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«DEEP IN THE BURBS by STEVE THOMASON A Thesis Proposal Submitted to the Faculty of Luther Seminary In Partial Fulfillment of The Requirements for the ...»

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A Thesis Proposal Submitted to the Faculty of

Luther Seminary

In Partial Fulfillment of

The Requirements for the Degree of





The Question

What do suburbia and spirituality have in common? The term suburbia often conjures up caricatured images of plastic, white, middle-class Americans driving gasguzzling Sport Utility Vehicles past white picket fences into cavernous garages that swallow them up into isolated fortresses behind automatic garage doors. The term spirituality often conjures up equally caricatured images of bald-headed, robed monks sitting in the lotus position, precariously perched on the precipice of a majestic mountain peak. These two images could not be more unrelated. This study will explore the intersection of these two seemingly disparate worlds. Further, it will explore how the specific doctrine of the Trinity might weave a connective thread between these realms.

The questions and conversations pursued in this study will be framed within the larger conversation that many call the missional church.

The specific research question is this, How might an increased awareness and understanding of the Social Trinity impact the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation in suburban ELCA congregations? Many assumptions and preconceived definitions lie behind this question and much definition and clarification is required to proceed. There are four major fields of academic discipline that create the broad frame and converge on this question in an interdisciplinary exercise. Some are apparent, some not. The first, and least apparent, discipline is that of adult learning, and more precisely, the field of adult religious education. This research will get inside of a local congregation and explore how the conversations around the topic of the Trinity contribute to the spiritual formation of adults. Second, and closely related to the first, the research will explore the newly emerging academic discipline of Christian spirituality. Third, this research will delve into the mystery that is named the Trinity. It will, more specifically, introduce a local congregation to the late twentieth century theological conversation centered around the economic, or social, Trinitarian formulation. Finally, the research will function within the larger conversation of missional ecclesiology—the missional church—within the specific concrete manifestation of a congregation that is a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in the context of three adjacent suburbs northwest of Minneapolis, Minnesota—Andover, Anoka, and Coon Rapids.

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This topic is important to me for many reasons. First, spiritual formation is both my passion and my vocation in the local church. I want to know how to create spaces in which the Holy Spirit can ignite the members of the congregation to be active participants with God’s mission in their local context. Second, I am specifically interested in how the Social Trinity impacts spiritual formation because I feel that my understanding of spiritual formation has been limited by Western Trinitarian ideas that seem to limit spiritual formation to that of a process that emphasizes individualistic, inner, personal transformation to the exclusion of communal interaction and social justice. I want to explore how an understanding of the Social Trinity and its corollary concepts of communicative praxis and relational ontology might impact spiritual formation in a suburban congregation and how that data might contribute to a missional ecclesiology.

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This research question is an interdisciplinary one that weaves together three fairly new fields of study—Social Trinity, missional ecclesiology, and Christian spirituality.

Each of these disciplines has found its own academic footing only recently. Therefore little academic work has been done on their interdisciplinary connections. This research will offer a very helpful new lens into each individual discipline by demonstrating how they are vitally connected in the life of the local congregation.

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This question is also important for the local church for the same reasons it is important to me personally. The term suburban church is broad and requires clarification for the purpose of this research. Suburbia is not a homogenous or monolithic location.

This research will focus on the bedroom-developing (B/D) suburb. The B/D suburb is comprised primarily of residential neighborhoods that are separated by great distances from shopping centers, schools, and civic centers, and populated primarily by middleclass and upper-middle class, white people.1 The B/D suburb is dominated by a Western, individualistic, consumerist mindset that has a tendency to sequester the idea of spiritual formation to the enclave of the private life, thus rendering it disconnected from the public, social arena. A communicative praxis of spiritual formation may be a key

Myron Orfield, Metropolitics: A Regional Agenda for Community and Stability (Cambridge, MA:

Brookings Institution Press; Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 1997), 42.

component needed to encourage the local suburban congregation to grow toward a reimagined and/or deepened missional identity.

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The goal of this research is to measure, qualitatively, what, if any, change might take place within both the ideation and the praxis of spiritual formation within the members of the congregation. Thus, these are the dependent variables. The challenge will be to discover how to identify and discuss adequately those things which would properly fall into the category of ideation—thinking about—and praxis—the intentional acting out—of spiritual formation.

The independent variable is that which acts upon the dependent variable to produce change. This research will employ a Participatory Action Research methodology, thus, one of the primary independent variables will be the researcher himself. All of my positionality and situatedness bears heavily upon both the interaction of the study and the interpretation of the process. Another independent variable is the prior ideation and praxis, or lack thereof, that the congregants bring to the twin topics of spiritual formation and the Trinity.

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The congregation itself is an intervening variable. These variables are numerous.

Some of these are quantifiable, e.g. age, gender, race, length of time in congregation, socio-economic status. Other variables are more qualitative, e.g. attitude toward the study, general responsiveness to adult formation versus traditional worship participation, length and depth of prior involvement with the ELCA. More variables will undoubtedly emerge as the process unfolds and will need to be attended as to how they impact the research.

These variables will be operationalized through a participatory action research (PAR) approach. Cohorts of eight to twelve people from three different congregations will be gathered for an interactive, collaborative, adult learning experience centered around the topic of the social Trinity and spiritual formation. The cohorts will create action research projects for their congregations and lead other people through these projects.

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There are many secondary questions to which this research will attend along the way. How does the suburban context impact both the process itself and the attitude toward the question? Do suburbanites care about spiritual formation or the Trinity? Will this process address deeper, hidden issues facing suburban churches, e.g. white privilege, consumerism, radical individualism, and social justice, or will the process be contained within comfortable parameters of the status quo? Will this process necessarily elicit a missional imagination, or are the two issues inherently unrelated? How does the ELCA context impact the process? Would it be different within a suburban church of another

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This research looks at how an increased awareness of the social Trinity might impact the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation in suburban ELCA congregations.

The scope of this research has an interdisciplinary span. It is deeply theological, yet it draws from a broader theoretical framework in two academic fields. The first is the field of Adult Learning Theory. The second is the field of sociology and urban studies with a special focus on suburban studies.

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Epistemological Considerations It is important to preface a discussion of adult learning theory by situating the discussion within an epistemological framework. This research and literature review is not intended to expound upon philosophical hermeneutics, but it is important to note that the research and researcher is situated within a post-positivist constructivist framework.2 Two key philosophers will be germane to the framing of this conversation. The first is Post-positivist, constructivist epistemology is to be understood broadly as the hermeneutic lineage of Heidegger, Gadamer, Habermas, and Ricoeur as outlined in Jean Grondin’s book Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics. Jean Grondin, Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics, Yale Studies in Hermeneutics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).

Jürgen Habermas and The Theory of Communicative Action.3 This is broadly known as Critical Social Theory. Gary Simpson helps to understand Habermas’ work in his book Critical Social Theory.4 The second philosopher is Hans-Georg Gadamer in his work Truth and Method,5 where he discusses the fusion of horizons and linguisticality. This is important to note because this theoretical frame creates the basis for using Participatory Action Research as the primary research methodology for this project. The members of the congregations to be studied will work in conjunction with the researcher to communicatively construct new ideas and practices that will shape the research itself.

Theories of Adult Learning It is important to connect Critical Theory to theories of Adult Learning. Several key authors have done this. Stephen Brookfield does this in The Power of Critical Theory,6 Developing Critical Thinkers,7 and Teaching for Critical Thinking.8 Jack Mezirow’s work with Transformative learning9 is another piece of this framing that draws upon critical theory and the importance of change. Mezirow states that a key Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, 2 vols. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984).

Gary M. Simpson, Critical Social Theory: Prophetic Reason, Civil Society, and Christian Imagination, Guides to Theological Inquiry (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).

Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (London: Sheed & Ward, 1975).

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

Stephen Brookfield, Developing Critical Thinkers: Challenging Adults to Explore Alternative Ways of Thinking and Acting, The Jossey-Bass Higher Education Series (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2008).

Stephen Brookfield, Teaching for Critical Thinking: Tools and Techniques to Help Students

Question Their Assumptions, 1st ed., The Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series (San Francisco:

Jossey-Bass, 2012).

Jack Mezirow, Learning as Transformation: Critical Perspectives on a Theory in Progress, 1st ed., The Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000).

question for the adult learner is “how I can compose a story big enough, with a horizon broad enough, to account for as much as possible of my actual life and render it available to me as a coherent, re-membered whole.”10 These authors provide both theoretical framing and practical methodology for facilitating the transformational, communicative process that might be incorporated in this research.

Cognitive Development and the Development of the Social Self Robert Kegan is among the leading theorists regarding human cognitive development. In two key books—In Over Our Heads11 and Immunity to Change12—he proposes that there are five orders of consciousness through which the neuro-typical human develops over time. The first three levels are the natural child-to-adolescent developmental process. However, the modern world, and now the postmodern world, has created a need for fourth and fifth levels of consciousness that require the individual to move from dependence, through independence, and into a multi-perspectival interdependence with the other. Kegan’s theory intertwines well with other important theoretical and theological frames for my research, namely communicative action, Trinitarian relational ontology, and Social Trinity.13 It is the assumption, based on Kegan’s work, that most of the adults involved in this study will operate in the third order 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), 215.

Robert Kegan, In over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life (Cambridge, MA:

Harvard University Press, 1994).

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).

Anderson connects the “grammar of Trinitarianism” to the “social-relational psychology” presented by Kegan. E. Byron Anderson, Worship and Christian Identity: Practicing Ourselves, The Virgil Michel Series (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2003), 151-169.

of consciousness, with some operating in the fourth. Kegan suggests that it is possible to help people move toward fifth level thinking. His methodologies will be instructive to the purposes of this research.

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