Picking Seeds & Methods of Cross-Contextualization

In the book of Acts, Luke records Paul speaking to the Athenians, “Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers … said, ‘What does this babbler wish to say?’ ‘He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities’—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection (Acts 17:18). The Greek word translated as babbler means “seed picker.” The philosophers assumed that Paul was creating a new religion by picking up pieces of various deities. However, all good missionaries (and church planters) understand how to “seed pick” cultural norms, values, and behaviors for cross-contextualization.

Recently, a social media meme said, “You cannot reason and rationalize a person from a faith that they never reasoned or rationalized themselves into.” I’m not sure who the individual was that devised the statement. However, while everyone should know that memes are not exactly the best forms of truthfulness, they sometimes contain a portion of the truth. I perceive that the originator of the social media meme had apologetics in mind when crafting their statement. While there are similarities between apologetics and contextualization, we’ll focus on the latter.

            Contextualization principles are visible throughout the Scriptures. In the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, it is recorded that the elders stood and “read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Neh. 8:8, emphasis added). The concept(s) of providing people with the ability to understand is essential to everyone’s daily conversations. We strive to ensure that we are understood.

            For decades, missionaries have learned and applied the art of cross-contextualization. By employing specific techniques for understanding people groups, cross-contextualization helps a missionary or church planter relate and listen to a culture (hence, picking up seeds). A proverbial bridge to the gospel can be constructed by comprehending the culture’s sufferings, pains, and idolatries. Finally, contextualizing the gospel in a way people can understand is vital. 

My desire in this article is to convey three essential principles of cross-contextualization. The objective is to provide practical insight and applications for reaching the unreached. The diagram below will be the basis of the three methods.

The Gateway

Michael Goheen rightly notes, “Contextualization will always be either ‘true’ if it is faithful or ‘false’ if it is not.”[1]The biblical writers expressed the sinfulness of man, the need for redemptive salvation and restoration, along with God’s longsuffering, mercy, and steadfast love (2 Pet. 3:9). God’s longsuffering love for His creation is displayed in His words, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people … I know their sufferings” (Exo. 3:7). All people are created in the image of God, yet sin has distorted that image. 

When viewing cultures, it is, therefore, essential to see them through the lens of Scripture—through an objective truth. We become conscious of the suffering of culture due to innate sin.[2] Missionaries and church planters understand the plight and suffering of cultures because they first comprehend the suffering of Christ’s flight into Egypt as a newborn, no home for his head as a missionary, or His expression of Divine love with healing the diseased, marginalized, and broken-hearted. 

The writer of Hebrews asserts: 

But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering (Heb 2:9–10) 

Thus, the gateway element begins with a view of culture seen through the lens of the biblical metanarrative. Consequently, at the forefront of the missionary mindset should exist a unique amalgamated trichotomy of human suffering due to sin, Christ’s suffering for sin, and man’s redemption and salvation through Jesus Christ.[3] For cross-contextualization, a truthful view of the gateway provides a potential path.

The Bridge

Bridges are utilized to conjoin two separate entities. Likewise, building a contextualized bridge unites people but ultimately prepares a path of communication. Sometimes, good “exegetes” of culture utilize linguistics, demographics, sensory perception, or history to discern a diverse culture in order to build a bridge. Listening and observation are practical tools.

In Athens, Paul emphasizes, “I passed along and observed the objects of your worship” (Acts 17:23). The bridging stage is a discernment and internalization of viewing and dialoguing with the culture. For the bridge, the questions that need to be asked are: (1) Is there something the people cannot do without? (2) What do they love the most? (3) What do they worship? 

The answers to the questions supply an internalization and discernment of the culture’s pains, sufferings, idolatries, and relationship with God or gods. Goheen asserts that within missionary observations, there should be the overall assumption of human brokenness because “the gospel will always be expressed in and therefore encounter a cultural story that is incompatible with it.”[4] The bridge seeks to connect the culture’s brokenness to Christ’s wholeness.

Connection

Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost verify, “To contextualize is to understand the language, longings, lifestyle patterns, and worldview of the host community and to adjust our practices accordingly without compromising the gospel”[5] Thus, contextualization is not a static process. Still, a dynamic one—it necessitates Holy Spirit illumination. For the most part, Holy Spirit-inspired contextualization relates to the missionary’s ability to receive particular wisdom concerning the Bible’s authorial texts, ascertain the text’s meaning, and then apply the appropriate meaning to the given situation.[6] As the Holy Spirit utilized the apostles, we “can learn from the ways that [they] appropriated concepts and images from their world in order to shape audiences.”[7] While this may seem like seed picking, it is intentional thought in order to communicate the gospel effectively.

For Paul in Athens, he reasons daily with the Epicureans and Stoics in the marketplace (Acts 17:17). He quotes a Greek philosopher and a poet during his contextualization. Subsequently, He utilizes general revelation (which he often does, cf. Acts 14:15-17). For Paul in Athens (and Lystra), he chooses to contextualize the God of heaven and earth by utilizing general revelation. General revelation refers to the understanding that God has provided humanity with a valid, rational, objective revelation of Himself to humanity through nature, history, and human personality; man does not need to observe, believe, or understand general revelation for it to be real.[8]

Hence, the missionary’s ability to link together the host culture’s story with the biblical  metanarrative isn’t merely that God created the heavens and earth, but that all things have been created through and for Christ (Rom. 11:36). General revelation expresses that God has always revealed Himself to humanity,[9] while special revelation relates to “God’s manifestation of Himself to particular persons at definite times and places, enabling those persons to enter into a redemptive relationship with him.”[10]

Nevertheless, the components of effective cross-contextualization possess three succinct categories (1) the gateway, (2) the bridge, and (3) the connection. All three of these components can find common ground in the incarnational redemption story of Christ. Contextualization is a process of understanding, discernment, and proclamation.


[1] Michael Goheen, The Church and Its Vocation, 142.

[2] Matthew Fretwell, Multiplying Jesus: Missionary Preparedness (Dubuque: Kendall Hunt, 2022), 101.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Goheen, The Church and Its Vocation, 140.

[5] Michael Frost, and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2013), 85.

[6] David J. Hesselgrave, and Edward Rommen, Contextualization: Meanings, Methods, and Models (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 236.

[7] Flemming, Contextualization in the New Testament, 298.

[8] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd Ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 194.

[9] Fretwell, Multiplying Jesus, 106.

[10] Erickson, “The Definition and Necessity of Special Revelation” in Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 201.