Tag Archives: dwelling in the word

Our Story of Dwelling in the Word

The Word of God, as I have described it, and dwelling in every aspect of the Word, was central to the DITB project. Each of the first six RT meetings began with a Dwelling in the Word exercise.[1] We dwelt in John 14:15-24 for the first three sessions, and then dwelt in John 15:1-17 for the last three sessions. One male and one female would read the passage out loud and then we would break into dyads to discuss what we heard in the text. After that we would gather as a large group and everyone would report to the large group what their conversation partner had said. Finally, we would have a large group discussion about what we had heard. This process took at least forty-five minutes of our two-hour session. It was a struggle for some of the team members to see the relevance of the exercise, because (1) it took up almost half of our meeting time, and (2) it did not explicitly contribute anything tangible to the described goals of the group. This was part of our learning process and I will report on that in later sections.

Chapters two and three have provided a theoretical and theological framework for the DITB project. It has become evident that participatory action research was a necessary methodology to pursue the question of how an increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity might impact the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation in suburban ELCA congregations. I will now turn my attention, in the next chapter, to the specific methodology and design of this project.


[1] Dwelling in the Word is a specific exercise developed and utilized by Church Innovations. I will describe it more fully in the next section. See Keifert, Testing the Spirits: How Theology Informs the Study of Congregations; Ellison and Keifert, Dwelling in the Word.

The Church is Invited to Listen, Discern, and Follow

It is with these two models in mind that I would like to propose what a missional engagement with the Word of God might be. We encounter the Word of God in three ways: in scripture, in communication, and in the world. We are then invited to listen to this word, discern the voice of God from the voices that move contrary to God, tend to the community, and be ready to move when the Spirit moves.

The three forms in which the Word of God speaks are not distinctive, separate modes, but are interdependent media that are at once separate and definable while also entangled and interdependent.[1] It is helpful, albeit somewhat artificial, to address them separately. We are called to dwell[2] in the Scripture, to dwell in the community, and to dwell in the world.[3]

Dwelling in the Scripture

I have already stated that the canon of scripture is the accurate and honest record of particular people making sense out of their particular encounters with the presence and movements of God within their own context. These stories, as they are retold throughout the generations, are formative and unitive for the gathered body of believers. The biblical narrative displays a panorama of God’s creative and liberative promise as it moves from the incarnation of the Word in the symbol of the Exodus story to the incarnation of the Word in the symbol of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. This panorama creates a substantive pattern of God’s creative, liberative movement throughout history. Each generation since the closing of the canon is invited to engage the narrative, meet the Word of God behind the text, in front of the text, within the text, and through the text, to discern and appropriate the Word and movement of the Spirit in its own context.

Dwelling in the Community

I am playing with the word community. I mean it in three senses. First, it is the gathered body of believers that we call the church. Secondly, it is the broader community—the physical neighborhood and the relational networks that include all people with which the church is engaged in everyday life—in which the church finds itself. Third, I mean it in the philosophical sense of the communicative process itself. The Word of God is experienced in the communication of human beings with one another. Human communication is a difficult process wrought with equal parts intimacy and agony. The important point here is to, perhaps, expand the typical understanding of the church’s relationship to the Word. We often imagine that the Word of God only exists within the church and within certain “holy” forms of communication, e.g. liturgy, catechesis, the eucharist, etc. It is important for the missional church to imagine that the Author speaks everywhere, at all times, and that through the physical media of the Community (in the tri-fold meaning that I have presented) the Spirit can help to illuminate God’s Word in this medium.

Dwelling in the World

I have nuanced the use of the term World from Community. Some may argue that to dwell in the Community, as I expressed above, is the same as dwelling in the World. The World, they would argue, is simply the sum of all human Community.[4] This is true, but my point for distinguishing the World from the Community has to do with power structures. It is one thing to have embodied communication with other human beings in the adjacent community. It is another thing to have a relationship with the powerful movements of sociological structures like economics and politics. We, as individuals and small communities, often watch in helpless awe as the events of the world unfold like gods and demigods wrestling in the cosmos. The power structures that rule this world—what the apostle Paul called the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12)—are spiritual forces that can either move with or against the movements of God. It is important for the church to be able to discern, through the illumination of the Spirit, what is from the Author and through the Medium and what is contrary to the rhythm of the Trinity.[5] It is also important for the church to remember the apostle Paul’s words that these power struggles are not against flesh and blood. When we dwell in the community, we dwell with people. We love people and find the person of peace to listen and receive. When we dwell in the world we stand in solidarity with those being oppressed by the evil power structures that threaten the peaceful rhythm of God.[6]


[1] I introduce the term entangled here as a foreshadowing for a central theme that I will develop more fully in the Trinity Frame. For now, understand entangled as a metaphor borrowed from Quantum Physics. Ernest L. Simmons, The Entangled Trinity: Quantum Physics and Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014); J. C. Polkinghorne, The Trinity and an Entangled World: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub., 2010).

[2] I am intentionally borrowing the term dwelling from the practice of Dwelling in the Word used by Church Innovations. See Keifert, Testing the Spirits: How Theology Informs the Study of Congregations; Pat Taylor Ellison and Patrick Keifert, Dwelling in the Word (St. Paul: Church Innovations Institute, 2011).

[3] See the distinction of community and world below.

[4] See Scharer/Hilberath’s discussion of We and the Globe. The group has its own culture, but the group also exists in the larger culture that shapes it. Scharer, The Practice of Communicative Theology: Introduction to a New Theological Culture.

[5] John encouraged his readers to “test the spirits” to discern which ones are from God (1 John 4:1).

[6] This is a bold statement that implies a certain flavor of liberation theology. The liberation hermeneutic reads all contexts through the assumption that God always stands with the oppressed in order to defy the destructive forces of the oppressor. The face of the Oppressor and the Oppressed changes with each context and each generation. Ironically, the face of the Oppressor in one generation can be the Oppressed in the next, or—even more complex—the face of the Oppressed in one context may be the face of the Oppressor in another cotemporal context.

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.

A Visual Guide to Making Sense out of the Deep in the Burbs Project

This Prezi attempts to capture the “what” of the Deep in the Burbs Project. I drew this sketch today in order to organize my thoughts and decipher the focus of my writing. I could go in so many directions with this project!

2014 Journal P122

Some initial observations:

  1. This project is about the intersection of the abstract theological construction of Trinity and the lived experience of Trinity. There is a synaptic ignition that takes place when these two boxes connect.
  2. This project is about the troublesome word impact. How does a spiritual leader in a local congregation introduce a new idea to people without inflicting violent colonizing effects?
  3. This project is about how the process of Participatory Action Research (PAR) itself is both (a) an answer to the question posed in #2, and (b) a possible model for missional church leadership and spiritual formation as the experience of collaborative and participatory discernment and movement in and with Trinity.
  4. This project is about how spiritual formation is a mixture of personal, internal connection with God and communal, external, social action with God. It is not an either/or dichotomy of the two modes of spirituality.

Further elaboration on the above points:

Number One

A great deal of literature exists regarding the danger of constructing abstract, systematic theological systems that attempt to explain God. This academic endeavor is, ultimately, the construction of an idol that differs little from Aaron’s construction of the Golden Calf at the base of Mt. Sinai. Yet, human beings have an experience of the divine in various ways, and, thus, need to discuss them in order to share them and make sense out of them. Language itself is an abstract construction, so, as soon as humans discuss their divine experience they run the risk of building an idol.

This project helps us understand the necessity for the communicative act of bringing the theological models into conversation with the lived experience. As in all communicative rationality, this dialogue both humbles the interlocutors, broadens and fuses the horizon of each, and, thus, creates a new and, hopefully, more peaceful space in which life can unfold.

In other words, the local church should not shy away from theological discussion. It should, however, frame those theological discussions in a communicative process, that invites the lived experience to speak as loudly as the doctrinal statement. This process will simultaneously free the church from doctrinal stagnation and deepen the congregation in theological wisdom.

Number Two

This project has obvious pedagogical implications. I proposed to introduce an abstract idea about Trinity to a group of suburban ELCA Christians. The danger in this proposal was in the temptation for me to use my power to colonize the people into agreeing with my assumptions about the connection between Trinity and Spiritual Formation.

My power is inherent on several levels. I am a rostered ELCA pastor and that, within this ecclesial system, imbues me with positional power. (He’s the pastor, he must be right) I am a doctoral candidate which also, within the Western educational hierarchy, imbues me with the power of knowledge. (He’s educated, he must know what he’s talking about) I am the lead researcher, and I invited everyone to the conversation. (It’s his research project, so we need to do what he wants, or make him happy) I am a teacher which, within the uni-directional, expert-to-novice, depository pedagogical model of the West, imbues me with the power to assert the correct answer. (He’s the teacher, he will tell us what we should know) I am a white, middle-class, educated male, which, within the history of patriarchal dominance in the West, imbues me with authority. (He’s a man, so we will defer to his leadership)

Number Three

One of my biggest challenges was to find a way to bracket my perceived power and use it to facilitate a space in which people felt empowered to think and speak freely. Participatory Action Research methodology, combined with the practice of Dwelling in the Word, created, in my perspective, a space that provided the necessary freedom for people to encounter the abstract construct of Social Trinity on their own terms and within the context of their own lived experience.

A provisional conclusion from this observation of our lived experience (a “so what”) is that missional leadership should pay attention to the issue of power. If we seek to lead the church to discern where God is moving, what God is doing, and how we are invited to participate in these activities, then leaders will need to continually evaluate their own power and find ways to emancipate their communities–both within the congregation and in the neighborhoods–to freely experience God.

It is also my provisional observation that the process of PAR and Dwelling in the Word is and experiential knowledge of the Trinity. In other words, the increased awareness of the social/relational/entangled Trinity came more through the experience of PAR and Dwelling in the Word than it did through the viewing of animated videos that attempted to explain the doctrine historically and theoretically. That is not to say that the propositional quality of the videos were not helpful. It is to say that, perhaps, the videos simply served to frame, and provide language, for the lived experience of the Trinity that the RT had throughout the project.

Number Four

One of the things that really surprised me about this project was how little the conversation of social Trinity impacted the RT in the way it did to me. One possible reason for this is the fact that I grew up in a fundamentalist, conservative, Baptist, pietistic background in which spiritual formation was perceived as an internal, personal affair. The trajectory of my spiritual formation has been one of inward to outward. I discovered early on in the project that the RT had a for more balanced and communal experience of Spiritual Formation than I ever did. One possible explanation for this is that the Lutheran heritage has formed its people into a more community-based, culturally oriented understanding of spiritual formation. Many of the RT members experienced the opposite direction of flow in their ideation and praxis of spiritual formation that I had. They had always acknowledged the three persons of the Trinity from a creedal tradition, but, now, with exposure to a social/relational/entangled Trinitarian framework, they had better language to articulate their lived experience.


This post is a terse, cursory draft of some initial thoughts that attempt to make sense out of my experience in and with the RT. I look forward to our meeting on Monday night where the RT communicatively debriefs and attempts to make sense out of this project that we have shared.