Forget growth strategies for church & youth ministry; meet (young) peoples needs.

I am happy to be corrected by this. But I am struggling to remember an occasion in the last few years where a church or youth ministry organisation who has adopted or created a strategy for growth, has included the notion of ‘meeting peoples needs’. I wonder if this has been bypassed somewhat; for the sake of ‘evangelism strategy’, or ‘social action project’ or ‘organisation objectives’ , i only wonder as i am happy to be corrected. But it feels a little as if meeting peoples needs has got out of fashion. Especially in a climate of organisation survival of the fittest.

Before a few of my esteemed colleagues point out that meeting peoples needs has been usurped by ‘developing their gifts’ , ie Asset Based community development. I am already there, as you might tell, this isnt about developing work from a needs based approach, this is about what it actually means to meet peoples needs, at least getting that part done might be a minimum requirement, or at least recognise that developing gifts and meeting needs go hand in hand in meeting peoples psychological meaning. And this isnt just spiritual needs, I mean human ones. Meet their deepest psychological needs and their gifts might also be part of the equation.

At this point, you might expect me to refer to Maslow. And, i will. Only to say that despite the criticisms of his hierarchy, there is something critical not to be overlooked in what he proposes. Forget the hierarchy for one moment, as these get us into knots. But what if the levels were summarised:

Image result for maslow hierarchy of needs

So, consider them as these, starting from the bottom up:

  1. Survival and Security
  2. To know and to live
  3. Affiliation and relationship
  4. Achievement and purpose needs.

So, how many growth strategies for organisations start with ‘meeting the needs of people’, a bit of me wonders whether some initiatives dont get further than ‘base level’ – providing a social service, a valid and meaningful one – like food, or money advice or youthwork conversation, but there become a bottle neck, blockage or barrier to preventing persons starting from this point to have other needs met in the structure of the church or organisation. But what of the people who are already in our youth clubs, churches – in what way are their ‘creativity’ and ‘affiliation’ needs met – in more than status? 

However, moving on from Maslow, Over the last few months I have been writing an essay for my Psychology class on Myth Making, one of the books that I read during this was Jocelyn Bryans reflections on Christianity and Psychology book; Human Being (2016),  in it she argues that Humans develop a narrative identity that provide themselves with a meaning of life that has to consist of all four of the following for a person to consider their life as meaningful:

  1. Purpose – our lives have to have purpose, eg getting a job, raising family, buying a home, being successful
  2. Value and Justification – our lives must be in some way in accordance with a moral standard, and we can present ourselves as a good person, (often we’ll re narrate past events to assert that we have acted morally)
  3. Efficacy – This is where we have the capacity to achieve something, to make something happen, to be in control of that achievement, to contribute to society, a community
  4. Self-Worth – This could be in the achievement of something, the feedback of something, and having a stable sense of self which is evidenced by stories of others and their admiration of us.  (2016, p62, based on Baumeister, Wilson)

If theres an underlying reason that people go to church, or church related activities: that ‘it provides things the world doesnt dish up’ (Marschall, 2004, Youthworker magazine, US)  i wonder whether of all the summaries of human needs described here, that churches, youth groups and youth work organisations have focussed on to the detriement of others.

On one hand it would be easily argued that is the Christian faith that has the capacity to provide a persons needs (and Bryan suggests this) – and so the story that is told, the way it is told and how young people acknowledge their place and purpose in it is crucial. Yet it is not the Christian faith that young people leave when or if they leave the church, it is the organisation of the church, so which of the human needs of young people isnt being met and how might meeting peoples needs become a focus. In recent research, The fuller institute discovered that a ‘healthy place’ was where young people stayed in a church beyond the age of 14. I would be confident that a healthy place might be where young people, and their family and others needs are intentionally met.

This is not a selfish proposition. It is about how communities of faith act as community to enable all the flourish within in it. But we have to take into account in church that human drives, urges, motivations, personalities and goals play a significant part of decision making and being part of a social group. Its not about getting what I need, but being in a space to flourish so that I can contribute in a healthy way. Surely thats ultimately not selfish.

If i had a haunch, then most people leave churches or youth groups because 1 or more of their needs isnt being met. A disagreement leads to loss of belonging, being cast as sinful/guilty/shame doesnt endorse a personal morality, it doesnt fit with life purpose, or what I am beginning to think more and more. Church doesnt fulfil a need to be challenged (healthily), or to build on and use creative gifts for a larger purpose (with the exception of a few creative gifts/music being one). People will stay if church and youth ministry is able to give them meaning and purpose, you can fill in the blanks regarding the opposite. Church is to be a place of deep meaning and where people flourish.

So, if the church is serious about keeping people, or attracting people, our strategies need to include being able to meet peoples human needs in the functioning of the community. What might that mean

  1. Creating places of welcome and belonging
  2. Teaching that provides people with value and purpose
  3. Opportunities for meaningful and ongoing challenges appropriate to the person and for them to have some control over them (and not limited by age, gender, disability)
  4. People have positive feedback. yes thats positive feedback in a church. (uh oh, heres the impossible one, i think i was ok up to point 3 ;-))

There are tons more, that you could probably think of.  And I know this is completely impossible etc etc, but start with the small group you might already be involved in, the youth group, house group, knit & natter group – think ; in what way can we improve on helping people to flourish through meeting their life meaning needs?  do they need to be part of a challenge and stretched, or be commended, or just continue to belong and give them opportunity for this.. – the way that people belong… it when they make the tea in your house. 

Church might offer something different to the world – when it develops peoples needs, facilitates and fosters creativity, purpose and challenge – as well as create spaces of welcome. Its what people need.

Lets have meeting peoples needs, that enable them to flourish in their community as the church mission and youth group strategy. Lets have meeting peoples psychological needs so that the spaces are created so that their creativity is harnessed, their gifts used and as persons they are contributors.

Oh – and youll find Jesus did most of this with his disciples. So its pretty biblical too. He probably over worked the challenges, and that didnt do the worldwide church any harm from those 12.



Author: James

Currently I work part time for both Frontier Youth Trust ( and Communities Together Durham ( , though this blog is my own personal views. I am also self employed and do various aspects of youthwork consultancy, including training, writing, lecturing, seminars and written pieces, including organisational consultancy, community profiling and detached/youthwork training. Please do get in touch if I can be of help to you in your church, project or organisation to develop your youth and community work. I have contributed to 'Here be Dragons (2013), and two recent articles in the youth and theology journal and 'ANVIL' the CMS online journal. My recent employment includes, working for FYT as a youthwork development adviser, being the centre director at Durham YFC, and before this I was known as 'Mr Sidewalk' as I was the project coordinator for the Sidewalk Project in Perth, where I facilitated the delivery of 5 years of detached youthwork on the streets, schools and communities to engage with young people , and support through alcohol misuse issues. In 2017 I completed an MA in Theology & Ministry at St John's College, Durham, and in 2008 graduated from ICC (now NTC Glasgow) with an honours degree in youth work with Applied theology.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.