The Importance of Storytelling | The Story behind the Research Question

I write this as the Deep in the Burbs Research Team comes to the half-way mark in our six-week series of conversations. I have been wrestling with how to get after the heart of the research question without using instrumental rationality. (By that, I mean that I am trying to avoid manipulating–whether consciously or unconsciously–the conversation in order to arrive at a desired outcome.) Participatory Action Research is designed to allow the group to create its own agenda. However, my research question demands some sort of interaction with the topic of Social Trinity. I am, after all, trying to see how an “increased awareness and understanding of the Social Trinity might impact the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation in suburban ELCA congregations.”

The assumption is that most people in the suburban congregation would have little to no exposure to the conversation around the Social Trinity, so I needed to figure out a way to “increase their awareness and understanding” of the topic. I chose to create a series of teaching videos and showed them during our last session, on March 10. Some members of the group commented that this seemed to come sideways to the purpose of our meetings. One suggested that people are not motivated by theology, but by narrative. I agree with this wholeheartedly, and would add that theology is, in fact, the narrative of the God-human conversation.

That means I need to tell the story. Today I want to approach the topic from a different angle and demonstrate how the research question evolved as the natural outcome of my own narrative. The following story expresses how the research question emerged and how the Deep in the Burbs project was formed. I invite you into this story.

My story on Blackboard
This is a photo of the blackboard I drew on as I told the story to the Research Team.

I was born into a family where my parents had an authentic faith in God that permeated their entire life. It was not just a go-to-church thing. God was the center of their lives and the primary focus of all that they did, no matter how mundane. Their faith, and so mine, was cultivated in an Independent Baptist Church experience. Thus, our understanding of the Gospel thought that everyone was condemned to Hell because of Adam’s original sin and that the only way to escape this condemnation was to place one’s faith in Jesus Christ’s atoning death, receive the free gift of God’s grace and salvation, and accept Jesus as one’s Lord and Savior. If you had “prayed the prayer” to accept Jesus, then you had the assurance of salvation.

My parents had a rich personal piety and a deep and meaningful prayer life. I was introduced to spiritual disciplines, and the writings of such authors as Andrew Murray, from a young age. Spiritual Formation was always an interest of mine, and yet, it often seemed to take a back seat to the work of evangelism and getting people saved in the larger life of the church.

I attended Wheaton college where my theology began to expand slightly. I rejected my calling to the ministry in the thought that God doesn’t need another pastor. God needs an artist to be a witness in the world. That thought led me to take a job in Las Vegas to manage artists in the tourist industry. My wife and I got involved in a non-denominational, Willow Creek style church that had its roots in the Christian Church/Restorationist movement. This was similar enough to our Baptist theology that it was comfortable. Yet, it was cool and progressive enough to excite us.

The church grew from an average weekly worship attendance of 1200 people to 8000 people in the 12 years that we were part of it. In 1994 I felt called to ministry and went on staff at the church while also enrolling in the M.Div. program at Bethel Seminary.

The church operated under the same gospel message with which I grew up. Everyone is lost, we believed. The world needs to hear the message of Jesus and accept him as their Lord and Savior. The church had become so entrenched in traditionalism, we told ourselves, that it was no longer relevant to the culture. People aren’t coming to church, thus not hearing the Gospel, so we need to do something about it. We (the seeker church movement) decided to make the church services more hip and relevant, and we spent the majority of our energy trying to get people into the building so that they can hear the Gospel and get saved. Our job was to get them in, so that they can go up (to Heaven when they die). Once they were in, they could be trained to go into the world and get more people to come in and be sure they were going to go up. We called this evangelism, and it was, without doubt, the most important thing a Christian could do. Once we got the newly converted trained to a point where they could share their faith and evangelize their friends (and grow the church), then they were handed over to my staff where we could help them grow spiritually by being involved in a small group and finding a place to serve that matched their spiritual gifts.

The Trinity was not something we often discussed. Essentially, God the Father was up in Heaven, bathed in glorious perfection, and untouchable by sinful humanity. Jesus came to down to earth to pay the penalty of sin by dying in our place. He rose from the dead and ascended back up to Heaven to plead our case before the Holy Judge. Jesus sent the Holy Spirit down to the Earth to indwell those who accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior. The world was doomed, God was transcendent, and the Holy Spirit was encased either within the Scripture, or, at best, inside the bodies of the saved in order to bestow gifts to the saved so that they can function as a part of the church. Each one of us, as autonomous individuals, were responsible to make the decision to follow Jesus, or suffer the consequences.

As the church grew and my theology expanded I became increasingly uncomfortable with this event-centered, sell-tickets-out-of-Hell version of the Gospel and the Church. The work of many authors, but significantly the work of Dallas Willard, helped me to realize that the kingdom of God was “at hand.” Jesus came, not to give us a ticket out of Hell when we die, but to bring us life to the fullest and the Kingdom of God on Earth as it is in Heaven, right now.

In 2002 I felt God tell me to leave the mega-church and experiment with being the church in a small community-based context. We started a house church and opened ourselves up to the leading of the Holy Spirit. I started to read more authors in and around the movement called The Emerging Church. These authors–chief among them was Brian McLaren–were trying to figure out how to be the church in the postmodern, postcolonial, pluralistic context.

My fascination with the Emerging church caused division in our house churches. Some people thought I was demon-possessed. Others were being pulled toward a neo-Puritanism where Law and Order solved all the problems of the church and the world. They accused me of being a moral relativist and walked away from our community.

The house church fell apart and left me broken and numb. I vowed I would never be a pastor again. One February night in 2007 I awoke at 3:00am and heard a voice say, “Steve, move to Minnesota and get your PhD.” I didn’t know where to get a PhD, how to get one, how I could afford one, how I could make a living, or how to convince my wife to move to Minnesota (it’s cold there).

My wife miraculously agreed, so we moved. We were near my parents, so that was nice. I rebooted my freelance illustration business and started down an unknown path. I poked around at the University of Minnesota for a PhD in Education, but that didn’t seem right. I knew Bethel didn’t have a PhD program, so I had no idea what to do. I essentially gave up on the idea.

My Dad introduced me to Pastor Mark, from Grace Lutheran, and we became friends. Mark invited me to become a consultant in the area of Adult Spiritual Formation at Grace and to help them implement their Focus 20/20 vision. I started preaching and teaching, and instantly felt welcomed by the congregation. The ice slowly melted from my heart and I felt called into ministry again. I submitted myself to God, to Mark, and to the ELCA and began the process of transferring my ordination. At the point of my surrender, Mark suggested, “I think you should pursue your PhD.” He pointed me to Luther Seminary, introduced me to Craig Van Gelder, and in the fall of 2011 I began classes in the Congregational Mission and Leadership program with a full scholarship plus stipend. If that’s not a God-thing, then I don’t know what is.

Little did I know that in February of 2007, while God was calling me to Minnesota, Craig Van Gelder was working with Grace on their Focus 20/20 project. God had already been working long before I even moved to Minnesota or knew of the ELCA.

Much has happened at Grace and in me since I arrived. In 2011 we brought Mark Scandrette to Grace for a RENEW weekend to introduce his new book Practicing the Way of Jesus. This sparked a group of 60 people to spend the next few months doing 7-day projects of community-based spiritual formation projects. God sparked some long-term projects from that and people experienced the Way of Jesus–the Kingdom of God–in a new way. The next spring I taught a course on the Life of Jesus and presented the “kingdom at hand” way of framing Jesus’ life and teaching. Many people expressed that this class helped them make sense out of what they had experienced during the RENEW process. We all sensed that God does not necessarily want us to invite people into the church so they can become like us, but that God is empowering the church to be in the world so that the Kingdom of God’s peace can be experienced through the love of the neighbor.

This past fall a group formed to study the book Radical. A growing number of people at Grace are being stirred by the Spirit to do something with their faith. Several groups have gone to Haiti and are building a relationship with a community there. Many people are stretching their faith in various acts of generosity in the community. Grace has been through the Free2Be campaign, the Living Generously series, and is currently engaged in the Holy Conversations to communicatively discern what to do about same-sex marriage–should we or shouldn’t we perform them at Grace?

These events at Grace have coincided with my studies and have led me to understand two concepts that helped me make sense out of what was happening. The first was the hermeneutical shift. Scholars increasingly acknowledge that all knowledge is interpreted knowledge and that the process of spiritual formation is one of communal discernment, through a fusion of horizons, as we make sense out of the stories we find ourselves in. This is illustrated in my Theory of Strategic Action diagram. Action – Reflection – Action. That is the praxis of the Kingdom.

The second theological awakening for me is a new understanding of the Trinity as it has been reframed and discussed in the late twentieth century. Gary Simpson’s class on the Trinity, and his article, “No Trinity, No Mission” captured my imagination and helped me see that the Triune God is not “up there”, accessible only through the church, but that the Spirit of God–the third person of the Trinity (Love)–is present and active in the world–in many forms (pluriform), and in many places (polycentric)1 –drawing all people to the Risen Jesus. The second person of the Trinity (the Beloved) is the Word became flesh that dwelt among us. The Beloved was incarnated in the historical Jesus in order to demonstrate what unity with God looks like and to enter into human suffering to set us free from it. Jesus rose from the dead to conquer death and is now incarnated in the eucharistic community (that’s the church)–to bring glory to the Lover/Parent (the First person of the Trinity) and draw all nations into the preferred and promised future of God’s dream. “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done.”

It is the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity that creates and sustains life itself. When humans move to the rhythm of God’s love, as demonstrated most clearly through Jesus, then the Kingdom of God becomes more fully realized. When we resist and move in discord, it causes pain, suffering, violence, and death. We must realize that we need each other and are co-created by each other. God calls us into harmony with all things, as all things are interwoven in the life of the Trinity. This is a huge shift from my original ideas about the Trinity, the Gospel, and what it means to grow spiritually.

I currently find myself in a suburban ELCA congregation, surrounded by many other suburban ELCA congregations within a few miles of each other. I am a suburbanite and I love suburban people, yet, I sense that suburbanites seldom experience the unity, harmony, and love of God that is God’s dream for the world. More often we live isolated, frenetic lives that are fragmented and driven by self-motivated, material gain.

The convergence of these two narratives–the Grace congregation and my theological awakenings–is what led me to craft this research question. I want to know: how might an increased awareness and understanding of the Social Trinity impact the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation in suburban ELCA congregations? The understanding that God is the dynamic relationships of Lover, Beloved, and Love, and that the relationship itself is that which constitutes life itself, and that the Good News is that we are invited, in each moment, to participate with this dynamic relationship, centered on the Risen Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, has made a huge impact on my life and ministry. I want to see if it would make an impact on other people’s lives–specifically those living in my own suburban context–so I created this research project.

That is how Deep in the Burbs was born.


  1. see Welker, Michael. God the Spirit. 1st English-language ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994. []

One thought on “The Importance of Storytelling | The Story behind the Research Question”

  1. Some common themes in my own personal faith story include…
    – Seeing and experiencing the love of God in my extended family and church community.
    – Wrestling from early on with a seemingly cruel “Gospel Message” that condemned so many(Jews, Catholics, Hindus, etc.) to eternal damnation.
    – Growing up with conservative Lutheran LCMS doctrines and eventually moving to ELCA.
    – In time moving away from strict conservatism to embrace God fully as Lover, Beloved, and Love.
    But for me this was never an intellectual matter of wrestling with the doctrine of Trinity. It was rather more like a lifelong wrestling with God and Scripture through the experiences of life.

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