A few weeks ago, a church leader I know encouraged the flock to be careful about their relationships. “You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with, you know,” he said. It’s important to surround yourself with people who build you up, he urged.

Sounds like a well-meaning exhortation to keep good company, right? And God warns us that bad company corrupts good character (1 Cor. 15:33).

Avoid the Drainers and Complainers

Jim Rohn

Jim Rohn

What I heard — perhaps unintended — was a lot of the baggage that the “average of 5” phrase carries in the business world, where it originated about a decade ago with the late motivational speaker Jim Rohn. Avoid the drainers and complainers. They take too much out of you. Focus your relational time on people who help you reach your goals. If your goals this year are different from your goals last year, then shift your circle. It’s great that one circle helped you hit your target weight, but if you’re aiming for a half-marathon this year, you need a new focal five.

I can understand this kind of thinking if the issue is changing a gym membership or swapping the garden club for a course in landscaping. I can’t understand it as a description of life in Christ. It suggests relationship as exchange — even aspiration. If you can help me get ahead, then let’s hang out. If not, well, we won’t be seeing much of each other.

The problem is that when you start to do relationships as math, you stop living as the organic Body of Christ. When we say we want to average our circles up to “become more like Jesus,” it seems almost godly to exclude a chronic complainer, a man who is regularly angry at “the System,” a woman who is a painful partner because she consistently has a “better” idea.

But what does that say about these difficult people in relationship to God?

How to Train Spiritual Dragons

Well Intentioned DragonsTwo decades ago, Marshall Shelley offered a different kind of guidance for church leaders who struggled with what he called Well-Intentioned Dragons, the “problem people” that plague every pastorate. Shelley assumes that these people are well-meaning and create chaos and dissent without intending to undermine the church. And instead of urging pastors to isolate them, he urges an embrace, helping them to find God’s love and to become increasingly well-functioning parts of the Body.

Some contemporary psychological research suggests that Shelley (and the Bible!) offer a better way. Social exclusion — an academic word for shutting people out of the group — can cause people to behave in ways that are damaging to themselves. One research experiment found that people who were told they were likely to end up alone later in life took inappropriate risks, chose unhealthy behaviors, and procrastinated rather than work toward an immediate goal.

How to Make Spiritual Dragons More Destructive

That is to say, when you threaten or demonstrate your readiness to exclude “dragons” from your life, you may protect yourself from fire, but they themselves become more likely to burn to death.

When you exclude “dragons” from your life,
you may protect yourself from fire,
but they themselves become more likely to burn to death.

Aspirational relationship — choosing our friends for the benefits they bring us — is very American. A century ago, Sinclair Lewis satirized the tendency in his novel Babbitt, which depicted a midlife businessman whose life was full of booster club activity and empty of intimate relations.

How to Create a Booster Club Church

Babbitt book cover

The cover designer of this Bantam edition seems to imply the essential facelessness — or lack of personal identity — of Lewis’ protagonist.

In the 21st century, American evangelical churches are still living out, in some measure, a similar idea. Sometimes church can feel like a Jesus booster club. We’re exhorted to live our lives in such a way that it makes it clear that following Jesus is desirable. We’re encouraged to attain lofty goals so we can influence people who value high achievement. And most recently, we’re urged, like those in secular culture, to excise from our life those people who fail to elevate us.

That’s not how God says the Body of Christ is built. When we try to rid our lives of “below average” Christians, aren’t we ignoring God’s instruction to recognize the “weaker” parts of the Body as “indispensable”? God tells us that the parts that are “less honorable” are treated with “special honor” and even that God has a purpose for this paradoxical arrangement:

“… God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Cor. 12:24-26).

Those “below average” people are, in fact, dragging down the entire Body of Christ, God says. And God’s answer is not to excise them but to encourage them. As long as they struggle, the entire Body is weakened. Excluding them isn’t even an option. They are, by God’s spiritual definition, included in the Body and essential to it.

dragon training

Dragon-fighting is a dangerous spiritual discipline. Dragon-training is more time-consuming, but creates truly powerful allies.

Which spiritual dragon is dragging down your “average of 5” today? How can you and God elevate them? What’s getting in your way?