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A Thesis Submitted to the Faculty of

Luther Seminary

In Partial Fulfillment of

The Requirements for the Degree of



© 2105 by Steven P. Thomason All rights reserved


ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA PH.D. THESIS Title of Thesis: Deep In the Burbs: How the Trinity Impacts Spiritual Formation in Suburban ELCA Congregations Author: Steven P. Thomason

Thesis committee:

Thesis Adviser Date ABSTRACT Deep in the Burbs: How the Trinity Impacts Spiritual Formation in Suburban ELCA Congregations by Steven P. Thomason ii


Start typing text here.







Life is story.

Every Story has a Prologue

Why Am I Doing This?

I love God.

I love the church.

I love the world.

To Whom Am I Writing?

How Am I Writing This?

My Story

The story of the Research Team

Phase 1

Phase 2

Phase 3

The Story of Luther Seminary

What Am I Writing About?

The Question

The Importance of this Question

Personal Importance

Academic Importance

Congregational Importance

Warning: There Be Monsters Here

The Danger of Interdisciplinarity

The Danger of Self-Implication

How Do We Navigate These Dangers?



Why Talk About Frames?

The Postfoundational Frame

Finding the Third Way: A Postfoundationalist Theology

What is Postmodern?

A Postfoundational Theology

A Three-Way Conversation

A Three-Foci Expression

iv Hope in the Trinitarian Community

The Missional Frame

The Trinity Frame

Reframing the Model

A Brief Summary of the social/relational/entangled Trinity

The social/relational dimension

Entangled Trinitarian Panentheism

The Trinity and the Research Team

The Spiritual Formation Frame

The Spirituality Angle

The Educational Angle

A Trinitarian Summary of the Adult Learning Frame

Robert Kegan’s Orders of Consciousness Theory

Stephen Brookfield’s use of Critical Social Theory

The Catechetical Angle

James Fowler’s Stages of Faith

Thomas Groome’s Shared Praxis

Peter Block’s Theory of Community Building

The Suburban Frame

What are the Suburbs?

The Bedroom-Developing Suburb

Refining the Term

Key Sociological Aspects of the B/D Suburb

Specific Issues related to Suburban Spirituality.

White Privilege

Local Government vs. Metropolitan Government

Community Building

Coming Challenges

The Lutheran in the Suburb

Ethnic Identity and Social Enclaves

Theological Boxes

A Snapshot Summary

How the ELCA Developed within the B/D Suburb

Description of each congregation within their suburban context..............

103 ZLC in suburb A:

FLC in suburb B:

GLC in suburb C:

–  –  –

This dissertation is a story. It is partly my story of how I believe God led me through a transdenominational path to Luther Seminary to study the Missional Church. It is partly the story of the Deep in the Burbs Research Team (RT) and how I believe God brought together eighteen people from three suburban ELCA1 congregations to join me in a participatory action research (PAR) project to explore how the Trinity relates to spiritual formation in the suburbs. It is partly the story of the church in Western society and how we currently find ourselves in an era of massive cultural shifts that cause us to re-imagine what it means to be the church.

It is the story of how these stories converged during an eighteen-month period in 2014 to share ideas and experiences and to make sense out of the process. Beyond that, there is the bigger story in which these stories exist. This is God's story from which, in which, and for which all these other stories exist.

It is also the story of a single question. This research project was built around the

following question:

"How might an increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity impact the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation in suburban ELCA congregations?"

–  –  –

I had an idea about the social Trinity2 and I wanted to see what would happen if I introduced this idea to a group of suburbanites. The plan was to gather people from three suburban congregations that were located in three adjacent suburbs. We would meet together six times as a large group, two hours each meeting, for six consecutive weeks in February and March. During those sessions the groups would reflect on their ideas about the Trinity, spiritual formation, and life in the suburbs and be invited to dream new dreams about spiritual formation in the suburban context. I would introduce them to the social Trinity, then they would create projects that reflected their new ideas about the social Trinity and spiritual formation to take back to their congregations for the subsequent seven months. Finally, we would regroup in November and try to make sense out of what happened in our experiences.

I love to teach, and I am an artist, so I love to create visual ways to communicate complex ideas using cartoons and animation. I created a series of four short animations that, I thought, brilliantly captured the essence of this doctrine.3 I showed the films to the group during our third group session and then waited to see what happened.

That’s when the story gets interesting. Keep in mind, I had spent two weeks setting the table for our group sessions. I used Peter Block's methods of community I am using the term social Trinity to represent the 20th century conversation around the disconnect between the Immanent Trinity and the Economic Trinity that is iconically represented by the transcendent theology of Barth and the immanent theology of Rahner, as articulated in LaCugna (Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).), and propelled by Moltmann, Paneneberg, Boff, Johnson, Zizioulas, Volf, et alia. I will expound upon this further in The Trinity Frame section of Part One.

The videos were posted on the Deep in the Burbs website. The group members were encouraged to watch them repeatedly and share them with friends to discuss.

http://www.deepintheburbs.com/theological-frames/trinity/ (accessed July 22, 2014) See the full video transcripts in the Appendix Video Transcripts.

Rough Draft - August 1, 2014 - 3 building4 and various modes of communicative pedagogy,5 so I was trying to be sensitive to the spirit of PAR. I had invited the group members to name their understanding of the The most helpful tool that I gleaned from Block was the 1-3-6 principle. I would ask a question and then allow time for each person to reflect on the question and write their response in their own notebook. Then I would randomly assign the members to groups of three. Each triad was invited to take their individual responses and merge them into one statement that adequately represented each member.

Finally, the triads were assigned to connect with another triad and form a group of six. This group of six was invited to merge the two triad statements into one statement that adequately represented both statements. Once the three groups of six were finished, one representative of each group would present the statement to the large group. This was followed by a large group discussion of the process. I found this to

be a very productive methodology.Peter Block, Community: The Structure of Belonging (San Francisco:

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008). It is also reflective of the methodologies proposed by the Art of Hosting http://www.artofhosting.org/ (accessed July 22, 2014) and World Cafe. Juanita Brown and David Isaacs,

The World Café: Shaping Our Futures through Conversations That Matter, 1st ed. (San Francisco, CA:

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2005).

PAR is built upon Paulo Freirie’s Emancipatory pedagogy and is reflective of Communicative Rationality as proposed by Jürgen Habermas and applied to adult pedagogy by Stephen Brookfield, Parker

Palmer, and Thomas Groome. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th anniversary ed. (New York:

Continuum, 2000); Mary E. Hess and Stephen Brookfield, Teaching Reflectively in Theological Contexts:

Promises and Contradictions, Original ed. (Malabar, FL: Krieger Pub. Co., 2008); Stephen Brookfield and John D. Holst, Radicalizing Learning: Adult Education for a Just World, 1st ed., The Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series (San Francisco, CA: John Wiley, 2011); Stephen Brookfield, Teaching for Critical Thinking: Tools and Techniques to Help Students Question Their Assumptions, 1st ed., The JosseyBass Higher and Adult Education Series (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012); 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,

The Power of Critical Theory: Liberating Adult Learning and Teaching, 1st ed. (San Francisco, CA:

Jossey-Bass, 2005); Stephen Brookfield, Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, 1st ed., The JosseyBass Higher and Adult Education Series (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995); 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); Bruce Martin, "Transforming a Local Church Congregation through Action Research," Educational Action Research 9, no. 2 (2001); Helen Cameron, Deborah Bhatti, and Catherine Duce, Talking About God in Practice: Theological Action Research and Practical Theology (London: SCM Press, 2010); John W.

Creswell, Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches, 3rd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2009); Parker J. Palmer, "A New Pro Fessional: The Aims of Education Revisited," Change 39, no. 6 (2007); 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); Parker J.

Palmer, To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey, 1st HarperCollins pbk ed. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993); Thomas H. Groome, Christian Religious Education: Sharing Our Story and Vision, 1st Jossey-Bass ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999); Thomas H. Groome, Sharing Faith: A Comprehensive Approach to Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry: The Way of Shared Praxis, 1st ed. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991); Thomas H. Groome, Christian Religious Education : Sharing Our Story and Vision, 1st ed. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980).

Rough Draft - August 1, 2014 - 4 Trinity, spiritual formation, and the positive and negative aspects of life in the suburbs.

The first two weeks were going really well, I thought.6 Then I showed my videos. They watched, passively, and took notes. The videos ended and we sat in a big circle. "Any thoughts or questions?" I asked. Blank stares. It was the first time the group had nothing to say. The rest of the session limped along, painfully. I left the building that night feeling lost.

Journaling is an important part of doing PAR, so I vented my frustration in my journal the next morning. Then I decided to post the journal entry on our RT discussion

forum for the whole team to read. This is what I wrote:

We watched all four videos on Monday night, so most of the notebooks contained sketches of the videos. I found it very difficult to type them, so I decided to photograph each page and load them that way. I'll try to figure out how to code them later. Mary7 said it is too early for coding, anyway.

I am left a bit conflicted after having read through all the notebooks. Most of the notes were, as I said, simply note-taking from the videos. Not much of their own thinking here. However, it might be interesting to analyze how they framed their notes. Not sure how fruitful that will be.

Some of them were confused by the videos. Others were encouraged by the idea of a fusion of horizons8 and the need for loving relationships between What I have since come to understand is that I was using communicative methodologies for an instrumental purpose. When I was first introduced to Action Research (not PAR) it was presented to me as a means of measuring change within a group. The researcher first finds a baseline at the beginning, introduces something new to the group, then measures any changes at the end. I thought that I was trying to measure change, so I used the first two sessions to establish a baseline, or a snapshot, of where the group was at in their thinking about the Trinity, spiritual formation, and the suburban context.

This is not good PAR methodology. I have discovered that this research project has been as much about changing my awareness and understanding of how God works in, with, under, against, and for people as it has been about how the group has grown in their awareness and understanding of the Trinity and spiritual formation.

Dr. Mary Hess is my thesis advisor.

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