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We don’t think much about what’s below deck until the weather changes. This truth from the sea applies to our cultural moment, too. As those navigating a stormy, post-Christian world, we would do well to learn the distinction between ballast and baggage before we capsize.

Sailors caught in a storm begin throwing off baggage that under normal circumstances might be considered necessary. If we haven’t seen this scene in movies or read it in books, we can borrow the scene from the Bible. After catching the first boat going the farthest from Nineveh, Jonah is caught in such a predicament. His Tarshish-bound boat is in such a fierce storm that its crew is throwing cargo overboard to lighten the load for the sake of survival (Jonah 1:4). Jonah, owning his disobedience, invites them to consider him baggage.

Storms, whether physical or cultural, force us to distinguish between baggage (unnecessary supplies or stowage) and ballast (necessary weight for a ship to sail with integrity). Confusing the two can be the difference between life and death.

Our Cultural Storm

While postmodernity may be hard to define, the tendencies of those most shaped by it are easy to spot.

While postmodernity may be hard to define, the tendencies of those most shaped by it are easy to spot.

Chief among these is a skepticism toward authority, which often leads to cynicism. In many cases, such a skepticism is warranted. Postmodern generations—having seen the sweeping failures of progress theory, and gross abuses of power and authority from politics to the pulpit—are quick to scrutinize the structures, systems, and stereotypes they’ve inherited from prior generations.

Within proper bounds, such skepticism and scrutiny can serve both communities and churches. After all, each generation passes along plenty of baggage to the next. But left unchecked and allowed to be become authoritative, the impulse to “overhaul” can lead to discarding necessary, God-given ballast.

An increasingly heated political scene, global pandemic, and boiling racial tensions are perfect conditions for a disorienting storm. In our pluralistic culture—too often riddled by racism, power abuse, and economic inequality—baggage is identified and tossed into the churning seas. But in seeking to lighten the load to pass through the storm, we must encourage people to cling to the ballast of biblical truth.

In seeking to lighten the load to pass through the storm, we must encourage people to cling to the ballast of biblical truth.

If you daughter wants to wear blue and study to become an orthopedic surgeon, great! Many gender stereotypes are baggage. But we cannot throw off the God-given reality of our sex. Before culture existed, the triune God decided to create men and women (Gen. 1:26–27). The distinction between male and female is ordained by God for the good of his creation and for his glory. It is ballast.

Disenculturate, Don’t Deconstruct

In his contribution to Before You Lose Your Faith: Deconstructing Doubt in the Church, Hunter Beaumont offers a similar distinction. He juxtaposes deconstruction and disenculturation. When people speak of spiritual deconstruction, they often mean taking apart foundational truths of the Christian faith that they’ve previously believed (also known as deconversion). In disenculturation, though, missionaries crossing cultures preserve the kernel of the gospel while shedding extrabiblical “husks” from life back home. Disenculturation occurred in Acts as Peter, Paul, and other leaders in the early church, who were raised in Judaism, sought to apply gospel truths in other cultural contexts (Acts 11–14). Disenculturation happens every time the gospel moves from one culture or context to another.

Disenculturation happens every time the gospel moves from one culture or context to another.

Disenculturation rests on the authority of God’s Word and the illumination of God’s Spirit. That is our authority as we seek to distinguish between baggage and ballast (Heb. 4:12–13; 2 Tim. 3:16–17; 1 Thess. 5:20–21). Similarly, the witness of the historic church, though flawed, can help us see if we are throwing away what’s meant to keep us afloat.

In the words of Maya Angelou, “Every storm runs out of rain.” This cultural moment will pass. The same God who told the storm “Peace, be still” will calm these churning cultural seas (Mark 4:39). In the meantime, he offers us the same wisdom and presence he has always offered his people. He will bring the souls of his people safely into harbor, for he is our ballast and living Word.

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