Spiritual Formation and Adult Learning Theory: Establishing a Participatory Methodology

The DITB project is a story of people in formation. The research question itself has both explicit and implicit implications for how we should frame this project with regard to how people are formed. It explicitly names the term spiritual formation, thus it will be necessary to discuss and define this term in the context of the research. The question also implicitly refers to adult education in that it asks how an increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity might impact ideation and praxis of spiritual formation. Therefore, it will be necessary to frame the project within a particular theoretical perspective on adult learning and pedagogical methodologies.[1]

Spirituality and Spiritual Formation: Defining Terms

What is spiritual formation, and more precisely, how do I use this term in the context of this research? In order to answer that question, I must briefly address the relationship between the terms spiritual formation and spirituality. Many people today are more comfortable with the term spirituality, because it has broader application than Christianity or any form of organized religion. I prefer the term spiritual formation because it implies movement and change. This is, admittedly, a personal preference and I will use the terms interchangeably throughout this paper.[2]

Schneiders makes a distinction between the definition of spirituality and the definition of Christian spirituality. Spirituality, she says, is “the experience of conscious involvement in the project of life-integration through self-transcendence toward the ultimate value one perceives.”[3] Christian spirituality “as an academic discipline is an attempt to realize, by bringing serious and personally transforming study to bear on the ultimate human value of union with God, what is arguably the most cited text in the Christian canon, Jesus’ promise, ‘if you remain in my word you will become my disciples and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free’ (Jn. 8:31-33).”[4] She states that “the primary aim of the discipline of spirituality…is to understand the phenomena of the Christian spiritual life as experience…it is a function of interpretation (hermeneutics).”[5]

Schneiders’ perspective on spirituality gives further justification for the use of action research and constructivist methodologies. The act of the research itself was a form of spiritual formation as the RT interacted with the social Trinity, each other, and the neighbor.

Another important aspect of spirituality that frames this research is the idea that spirituality is inherently a public practice, not only a private one. Philip Sheldrake is a key voice in this perspective.[6] He says

the mystical-contemplative dimension of spirituality—often described in terms of interiority—is a vital ingredient in our engagement with transformative practice in the outer, public world. Unfortunately, however, Western culture remains deeply polarized. The private sphere (inwardness, family, and close friends) is privileged as the backstage where the individual is truly him/herself, relaxing unobserved before putting on various personae which the self needs in order to play out different roles on the stage of social life. But, from a Christian point of view, is living in public a matter of a role that it is possible to shed or opt not to play…. Human existence and Christian discipleship inherently embody a common task. “The public” is thus better thought of as a dimension of identity, an aspect of the individual self.[7]

Schneiders’ and Sheldrakes’ definition create an important focus for the issues to which we must attend in this research project. Schneiders, in an attempt to create the broadest definition of spirituality possible, indicates that spirituality is:

  1. Conscious involvement: Let us call this intentionality. Spirituality requires doing something. The individual has some agency.
  2. Life-integration through self-transcendence: Let us call this the means. There is a process in which (1) all of life takes on integrated meaning—it has purpose, and (2) the means to get there is to get beyond one’s self.
  3. Toward the ultimate value one perceives: Let us call this vision. Spirituality requires a goal—a telos—that compels the individual to take action and move toward self-transcendence.[8]

These categories are like empty boxes allowing each individual, operating from his or her own lifeworld, to fill in the blanks. What unifies all spiritualities is that they have these boxes, but what distinguishes them is what they place inside the boxes.

This system correlates with Dallas Willard’s proposal of VIM—Vision, Intention, Means.[9] I mention Dallas Willard in this context for the following reasons. First, it is my observation that there are two camps in the Spiritual Formation/Spirituality conversation in the academy today. The line seems to be drawn along similar contours of the classic fault line between Ecumenical Christians and Evangelical Christians that has characterized Western theology in the twentieth century.[10] Schneiders and Sheldrake represent the former and Willard and Foster[11] represent the latter. Second, Dallas Willard was a significant part of my spiritual formation.[12] Third, I believe an important move for the future of the missional church is for these two camps to begin cross-pollinating with more frequency.[13] Fourth, I believe that one of the primary reasons for this division is the ongoing debate between transcendence and immanence that I noted in the Trinity Frame.

The fourth point mentioned above is worth parsing out further. It gets at the heart of what I am trying to discern through this research project. It is my assumption that the model of the Trinity an individual operates within—either the Transcendent Immanent Trinity or the Immanent Economic Trinity—is related to how she “fills in the blanks” of Schneiders’ boxes.

Allow me to draw a caricature of each lifeworld in order to demonstrate the differences. On the one hand, the typical evangelical Christian functions within the lifeworld of dualistic, substance ontology—the Transcendent Immanent Trinity. This informs the Vision, Intention, and Means accordingly. The vision is to escape the physical world so that the individual might be united with God in Heaven. The intention rests solely on personal agency, fueled by radical individualism. The means, and definition of self-transcendence, is to (a) pray to accept Jesus as Savior (this is dying to self), and (b) work diligently to practice spiritual disciplines to promote personal holiness (read as separateness from the fallen world) and to be empowered to share the Gospel with others so that they might also escape the physical world. Self-Transcendence, then, is the ultimate, substantive transcendence to be with God in Heaven when you die, or when Jesus returns, whichever comes first.

On the other hand, the typical ecumenical Christian functions within the immanence lifeworld, in which there is only one substance—the physical universe—of which God is indistinguishable—the Immanent Economic Trinity. The vision is to either (a) bring about peace on earth through the eradication of war, poverty, hunger, and disease, or, (b) to find inner peace, tranquility, and to find resonance with the energy of the universe (God). The intention is pure individual agency. The means is through either (a) community participation—understanding that community is the voluntary association of individuals—getting everyone involved to work together toward the common good, or (b) spiritual practices like meditation and yoga that are intended to bring the physical body into alignment with the universe (God). The self-transcendence of the former is to put the good of the many over the good of the self. The self-transcendence of the latter is to release the illusion of the false-self—Ego—and connect to the true self that is one with the universe (God).[14]

These two Christian Spiritualities are radically different and form a seemingly irreconcilable duality. Ironically, they exist as two sides of the same modern dogma. They exist because of the dualisms prevalent in modernity—the Platonic dualism that divides God from creation, the Cartesian dualism that divides observer from object and spawns rationalism, and the Kantian dualism that divides perceiver from object, and spawns subjectivism. It is my proposal that a postfoundational theology—which is formed within the social/relational/entangled Trinity—provides a third way that can reconcile these divergent Christian Spiritualities and invite the body of Christ to imagine new rhythms of spiritual formation that reform the church in a missional imagination to be prophetic public companions witnessing to the hope of God’s preferred and promised future. It is my further proposition that both Schneiders/Sheldrake—on the ecumenical side—and Willard—on the Evangelical side—are already making those moves through a phenomenological understanding of knowledge and communicative action.[15]

Theories of Adult Learning

A consistent theme throughout this chapter and its various frames has been the move from a modernist perspective to that of a postmodern or postfoundational perspective. This theme continues in our discussion of adult learning. The research question presented an educational challenge in which the pedagogical and research methodology was as important as the question itself. I was faced with a fundamental question during the planning phase of this project: Would I use modernist, instrumental methodologies to convince the team that certain ideas regarding the social Trinity are preferred to older models, or would I engage the team in a collaborative discovery process in which the outcome of the learning experience was unknown to me?

It should be apparent from the previous discussions regarding the Trinitarian nature of the Word of God, postfoundationalist epistemology, the missional church, and the social/relational/entangled Trinity that it was necessary that I engage the research team in a methodology that embodied these ideological perspectives. I will now articulate how I framed the research project within a postfoundational, constructivist, participatory methodology by drawing upon the theoretical models found in Palmer, Kegan, Brookfield, and Hess.

Parker Palmer and Subject-Centered Learning

Parker Palmer teacher centeredParker Palmer provides a helpful contrast between two pedagogical models that describe the shift from modernist to postfoundational methodologies and that help explain my choice of methodology for the DITB project. The first model is the teacher-centered model that is built upon the myth that knowledge is something that can be obtained through objective observation of a topic. The role of the teacher, in this model, is to acquire enough knowledge about the object of study to be considered an expert in that particular field. The teacher then turns away from the object of study and turns toward the students, who lack knowledge and are amateurs in the field. The students are empty vessels that must be filled up with knowledge by the expert until the students reach a level of knowledge when they, too, have the potential to be considered an expert.

The teacher-centered model is untenable for the missional leader for both epistemological and ethical reasons. We have already discussed the postfoundational assertion that knowledge is hermeneutically situated within the relationality and perspective of the knower, therefore revealing that objective knowledge is a myth. The teacher-centered model is ethically untenable because it creates a power differential within the learning environment that is dangerous in two ways. First, it establishes a power hierarchy in which the teacher is considered essentially better and more powerful than the learner. Second, this hierarchical system promotes hegemony and colonizing tactics for the indoctrination of ideas and the perpetuation of command-and-control political systems rather than the freedom to explore new ideas and the ability to discern what God is doing in the world.[17] It would be very difficult for the leader of a local congregation to utilize a teacher-centered methodology and seek a missional imagination in the church.

Parker Palmer subject-centeredPalmer offers an alternative model—the subject-centered model—that dispels the myth of objective knowledge and embraces postfoundationalist epistemology. The subject-centered model recognizes that any given topic is, in itself, both an object and a subject. It is an object in that it is separate from the learner and can be observed. However, it is also a subject in that the topic brings something to the learner that invites the learner into dialogue. The subject-centered model situates both the learner and the teacher into a more democratic space than the teacher-centered model. The learner has been moved from the bottom of a hierarchy in which he or she is a passive receiver of information and has been placed in a circle of equals. Here, each learner is invited to bring his or her own lived experience to the dialogue with both the subject and the other learners. The teacher has also been moved from the top of the hierarchy and has been placed alongside the other learners in the circle of equals. The teacher is invited to bring his or her own lived experience to the dialogue with the other learners.

It is important to note the language of figure 7. The students that form the circle around the subject are no longer labeled “amateur,” nor are they labeled “student” or “learner.” They are called “knower.” This is significant for Palmer and has theological implications. Palmer asserts that education is a deeply spiritual process that goes far beyond the acquisition of knowledge, but is the process of knowing in the same way that we are known. We know in the context of relatedness, and ultimately, our relatedness exists in our relatedness to God. In essence, learning is a form of prayerful meditation in which we experience the other, and in so knowing, are more fully known.[19] I would argue that this is Trinitarian knowing and is the process that the RT engaged in during the course of our project.[20]

It was important for the DITB project that I adopt a subject-centered model for the RT. Given my position as a teaching pastor and a researcher, and given the dominance of teacher-centered methods in the church and the educational systems in which the RT was raised, it was only natural that the RT expected me to present the social Trinity in a lecture-style manner. I had to break this expectation and cultivate a space in which the RT had the opportunity to engage the subject of social Trinity in a democratic, dialogical manner in which I, as the teacher, was one learner among many.

Robert Kegan and the Evolving Self

The methodologies chosen for the DITB project draw heavily upon Robert Kegan’s theories of what it means to be human and how humans develop. The uniqueness of Kegan’s theory is that it brings together existentialist psychology with developmental psychology and creates a third way that he calls a “constructive-developmental” tradition that attends to the development of the activity of meaning-constructing.[21] Kegan asserts that human beings are not “beings,” but that the human being is an activity. He says, “It is not about the doing which a human does: it is about the doing that a human is.”[22] The activity of being human is the process of making meaning out of experiential data in community. We are relational beings that continually interact in our physical and social environment and make meaning out of those interactions as we develop throughout the course of our lives.[23]

Kegan observes that neuro-typical humans have the potential to evolve through five basic orders of consciousness that alter the subject/object relationship as it pertains to making meaning. Each order is like a filter, or a set of lenses through which the individual makes sense out of—or “orders”—the experiential data. The filter is part of the subject/observer that influences how the object is perceived and understood. The filter is not perceived in itself, but is the ubiquitous lens that colors the data. As the individual evolves into the next order, she moves outside of the previous filter, and is able to observe the previous filter as a new object. This new order of consciousness is, in itself, a new filter that alters her positionality as a subject/observer and allows her to perceive the previous filter and make dramatically different forms of meaning than was previously possible. The relationship between these five orders is like the relationship between a point, a line, a plane, a sphere, and a tesseract. Each one is part of, but beyond the previous order. [24] Kegan has also observed that most neuro-typical humans reach the third order of consciousness during adolescence and stay there for the rest of their lives.

A sketch of Kegan's 5 Orders of Consciousness analogous to geometrical nodes.
A sketch of Kegan’s 5 Orders of Consciousness analogous to geometrical nodes.

It was commonly believed, prior to the 1980s, that all significant cognitive development ceased in late adolescence. In other words, a person’s ability to change the way they think stops at the onset of adulthood. It was believed that the only type of change that an adult can expect to experience is technical change. They cannot change the way they learn or the way they perceive the world. Kegan’s research seriously challenges this understanding of human development.

Kegan discovered two more orders of consciousness through which humans can move as adults. There is an important distinction between the first three orders and the last two orders. The first three orders evolve naturally in the neuro-typical child, and most neuro-typical humans begin adulthood functioning at a third order of consciousness. Unlike child development, however, not every adult will automatically progress to fourth and fifth order consciousness.

The following is a brief description of third, fourth, and fifth order consciousness. Kegan uses historical periods in Western history as a metaphor to describe these orders:

Third Order. Kegan describes the third-order consciousness as traditionalism. It is like the time in medieval Europe when the average citizen was born, lived, and died within the same village. Each person knew his or her place in society and knew the rules of that society. The world was comprised of “right” and “wrong” and each person had the choice to either comply with society or to rebel against it. The distinctive feature of this order of consciousness is that the rules of society are the filter through which the individual perceives and makes meaning out of all reality. There are no other societal systems from which to choose, there is only “the way things are.” The person operating from the third-order of consciousness views all other people through his or her own filter and judges them according to that system. It is important to note that this judgment is not born out of bigotry, but out of the intrinsic belief that there is actually only one way to view the world.

Fourth Order. Kegan uses the modern era to describe fourth-order consciousness. The twentieth century has brought the modern person into constant contact with multiple cultures and a never-ending stream of data. This barrage of data has caused us, in the modern era, to feel “In Over Our Heads”[25] and unable to cope with competing cultural perspectives. The person in third order consciousness, when faced with another cultural system different from her own, naturally creates us and them boundaries, declaring her us to be the correct way of perceiving the world and the other’s them to be wrong. These harsh boundaries have led to violence and bloodshed throughout the centuries of cultural interaction. The individual who evolves into fourth-order consciousness transcends the third-order filter and perceives that her system is one system among many. She then becomes an objective observer of systems. She is a free agent in the world, able to negotiate between systems, voluntarily interacting and valuing other systems. This consciousness allows an individual to pursue peaceful transactions with an “other” and to manage modern, plural, realities.

Fifth Order. Kegan uses the emergence into the postmodern era as a way to describe the fifth-order consciousness. There is a blessing and a curse in the fourth order consciousness. The blessing is that an individual is able to negotiate peaceful transactions between multiple systems. The curse, however, is that an individual becomes an isolated, atomistic, monad in the universe, objectively observing the other system(s), but not participating in it/them. This isolation can lead to feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and nihilism. Fourth Order consciousness has inherent flaws. First of all, it is impossible for an individual to stand outside of her own system and observe it objectively. She is a part of the system, and her part of the system is the lens through which she observes. Objectivity is a myth and—in Gadamerian terms—we all bring our own horizon to the exchange. Secondly, not only is it impossible for the individual to stand outside her own system, it is also impossible to be completely whole as an atomistic monad. Fifth-order consciousness begins to realize that the Other is not a completely separate monad with whom one can have voluntary interchange, but, rather, the relationship with the Other is necessary for constituting ones own self. All things in the universe are interwoven and mutually constitutive. In other words, we need each other in order to survive. Kegan argues that it is only when humans reach fifth-order consciousness that we can begin to understand that there are viable, peaceful alternatives to violent conflicts when negotiating significant political and ideological differences between individuals and cultures. These peaceful alternatives to violence will be more likely to lead to the mutual survival of the species than the more combative tendencies of third and fourth-order thinkers.

Kegan argues that human beings can actually learn and develop, with support, into fourth and fifth-order consciousness.[26] He has discovered that, through reflective personal and communal critique, an individual can move past blind spots and begin to practice thinking differently, thus perceiving reality from a fourth or fifth order consciousness.

Kegan’s theory is an important framework for the DITB project for three reasons. First, I would argue that Kegan’s theory describes relational ontology and provides helpful language to support my critique of substance ontology. His proposal that human being is the activity of making meaning in community aptly describes the social/relational/entangled Trinitarian essence of life that I have articulated in the Trinity frame.

The second reason Kegan’s theory is important for the DITB process has to do with spiritual formation. The process of moving from one order of consciousness to the next is a form of self-transcendence that correlates with Schneider’s definition of spirituality and the purpose for spiritual formation.[27] Kegan suggests that, with proper support from a caring community, the individual can overcome her immunity to change and progress to the next order of consciousness. The self-transcendence does not happen automatically and must begin with a form of “conversion” or “awareness” experience that is followed by intentionality. This process is in step with the Vision, Intention, and Means discussed in the previous section.

Kegan’s discussion of the fifth-order of consciousness also offers practical reasons why it is necessary for the suburban Christian to be concerned with spiritual formation. Kegan argues that, unless more humans move into fifth-order consciousness, our current human condition of escalating violence at a global level will lead to self-annihilation. This motivation for spiritual formation may be more accessible to the typical suburbanite that mere personal piety, or the fear of Hell and the hope for Heaven in the afterlife.

The third reason Kegan’s theory is important for the DITB project has to do with the purpose of the missional church. Kegan argues that the activity of human being is meaning-making. We are not empty vessels that come to church to be filled with knowledge from the teacher-centered ministry of the Word. We are not isolated, atomistic individual substances that randomly float through space in voluntary transactions. We are humans beings making meaning together. I would suggest that the missional leader is called to structure spaces in which humans can be together to be human. The act of engaging the research team in participatory, communicative action demonstrated the missional church’s vocation to invite people into being fully human as we make sense out of the Trinitarian life together.

Stephen Brookfield and Critical Social Theory

Stephen Brookfield’s pedagogical theories form an important framework for the DITB project and why I structured the project as a participatory action research team. Brookfield asserts that the facilitation of adult learning is not the smooth voyage along a storm-free river of self-actualization, but is a “transactional drama in which personalities, philosophies, and priorities of the facilitators and the participants interact continuously to influence the nature, direction, and form” of the learning process.[28] Brookfield critiques previous attempts at andragogy,[29] citing that it is based upon modernist notions of top-down models of learning. These older models are what Paulo Freire calls banking models in which the student is seen as an empty vessel and the teacher pours objective knowledge into the bank of the student’s open mind.[30] The andragogy model, Brookfield contends, supports oppressive systems that perpetuate the hegemony of Imperial regimes.

Brookfield’s pedagogical theory draws from four theoretical streams: ideology critique, psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, analytic philosophy and logic, and pragmatist constructivism. This fusion, which he calls critical pragmatism,

is one that accepts the essential accuracy and usefulness of the reading of society embedded within ideology critique. It also allies itself with the struggle to create a world in which one’s race, class, and gender do not frame the limits within which one can experience life. However, it is also skeptical of any claims to foundationalism or essentialism, that is, to the belief that there is one, and only one, way to conceive of and create such a society.[31]

He believes that adult learning should empower the student to become critically reflective of the dominant culture, thus able to communicatively construct alternate modes of being and doing that will strive for equity and justice. The adult learner brings as much to the learning environment as the instructor. It is the instructor’s job to structure and facilitate environments in which the students can engage in communicative rationality.

Brookfield’s pedagogical methodologies are especially important for the suburban context in which the DITB project took place. This may seem ironic at first, since most of the theoretical underpinnings of his theory come from Marxist and/or liberation-of-the-oppressed perspectives. His theory is important for this research on two levels. First, the people in the RT are situated within the privileged, white, suburban class that benefits directly from capitalism. There is an intrinsic blindness to this social position that needs a pedagogical methodology that will not perpetuate the hegemony, but will unmask it as a destructive power. Brookfield says that,

Critical teaching begins with developing students’ powers of critical thinking so that they can critique the interlocking systems of oppression embedded in contemporary society. Informed by a critical theory perspective, students learn to see that capitalism, bureaucratic rationality, disciplinary power, automaton conformity, one-dimensional thought, and repressive tolerance all combine to exert a powerful ideological sway aimed to ensure the current system stays intact. Critical thinking in this vein is the educational implementation of ideology critique; the deliberate attempt to penetrate the ideological obfuscation that ensures that massive social inequality is accepted by the majority as the natural state of affairs. Adults who learn to conduct this kind of critique are exercising true reason, that is, reason applied to asking universal questions about how we should live.[32]

Is this not the same question that the missional leader desires to lead the church into asking? As Christians, we pray each week that God’s kingdom may come, that God’s will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. I invited the RT to come together to dream new dreams regarding spiritual formation in the suburbs. It was my desire to echo the questions that Brookfield suggests are the purpose of his theory:

What kind of societal organization will help people treat each other fairly and compassionately? How can we redesign work so that it encourages the expression of human creativity?[33]

The second reason Brookfield’s theory is important for the DITB project is his emphasis and implementation of praxis.

[his pedagogical theory] centers on the need for educational activity to engage the learner in a continuous and alternating process of investigation and exploration, followed by action grounded in this exploration, followed by reflection on this action, followed by further investigation and exploration, followed by further action, and so on.[34]

The praxis cycle is at the heart of participatory action research. I structured the DITB project around the cycle, both at the macro and micro level. The macro level was organized around three phases. The first phase drew the RT together to interact, challenge their previous thinking, collaborate new ideas, and devise a plan of action. The second phase dispersed the team into the field to act out their plans. The third phase regrouped the team to make meaning out of the action. The desire was that this third phase would launch the team into further action, beyond the end of the project, based upon the reflective process. This macro process reflected the reflection-action-reflection praxis cycle.

The micro level also supported the praxis cycle. Each team session allowed space for communicative action in the form of structured dialogue in multiple forms—diads, triads, and small groups—quiet space for personal journaling, and large group discussion. Furthermore, the RT was encouraged to interact on the website discussion forum throughout the full course of the project. The action and communicative reflection created the tension necessary for the praxis Brookfield suggests.

Mary Hess, Participatory Action Research, and Digital Media

Mary Hess’s work with digital media and religious education provides a strong framework for both the use of digital media and the use of participatory action research methodology in the DITB research project. Digital media played a big part in the DITB project. First, I established a private online discussion forum for the RT to interact with each other at any time. Second, I created animated videos to communicate the initial information regarding the social Trinity. I showed the videos to the RT during session three, but the videos were also posted on YouTube and on the project website prior to the meeting.[35] This allowed the RT unlimited access to the videos. Third, the RT members were invited to create personal journals throughout the course of the project and either post them to the discussion forum or email them directly to me. Finally, I continually blogged about my ongoing research and invited the RT to interact with the blog via comments, discussion forums, and/or personal emails.[36]

Hess argues that creating space for interactive digital media,[37] like I described above, is reflective of the Trinitarian relationality that I have argued for in this project.[38] Hess also argues that digital technologies help religious educators to: (1) provide a richer, more multiply intelligent environment within which to learn; (2) provide more opportunities for real collaboration; (3) give pastoral leaders a better angle of vision on the challenges their congregations are facing and the specific assumptions with which they enter learning; (4) provide better access to primary-source materials, and (5) overcome constraints of geography and time.[39]

Hess has also provided the framework for why participatory action research was not simply a stylistic choice on my part for pursuing this academic project, but was inherently necessary for the proper pursuit of the question. Hess argues—in concert with my previous arguments from the postfoundational frame—that all knowledge is situated, contextual, and communicatively constructed knowledge, and therefore, any attempt to research a question within the realm of religious education must be pursued within the context of a contextually situated people. The purpose of this kind of research project is to “re” “search;” to search again and reexamine previously held beliefs and to collaboratively re-construct new meaning through the process of the communicative action that can best be structured within a participatory action research project.[40]

The DITB project question seeks to explore the impact of the social Trinity within suburban ELCA congregations. This question can only be asked and answered by suburban ELCA people. Some might argue that the limited scope of this project renders its findings unhelpful for the general use of the church at large. Hess argues that such positivist notions of knowledge are not the only—and perhaps not even the best—way to describe the universe. She further argues—drawing from feminist theology—that

research methods that refused to ‘own their partiality’ would be actively discouraged. The pursuit of universal truths would become the pursuit of highly specific truths that yet have the ability to speak to myriad difference…It is precisely this kind of research, that actively owns its commitments and is explicitly situated within a specific community, that I believe is most useful for religious educators.[41]

The DITB project explored the suburban ELCA congregation. The majority of people in the suburban context have access to the internet and various interactive digital media.[42] A research project within the context of religious education for the purpose of the missional church necessitates a space that promotes communicative rationality. Given these facts, it was an obvious choice to structure the project as a participatory action research project.

Peter Block and the Structure of Community

Block offers practical steps to create a truly collaborative space for participatory action research. He says,

The context that restores community is one of possibility, generosity, and gifts, rather than one of problem solving, fear, and retribution. A new context acknowledges that we have all the capacity, expertise, and resources that an alternative future requires. Communities are human systems given form by conversations that build relatedness. The conversations that build relatedness most often occur through associational life, where citizens show up by choice, and rarely in the context of system life, where citizens show up out of obligation. The small group is the unit of transformation and the container for the experience of belonging. Conversations that focus on stories about the past become a limitation to community; ones that are teaching parables and focus on the future restore community.[43]

Block’s methodology is an aggregate of many communicative practices. The basic methodology invites the facilitator to situate a physical space—usually a room—that is inviting and egalitarian. There is life-promoting art on the walls, good music playing in the background, locally-produced food on the table, and the chairs are set in a circle. The facilitator presents provocative and inviting questions and leads the group through a three-step process. First, the individuals are invited to reflect on their own answer to the question and possibly write and answer down or create some form of artifact to represent their idea. Second, the individuals are randomly grouped into triads and invited to share each of their individual ideas and work together to synthesize their ideas into one statement. Third, the triads are randomly connected to one other triad, forming a group of six. This group listens to both triad statements and works together to synthesize the two statements into one. Finally, the groups gather together as one large group and the statements produced by the group of six are presented to the large group, followed by a large group discussion.

This methodology allows for maximum individual participation in the whole process. Each voice has a chance to be heard and know that it has contributed to the final outcome of the larger group. This methodology is similar to and draws from other organizational practices similar to and including The Art of Hosting.[44] This methodology allowed my research to take on real legs as it empowered the RT to interact in communicative action.

In his introduction, Block acknowledges the fragmentation, isolation, and overall absence of belonging in our world today. He believes that it is the purpose of community to overcome this fragmentation. This sort of community “offers the promise of belonging and calls for us to acknowledge our interdependence. To belong is to act as an investor, owner, and creator of this place. To be welcome, even if we are strangers. As if we came to the right place and are affirmed by that choice.”[45] The distinct questions facing communities today are: How will we, together, create a future that is different from our past? How will we create a community where all citizens are connected to one another and know that their safety and success is dependent on the success of others? These questions get at the heart of the suburban situation in which our research project finds itself.


[1] It is important to note that spiritual formation/spirituality and adult education are not mutually exclusive topics. There is a growing body of literature within the field of adult learning that addresses the inherent connection between spirituality and adult pedagogical methodologies. Elisabeth Tisdell says that spirituality is “personal belief and experience of a divine spirit or higher purpose, about how we construct meaning, and what we individually and communally experience and attend to and honor as the sacred in our lives.’” Sharan B. Merriam, Rosemary S. Caffarella, and Lisa Baumgartner, Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide, 3rd ed., The Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007), 200. See also Elizabeth J. Tisdell, Exploring Spirituality and Culture in Adult and Higher Education, The Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003); Jane Kathryn Vella, Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach: The Power of Dialogue in Educating Adults, Rev. ed.Ibid. (San Francisco, CA2002); Dent C. Davis, “Dialogue of the Soul: The Phenomenon of Intrapersonal Peace and the Adult Experience of Protestant Religious Education,” Religious Education 102, no. 4 (2007); John M. Dirkx, “Images, Transformative Learning the Work of Soul,” Adult Learning 12, no. 3 (2001).

[2] I agree with Wuthnow that the spirituality needed today is beyond the sedimentary spirituality of dwelling common in the 1950s, and more grounded than the spirituality of seeking common in the 1960s-90s. Wuthnow proposes a practiced spirituality, akin to the Exercises of Ignatius Loyola or the Rules of Benedict. Some, in the Lutheran tradition, have resisted the term spiritual formation because it denotes a theology of glory or a works-based righteousness. I disagree. Yes, God has given us the gift of salvation and for this there is nothing we can do. However, God has also called us into relationship with God and others. All relationships require work. We are God’s children and our relationship with God is one of ongoing development, not for earning love or grace, but for growing within the gift of grace as we relate to the others around us. See Robert Wuthnow, After Heaven: Spirituality in America since the 1950s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

[3] Schneiders, “The Study of Christian Spirituality: Contours and Dynamics of a Discipline,” 6.

[4] Ibid., 22.

[5] Schneiders, “A Hermeneutical Approach to the Study of Christian Spirituality,” 57.

[6] Sheldrake, A Brief History of Spirituality; Sheldrake, Explorations in Spirituality: History, Theology, and Social Practice; Philip Sheldrake, “Practicing Catholic “Place”: The Eucharist,” Horizons 28, no. 2 (2001); Sheldrake, “Spirituality and Social Change: Rebuilding the Human City; Sheldrake, “Imaginative Theology: A Strategy of Subversion; Sheldrake, Spirituality and Theology: Christian Living and the Doctrine of God; Sheldrake, “Spirituality and the Integrity of Theology; Philip Sheldrake, “The Study of Spirituality,” Theological Trends.

[7] Philip Sheldrake, “Christian Spirituality as a Way of Living Publicly: A Dialectic of the Mystical and Prophetic,” in Minding the Spirit: The Study of Christian Spirituality, ed. Elizabeth Dreyer and Mark S. Burrows (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 289.

[8] Schwartz provides an excellent discussion of telos as it relates to practical wisdom—which I associate with spirituality. Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe, Practical Wisdom the Right Way to Do the Right Thing (New York: Simon & Schuster Audio,), sound recording

[9] Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002), 85-91.

[10] We can also label this the classic theologically liberal vs. conservative schism.

[11] See Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline : The Path to Spiritual Growth, 20th anniversary ed. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998); “Spiritual Formation Agenda: Richard Foster Shares His Three Priorities for the Next 30 Years,” Christianity Today 53, no. 1 (2009); Richard J. Foster and Julia L. Roller, A Year with God: Living out the Spiritual Disciplines, 1st ed. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009).

[12] See appendix A.

[13] There is hopeful evidence of this happening in the membership of the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality which is a sub-set of the American Academy of Religion.

[14] The topic of self-transcendence is much more nuanced than the polarities that I am presenting in this argument, of course. I have engaged in the discussion of this apparent dichotomy to (a) further explore the dichotomies of my own lived experience between the liberal and conservative perspectives, and (b) further demonstrate how the social Trinity provides an alternative “third way” that brings both extremes into constructive dialogue. For more on self-transcendence, see Walter E. Conn, Christian Conversion: A Developmental Interpretation of Autonomy and Surrender (New York: Paulist Press, 1986).

[15] I am deeply indebted to Gary Black for helping me draw these lines of connection between Willard and phenomenology. Gary Black, The Theology of Dallas Willard: Discovering Protoevangelical Faith (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013).

[16] Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life, 10th anniversary ed. (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2007), 100.

[17] I have argued in the Word of God frame and the missional frame that the missional leader seeks to facilitate spaces in which the local congregation can dwell in the Word and in the World in order to listen and to discern what God is doing in the world and to join God in the missio dei. A teacher-centered hierarchical system would be toxic to this goal.

[18] Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life, 102.

[19] To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey, 1st HarperCollins pbk ed. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 11.

[20] Another helpful model is Communicative Theology in which the experience of God happens in the communicative action between the I, IT, WE, and GLOBE. Matthias Hilberath Bernd Jochen Scharer, The Practice of Communicative Theology: Introduction to a New Theological Culture (New York: Crossroad Pub. CO, 2008).

[21] Robert Kegan, The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), 4.

[22] Ibid., 8.

[23] I created an animation to help visualize the evolution through the five orders. http://www.deepintheburbs.com/in-over-our-heads-by-robert-kegan/ (accessed February 12, 2015)

[24] Kegan’s work is derived from the previous work of Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, and Lawrence Kohlberg. Each of these researchers, in their own way, also discovered that humans develop cognitively in stages. Kohlberg focused specifically on moral development in the human being. He is credited as being the first significant professor of a stage theory of human development. It was upon this ground that Kegan expanded Kohlberg’s notion of stages and applied it to cognitive development within the adult learner.

[25] Robert Kegan, In over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994).

[26] Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock Potential in Yourself and Your Organization, Leadership for the Common Good (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2009).

[27] Here I understand the self to be the filter through which the individual makes meaning in any particular order. The filter is a socially constructed self that orders experiential data. It may be helpful—although beyond the scope of this discussion—to discuss the relationship between the social me and the I that George Herbert Mead suggests. When the I becomes aware of the me—the filter of the order in which the self is operating—it can, through supportive, reflective, communicative action, transcend that self and become a “new self” that has a broader perspective. This is, I would suggest, spiritual formation. See George Herbert Mead and Charles W. Morris, Mind, Self & Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist (Chicago, Ill.,: The University of Chicago press, 1934).

[28] Stephen Brookfield, Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning: A Comprehensive Analysis of Principles and Effective Practices, 1st ed., The Jossey-Bass Higher Education Series (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1986), vii-viii.

[29] A term made popular by Malcolm Knowles. See Malcolm S. Knowles, Elwood F. Holton, and Richard A. Swanson, The Adult Learner: The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development, 7th ed. (Boston: Elsevier, 2011).

[30] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th anniversary ed. (New York: Continuum, 2000). See also the previous discussion of Parker Palmer’s model of teacher-centered vs. subject-centered learning. Figures 6 and 7.

[31] Stephen Brookfield, The Power of Critical Theory: Liberating Adult Learning and Teaching, 1st ed. (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2005), 16-17.

[32] Ibid., 350.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning: A Comprehensive Analysis of Principles and Effective Practices, 15-16.

[35] View the videos at the Deep in the Burbs website, Trinity Frame. http://www.deepintheburbs.com/theoretical-frames/trinity/ (accessed February 12, 2015)

[36] It is interesting to note how one particular theological concept grew through the communicative action of blogging. I began the project by presenting the social Trinity. That was the language used for the animations that I created at the beginning of the project. However, as I progressed with my research I grew less comfortable with the language of social Trinity and more aligned with the language of relational Trinity or the entangled Trinity (See the Trinity frame). I did not necessarily insert this shift into the RT sessions, but I wrote freely about it on the blog. Several of the RT members engaged me in constructive—and sometimes resistant—dialogue around this new language. It became evident in the final team sessions that the language of entangled Trinity had woven its way into the RT.

[37] I make an important distinctive in this statement: interactive digital media. Not all media is conducive to the type of collaborative space that Hess is lauding. There has been a dramatic shift in media technology during the twentieth century. Print, radio, and television are media that are more like the trucking industry that ships information one direction. This type of media has been used to perpetuate the teacher-centered model of learning. Hess argues that the interactive digital media of the Internet creates the communicative spaces needed for subject-centered learning, and, I would argue, for Trinitarian praxis. See Mary E. Hess, “Pedagogy and Theology in Cyberspace: All That We Cant Leave Behind,” Teaching Theology & Religion 5, no. 1 (2002); Peter G. Horsfield, Mary E. Hess, and Adán M. Medrano, eds., Belief in Media: Cultural Perspectives on Media and Christianity (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004).

[38] Mary E. Hess, “What Difference Does It Make? E-Learning and Faith Community,” Word & World 30, no. 3 (2010): 284. See also Engaging Technology in Theological Education: All That We Can’t Leave Behind, Communication, Culture, and Religion Series (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005).

[39] “What Difference Does It Make? E-Learning and Faith Community,” 289.

[40] “Collaborating with People to Study “the Popular”: Implementing Participatory Action Research Strategies in Religious Education,” Religious Education 96, no. 3 (2001): 284.

[41] “Collaborating with People to Study “the Popular”: Implementing Participatory Action Research Strategies in Religious Education,” Religious Education 96, no. 3 (2001): 279.

[42] It is important to note that, while most suburban citizens in the context of this project have access to interactive digital media, not all suburbanites embrace digital media. Some of the RT members were discouraged and intimidated by the use of digital media. I will discuss this further in chapter four under the Age Matters section. Further, it is important to note the digital divide that exists between the socio-economic classes. Not everyone in society has free access to digital media. Therefore, digital media cannot be understood as the ultimate answer to democratic, emancipatory pedagogy. It is, within particular contexts, emancipatory and communicative, however, and must be embraced as such by religious educators.

[43] Peter Block, Community: The Structure of Belonging (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008), loc. 504.

[44] The Art of Hosting, http://www.artofhosting.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Hostinginahurryversion1.5ChrisC.pdf (accessed July 27, 2014)

[45] Block, Community: The Structure of Belonging, 3.