It has been said that what you will be like in five years is based on two things: The books that you read and the people you spend time with.
It is difficult to underestimate the impact of the people who surround you.
I once heard one of my college professors make a passing reference to a marketing study of teenagers. Apparently, several high school students were asked to give their opinions regarding a particular style of jeans. Overwhelmingly, the students thought that they were the ugliest jeans they had ever seen! The researchers waited a few months and then went back to the same high school.
They took key opinion leaders – the captain of the basketball team, the head cheerleader, the first-string quarterback, the homecoming queen, and the student body president – gave each one a pair of the jeans and asked them to wear them regularly to school for a month without telling anyone why they were choosing to wear the new style.
By the end of the month, local stores were besieged by students wanting to know where they could find the new fashion.
The influence of others doesn’t diminish as we grow older.
Baseball fans are familiar with the name of Casey Stengel, famed former manager of the New York Yankees. When Billy Martin took over as manager, Stengel had some interesting advice for him.
He said, “Billy, on any team there will be 15 guys who will run through a wall for you, five who will hate you, and five who are undecided.”
Stengel then said: “When you make out your rooming list, always room your losers together. Never room a good guy with a loser. It won’t spread if you keep them isolated.”
If you are surrounded by spiritually positive and healthy people, you will find your own spiritual life and development boosted. The opposite is equally true—there are those who can actually weaken you spiritually, lowering your commitment and resolve.
This is the importance of maintaining a relational inventory in your life at all times.
This is not meant to exclude people who need our influence. As John Maxwell has wisely pointed out, there is a difference between helping those with perpetual attitude problems and enlisting them as our close friends. The closer our relationships, the more influential their attitudes and philosophies become to us.
Consider the life of Jesus.
He cared about everyone, but there were certain people whom He was drawn to relationally. For example, Jesus pulled Peter, James and John off to the side to be with Him at spiritually important times, such as the raising of a little girl from the dead, as well as the transfiguration where Moses and Elijah came and spoke with Jesus. It was also Peter, James and John whom Jesus called to be with Him at His most difficult times, such as in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before His crucifixion.
You could also make a case that Mary, Martha and Lazarus were important to Jesus in terms of strategic relationships. An interesting statement in the Gospel of John says, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister [Mary] and Lazarus” (11:5). In fact, Jesus seemed to purposefully orient His travel plans in order to stay at their house.
Jesus modeled life as it was meant to be lived, and He understood that some people feed you, and some people feed off of you. You need a balance of both for spiritual health.
So here’s the critical question: Are those around you, in your innermost circle, bringing you closer to Jesus or taking you further away?
In taking your own relational inventory, begin with the three basic types of people in your life: those who drain you, those who are neutral and those who put gas in your spiritual tanks.
Or as one friend of mine put it, first there are VIPs—Very Important People. These people ignite your passion and faith for living more like Jesus. They make a very significant contribution to who you are and what you are doing. They mentor you, challenge you, invest in you, model things for you. You walk away from time spent with them energized, envisioned, ready to try new things and reach new heights. They spur you on.
Next are VNPs—Very Neutral People. They may enjoy your spiritual passion, but they don’t do much to stimulate yours. Neutral people can be fun to have around, they can boost your ego, but they don’t add much to the spiritual mix.
You have to be careful about VNPs—they can seem innocent, innocuous, harmless. But over time, a VNP may allow you to drift toward the course of least resistance, and their own passivity, their own lack of passion, will lead you to lower your own expectations, so that you care less, aspire to less, and achieve less.
And then there are VDPs—Very Draining People. They are the ones who sap your passion. They drain away your enthusiasm, your commitment, your heart for serving Christ.
At some point, take a relational inventory. Take out a piece of paper and make three columns—one for VIPs, one for VNPs, and one for VDPs. Then scroll through your relational world, particularly your inner circle, and put the names of those closest to you into the appropriate category. Be ruthlessly honest about this, and don’t worry about the estimation of others while doing it.
Remember, one person’s VDP may be somebody else’s VIP. In the Bible we find that the apostle Paul (at least initially) had a hard time with Mark, while Barnabas gladly invested time and energy into Mark’s life.
The point is to take an inventory of who those people are for you—the feelings that spending time with them bring out in you.
If you don’t have many VIPs, but a lot of VNPs or VDPs…
… you have some relational work to do.
James Emery White
Adapted from the author’s book After “I Believe”: Everyday Practices for a Vibrant Faith, order from Amazon.
John Maxwell, The Winning Attitude.
Gordon MacDonald, Restoring Your Spiritual Passion.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.