Dunbar’s Number and Your Diversified Relationship Investments

Tim Brister —  August 23, 2013 — 3 Comments

In yesterday’s post, I talked about leveraging the limitations of your relationship capacity. According to Robin Dunbar, there is a maximum amount of sustainable relationships one can have at any given point in their life. Generally, that number is 150 relationships (100 on the low end, and 230 on the high end). According to common sense, we know the actual number of meaningful relationships is much lower than that number.

In fact, I did an unscientific Twitter poll asking my followers specifically that question. Interestingly enough, the highest number of meaningful relationships (and the most consistent answer) offered was 10-12. The second most common answer was 3-4. Isn’t it interesting that the man who perhaps had infinite capacity of having meaningful relationships chose only 12? And even among the 12, He apparently invested more of His time with just 3?

And yet, those relationships resulted in a multiplication of relationships that has turned the world upside down.

So I want to go back to the whole neighborhood outreach strategy of seeing strangers become missionaries. How can we invest our lives in others so that we can meaningfully participate in the Great Commission by making disciples where we live, work, and hang out?

In Dunbar’s number, let’s assume for the sake of illustration 50% of the total number (150) is dedicated to immediate family, extended family, friends, coworkers, and fellow church members. What are we to do with the remaining 50%? If relationships are the interconnected superhighway for gospel advance, then we cannot be ignorant or poor stewards of the remaining 50% of possible sustainable relationships.

Touches, Talks, Tables, and Training

I want to offer a simple yet strategic way of investing that 50% of possible relationships for Great Commission work of making, maturing, and multiplying disciples of Jesus. The level of investment will vary, so I am arguing here for a diversified relationship investment strategy. Let me explain.

From Strangers to Neighbors and Acquaintances: TOUCHES

The Bible commands believers to “walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time” (Col. 4:5). Have you ever considered the implications of that command? Your manner of life, the way you go about your ordinary existence, cannot be directionless running or boxing the air (1 Cor. 9:26). You walk with wisdom. That means you go about your life in the world skillfully, intentionally, strategically, purposefully. That strategy is toward outsiders. There’s a direction here. The movement is centrifugal (outward). It is movement toward outsiders. So the direction of our daily life should be targeting outsiders, and the manner of our lives is so that outsiders can become insiders. This is practical disciple making 101. If you are not walking in wisdom toward strangers, then you are out of step with the gospel (Phil. 1:27).

Outsiders are strangers. We want strangers to become neighbors. Practically speaking, that means Christians need to examine how they live everyday of their lives, where they go, and how they go about doing it. And our assessment metric ought to be how we can best engage strangers (“toward”) so that they become neighbors. That means building rhythms of everyday life so that you purposefully interact with these people on a regular basis in the natural outworking of your life. Building these rhythms in the community are skillful ways of walking–not haphazardly, not aimlessly, not foolishly, but wisely. The outcome of this movement is that you will begin to make “touches” with people. Rhythms “toward” strangers should lead to ways you “touch” neighbors as they become acquaintances.

Touches require very little time and effort. But they do require intentionality. Where do you eat? Where do you get gas? Where do your kids go to school? Who lives in your neighborhood? Where do you shop? Where do you recreate? In all the places of your everyday life, there are people you can know on a first name basis. You are “touching base” with those who were once strangers but have become “neighbors” because of you going “toward” them with the way you walk in wisdom.

Goal: 40-50 People: Let me encourage you to make it your goal to have 40-50 touches. That means 40-50 people you know in your community that were once strangers but now neighbors. Again, this is not adding anything new to your time. It is simply leveraging your routine with rhythms that take you toward people with missional intentionality. They begin to know who you are and no longer consider you a “stranger” in their lives.

From Neighbors to Friends: TALKS

I argued previously that neighbors move toward being friends through relational investment. There are people with who you regular “touch” that ought to lead to “talks”. Your interactions go beyond the superficial greetings to conversations about life, family, work, current events, etc. You begin to know their story and understand more of their lives. While touches require rhythms, talks require receptivity.

How do well do you receive people in your life? Does your life say, “Too busy for you” or “Do not disturb”? People will not open themselves to those who have no time to listen and no heart to care. When I refer to “talks”, the conversation is more about asking questions, listening, and understanding rather than you giving them a monologue. The more you listen, care, and understand, you demonstrate a receptivity that draws people into your life. One of the most beautiful phrases in the Gospel accounts is Luke 15:1 which says, “This man (Jesus) receives sinners and eats with them”. This was actually a grumbling accusation by the Pharisees, but for us, it was a window into the life of one who came to save the world.

Goal: 10-12 People: Having regular talks and investing in people relationally will require some time. You can’t do that with a lot of people. But you can do it with a dozen or less. I am not talking about daily talks with them, but I am talking about semi-regular talks–conversations that may last a few minutes or a few hours. The greater the talks, the more open friends will be to hearing the message of redemption.

From Friends to Family: TABLES

Earlier, I made the point that friends become family through evangelical invitation. One of the most intimate and inviting places to share life is around the table. This means inviting friends to not only talk but eat together and share life together. Around the table, grace is extended, service is offered, and hospitality is experienced. Around the table, people can have meaningful, direct conversation apart from the rush of daily life in a settled, set-aside time of communion with one another.

If you want to know more why I believe the “table” is so important of moving friends to family, I encourage you to read Tim Chester’s excellent book, A Meal with Jesus. Chester shows how the meals of Jesus communicated spiritual and redemptive realities tied to the person and work of Jesus. By having people in your home and at your table (or living room or at a restaurant table), you discover a context where sinners can know the redeeming love of Jesus Christ through sharing the gospel and inviting them to repent and believe.

Goal: 6-8 People: I encourage you to consider how you can tithe your meals for this purpose. Most people eat 21 meals a week. Is it possible to take two meals a week for the purpose of bringing the redemptive message of Jesus to friends?
Note:I am not saying that the only place you can share the gospel is around a table! By all means, share Jesus everywhere you can. But as a matter of planning and intentionality, I find the table to be one of the most effective places to share the love of Christ and the story of redemption.

From Family to Missionaries: TRAINING

Once a friend embraces the message of Jesus Christ, they become a part of the family of God. As a child of God, we bear the awesome privilege of representing our Heavenly Father and showing His character and worth. Our life of good works is so that strangers (the world) will see them and give glory to our Father who is in heaven. New family members need to be trained to see how they live in light of the gospel and become conformed into the image and likeness of Jesus Christ. That training happens primarily in everyday life, not the classroom or church building.

The goal of training is to see that the rhythms of your life become the rhythms of their life. The kind of reception you have given them will lead to their receptivity to others far from God. The redemption they found in Jesus would be shared so that others would be redeemed. All of this, in training, is reproducing your life and mission in them.

Goal: 2-4 People: Those who were once strangers and have benefited from your life on mission are invited to learn from you and be trained to imitate your example. This is obviously the greatest amount of investment relationally, but once you have trained a disciple to be a disciple-maker, you have doubled your investment in the kingdom for exponential gospel advance. Isn’t that what we want? For the mission to transcend our lives and extend far beyond our reach? Yes!

Summary

So here’s what it looks like in outline form:

  • strangers to neighbors through TOUCHES: 40-50 people [rhythms]
  • neighbors to friends through TALKS: 10-12 people [receptivity]
  • friends to family through TABLES: 6-8 people [redemption]
  • family to missionaries through TRAINING: 3-4 people [reproduction]

We all have limitations. We all have margin. We all have places where we live, work, and play. We all have strangers in our world. What we need to have before us is a way we “do all things for the sake of the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:23). We need a diversified relationship investment strategy to maximize Dunbar’s number so that the number of those that treasure Jesus in our city increases one step, one talk, one meal, one life at a time.

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