A few days ago a South Korean appellate court overruled a lower court’s sentence for Lee Joon-seok, increasing his sentence from thirty-six years to life in prison. Lee was convicted of abandoning a sinking South Korean ferry in 2014 with more than 300 school children onboard.
The phrase, “The captain goes down with the ship” is more than a cliché. There is a protocol for captains requiring them to aid passengers whose lives are at risk. Failure to do so can result in manslaughter charges, and as in the case of the South Korean ferry captain, prosecution. But even if there were no official regulation, this expectation would be self-evident. When a good captain is faced with the possible death of passengers who have put their lives in his hands, he will risk his own life to save them.
Failure to fulfill one’s most basic duty is often a result of “mission creep.” Boat captains don’t suddenly decide to neglect their passengers. They “creep” into mediocrity and slowly lose a sense of urgency for the things that are most important. The same is true of school bus drivers who have accidents while talking on their cell phones, security personnel who attend wild parties when they are supposed to be protecting government officials and parents who purposely leave children in hot cars while they go shopping. All of these actions involve a slow progression of ever-increasing risk, while taking one’s eye off of the goal.
I don’t want to suggest grace isn’t available for any of us who make a terrible mistake resulting in great harm to others. My goal is simply to point out how we drift from our priorities over time, eventually losing sight of our key responsibilities.
“Kingdom creep” takes place when followers of Jesus lose sight of their mission. The mission of a Christian can be expressed in a number of ways. Perhaps its simplest form comes from Jesus who said He had come to “seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). Jesus put His mission in the form of a command when He said, “Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 19:19-20). When we draw others to Christ, we expand His kingdom and help fulfill His prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
Why don’t I use the common term “mission creep” in reference to this great task? I could, and do. But by employing the “kingdom” word here, I am able to take our thoughts in a slightly different direction. We are on a mission, but we are in a kingdom. The mission is the task. The kingdom is the reality of life in Christ. When we forget to seek the kingdom first, it is possible to seek and save the lost, then fall into the trap of the Teachers of the Law who made converts “twice as much a son of hell” as themselves (Matthew 23:15).
“Kingdom creep” causes us to forget the church belongs to Jesus. It fails to turn the reins of our hearts over to the One who reigns over us. It turns the organism of the church into an organization and the heart of the gospel into high-stakes churchmanship.
Like “mission creep”, “kingdom creep” happens slowly, and we might not know it has happened until we make some major decisions based on what the world might think, or our personal desires, rather than the will of the One who sent us. “Kingdom creep” takes us outside of Christ’s domain where we find ourselves dodging the darts of the evil one, and living out a lie.
Fight the creep. Fulfill the mission and build the kingdom. When you do, you will get everything else thrown in for free (Matthew 6:33).