through which the interdependence flows. The process of active listening and communicative action requires three parts. First, there is the active self—the I, the agent, the Ego—that engages the other through listening and speaking. Second, there is the other to which the self speaks and listens. The other is also an active self—an I, the agent, and another Ego. The conversation is the meeting of two subject/objects. These two apparently autonomous selves are separate from each other and will usually stand in a polarized either/or stance that can lead only to a stalemate. In order for communicative action to take place there must be a third party, a tie breaker, who can fill the space between the two agent/subjects and be a medium of communication. This is the Holy Spirit.[1]

I would argue that the discipline of Dwelling in the Word allowed the RT to experience the movement of the Holy Spirit and the perichoretic power to which the texts bore witness. This experiential knowledge of the social Trinity allowed the RT to find an internal motivation to engage in the DITB project, create action projects, follow through with them, and report that they had experienced a significant impact in their ideation and praxis of spiritual formation as a result of their involvement.

The three modes of instruction—presentational, narrative, and experiential—are necessary components of leading in missional spirituality. They form a Trinity of their own. First, there is a certain otherness to the information that is new to the learner.[2] The otherness of the data must be transferred at some level. This is similar to the otherness of the Father/Mother/Creator—the first person of the Trinity. Second, the narrative mode demonstrates that information is best understood in the context of a story. This is true for two reasons. First, everyone has a story and therefore has a frame of reference in which to hear the narrative. Second, a narrative is open to interpretation and invites the listener to bring their own story into the narrative. This is similar to the second person of the Trinity who became flesh and lived an embodied, human story that connects to our human frame of reference, is open to interpretation, and invites us to bring our own narrative into it. God tented among us. Finally, the experiential mode creates spaces in which individuals can learn about the presence and movement of God in a multi-sensory, supra-rational manner that deepens their understanding but often surpasses the ability to express it in words. This is the mysterious movement of the Holy Spirit—the third person of the Trinity—moving in, with, under, against, and for the individual and the group and creating a bond of peace that passes understanding.

I began this section stating that method matters. The DITB project used a methodology that is Trinitarian Praxis. It allowed the research team to experience the social Trinity through multiple modalities and, in so doing, deepened their sense of connection to God and each other. It also broadened their horizon for the scope and potential of missional spirituality as they seek to find where God is at work in the world and join God in it. I would suggest that this methodology may be a positive practice for leading missional congregations in the suburban context.

What Do S’Mores Have To Do With Anything?

I stated that the RT experienced theological praxis in two ways. The first was through Dwelling in the Word, which I addressed above. Let us now turn our attention to the second way in which the RT experienced theological praxis: The action projects. The original design of the project was that the RT team would use Sessions Five and Six to create action projects that they would pursue during the months between April and November.

This is another area where I was surprised by the DITB project. It was my assumption that the team would create projects that would somehow reflect the process that we experienced in the sessions during Phase One. I imagined that they would gather friends, family, or neighbors to engage in Dwelling in the John passages, perhaps watch the videos, engage in conversations, and report a change in people’s ideation and praxis of spiritual formation. Nothing like this happened.

I will now look at each project that was successfully completed and seek to understand what happened, what was learned, and how it fits into the overall scope of the DITB project.

Sunday night s’mores.

Rob, Kelly, and Tiffany held an event each Sunday evening during the Summer months. The event took place in the parking lot of Ascension Lutheran. They used a portable grill to create a fire, provided the materials needed to make s’mores, and created a space in which anyone could stop by, make and eat s’mores, and connect. The idea came from the fact that many suburbanites spend the weekend at the cabin, thus miss the fellowship and connection of their local congregation. The Sunday S’mores event would allow those who had been disconnected to stop by the parking lot on their way back from the cabin and reconnect with a God-centered community before entering into the regular flow of the work week. Since the event was outside in a parking lot, it did not matter how a person was dressed, or whether they were dirty and grungy from the lake or camping. It was simply a safe place.

The original intention was to advertise the event in two ways. The first was through natural connections from the team via personal communication, a Facebook event page, and announcements in the weekly worship services at Ascension. The second was to prayerfully canvas the adjacent neighborhood and inform the neighbors of the event and invite them to participate. The team reports that they were successful in the first way, but never made the time to connect to the neighborhood.

The team followed through with the project and met every Sunday night in the summer. The attendance was very good. However, they noted that the attendees varied greatly throughout the weeks. Rob laments the failure to connect to the neighborhood, since he felt this was the heart of the missional piece of the event. However, he recognized that a seed was planted for a missional space. They intend to do it again next year and connect with the neighborhood at that time.

Regular participation at Feed My Starving Children.

John and Mary chose to commit to serving at Feed My Starving children on one shift per week. They intentionally invited people from their workplace who were not involved in a church. They followed through with this commitment and plan to continue doing it. They made two observations about this experience. First, it felt very natural and was not a forced sense of sharing their faith. Second, the fact that they placed an open invitation to join the event on the bulletin board in their work spaces opened up spaces for faith conversations that would have never otherwise opened up in the work environment. Many workmates joined their regular FMSC team and constructive faith conversations naturally emerged.

Participating in the planning of women’s retreat.

Heather was invited to be on the Women’s Retreat Planning Team at Ascension. The retreat took place at the beginning of November, just before the DITB project officially ended. She had been thinking deeply about the social Trinity throughout the course of the DITB project and decided to bring the social Trinity into the planning and teaching of the Women’s retreat.

Within the acorn is the potential for a towering oak tree, strong and rooted, able to weather any storm. God the creator made it so. There is a profound mystery in a seed. In fact Juliann of Norwich once held a hazel nut in her hand and she had the revelation of a deep truth about all of life. Basically, what she heard was this in relation to the seed: God created it. God loves it. God sustains it. One of the things this acorn must do before it can accomplish its purpose is to stop. Stop moving. Stop rolling around the yard. It needs to pause and basically come to a still spot, and then God can start unfolding the miracle that is in the seed. The seed needs to rest in the creator before the sprouts come out or the roots start developing. When the acorn finally comes to stop, and even is buried in a way, when it dies to itself as an acorn, it is then that God can provide nurture and support, and then the acorn will be transformed and will begin its purpose of becoming a mighty oak. This seed can be like our calm in the chaos of life. Before we develop that sense of deep calm and trust, we too, have to basically stop running. We too have to die to ourselves in a way so that our Creator can transform us in the same way he transforms an acorn into an oak tree. Not that we have to stop doing all the things that are out there for us to do. So much of what keeps us busy is the very vocation that God has called us to do. But God has called us to our work to be an extension of God’s grace and love in this world. If we push on too strong, if we never stop to just be in the presence of our creator, if we do not allow ourselves to be buried in a way and then nurtured, we don’t really know where God wants us to send our branches. So again, today is a day about stopping, in order to be nurtured, in order for God to help us grow our roots a little bit.

Designing of adult formation plan.

Phil is a retired Lutheran pastor and has a penchant for theology and teaching. He proved to be a healthy interlocutor throughout the project and often sparred with me on the website chat forums. He was openly resistant to the idea of the social Trinity at the beginning of the project, but consistently expressed his disagreement with a spirit of grace and constructive critique. His openness to entertain the ideas and wrestle with them throughout the course of the project was encouraging to the other RT team members and humbling to me as a pastor and scholar.

Something clicked for Phil along the way. He found my addition of the relational and entanglement language to be a helpful corrective to the social language. Phil began to see that the relational/entangled Trinity was the dynamic structure of the universe and he imagined an entire Adult Formation Curriculum and System constructed around the Trinity, the images of Trinity within our own human nature, and the relationality of our existence with God in the world. He was prolific throughout the months of the project and generated hundreds of pages of ideas and course outlines based on his newly revised understanding of the Trinity as it relates to spiritual formation.

Phil’s language demonstrates, in my opinion, the strongest shift from the dualistic thinking of the traditional Western Trinitarian model to the relationality model we discussed in the DITB project. He stated on the first night that he was interested to see how the Trinity, which is “up here,” said while holding one hand up above his head, connects to spiritual formation, which is “down here” said while holding his hand below his waist. He could not see how they connected. Then, after the weeks and months of wrestling with the Trinitarian Praxis, he reported that his understanding of spiritual formation had changed.

Reflection on the leading of yoga classes.

Phyllis is a yoga instructor. She teaches a daytime yoga class for preschoolers a few times during the week and an evening class for adults. She intentionally creates a time for Dwelling in the Word as part of the meditation process. She reports that the majority of the members of her class are not from the ELCA. They enjoy the yoga classes because she included a time of Dwelling in the Word. They would tell her, “I’m so glad you do that, because we don’t have that ability any place else where we ‘exercise’ where we can incorporate our faith.”

Intentional journaling.

Heather, Sharon, and John each regularly journaled throughout the months of the project and emailed their journals to me. Each of their journals was unique to their personality and place in life, yet each of them, in their own way, reflected a genuine interaction with the social Trinity, spiritual formation, and their everyday lives. Heather’s journals included lengthy, well-written, reflective narratives that integrated her own life experience as a missionary, a health care provider, and a mother into her reflection on the Trinity, the use of gender to imagine God, and the relationality of life. Sharon is a local politician. She reflected on her interactions with suburbanites as she knocked on over four thousand doors during the months of the project. She saw the multiplicity of stories, the loneliness, and the need for connection among the people. She felt the presence of the Holy Spirit working in, with, and through her as she simply listened to people. John had never journaled before. He began his journaling by keying in one simple sentence a day on his iPhone and emailing me the weekly “Urinals”—as he called them—to me. His thoughts and observations progressed and deepened as the months progressed. By the end of the project his Urinals contained thick, deeply philosophical and theological paragraphs for each day. His sense of God’s presence in everything deepened as the journaling exercise encouraged him to be more observant of how God was present throughout the ordinary flow of life.

A Pastor’s Critique

I attended a dinner one evening during the summer at which several pastors and church leaders from around North America were gathered. The topic of the DITB project came up and I was asked to give examples of the types of projects the team created. I relayed some of the stories listed above. One of the pastors seemed uncomfortable with this project and asked me directly, “What do S’mores have to do with the Trinity? How can you demonstrate that any of this is connected to your theological proposal and not to something else, like intercessory prayer, or any number of things?” I was stunned at the moment and did not know exactly how to answer, but the question haunted me for the next few weeks.

I brought the question to the team. “Help me connect these projects to the Trinity,” I asked. The team pondered this question and concluded that it was the experience of the relationality of God in the process of the DITB project that allowed them to imagine that these projects were a spiritual practice that embodied their emerging awareness.

We are not alone in this discovery. A growing body of research indicates that action research itself is a generative, Trinitarian, spiritual practice for the congregation.[3] Martin says,

Action research works well in a congregational setting by being deliberately transformative. Change is an essential component of action research. And change is (or ought to be) an essential component of congregational life in dynamic social communities. A tension all churches feel is maintaining the integrity of their theological beliefs, while being flexible in the strategies by which they share and practice those beliefs. In many churches, initiating and facilitating change in practice is problematic. However, action research provides an approach to implement substantial organisational change through collaborative reflection and dialogue. The community-building, empowering nature of action research gives people a ‘voice’ and a say in the change process. Change is not imposed by either the pastor or an elite leadership team, but through collaboration and negotiation. In volunteer organisations, like churches, such a collaborative approach to organisational transformation is not only very appropriate, but virtually essential for authentic change to be initiated and sustained.”[4]


[1] Compare this to Jenson’s argument that the Holy Spirit breaks the stalemate between Father and Son. Jenson, Systematic Theology.

[2] This is reminiscent of the discussion regarding Parker Palmer’s two pedagogical models. He argues that the modern, teacher-centered model views the topic as on object that is completely other. His corrective model suggests that the topic is a subject into which the learner engages in dialogue. I agree with Palmer, but here I highlight the fact that, in every dialogue each subject is also an object. There is always a sense of strange otherness that remains shrouded in unknowability, no matter how transparent the dialogue may proceed. Therefore, my point in this statement is to acknowledge the necessary otherness of both the first person of the Trinity and the topic of study.

[3] See the work being pursued at Heythrop College. Helen Cameron, Deborah Bhatti, and Catherine Duce, Talking About God in Practice: Theological Action Research and Practical Theology (London: SCM Press, 2010).

[4] Bruce Martin, “Transforming a Local Church Congregation through Action Research,” Educational Action Research 9, no. 2 (2001): 264.