3 unmet needs that could guide your ministry
The needs of spiritual seekers are best understood through the assessment grid of Abraham Maslow. A psychologist, Maslow was concerned that care-givers often misperceive needs, attempting to address higher needs that are not yet felt by the recipient. He suggested that the recipient may have basic needs that are unmet, and since these basic needs are not yet met the recipient is not interested in the fulfillment of higher needs.
Here is a diagram of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Let us look at each level, working upward from the basic needs at the bottom:
1. Unmet physiological needs
These are travelers with needs for the basics of sustainable life, such as food, water, etc.. People who are without work, incapacitated by illness, emotionally or mentally abused, etc. may be consumed by worry about how to meet these basic needs.
For example, a need for food to put on their table (or in their mouth) will supersede all higher needs. The person at this stage may not care about housing, joining a faith community, or bettering themselves. They only want to have a sustainable and ongoing source for food, water, etc..
Churches can and should develop ministries for people at this level of need, though this will require extensive effort because these needs are pervasive and long term.
Examples of ministries that churches to fulfill physiological needs include:
- Family emergency services
- Medical emergency assistance
- Food and domestic hunger ministries
- Housing and residential programs
- Hunger/housing loan and grants programs
- Disaster relief services
- Addiction and recovery counseling and support
2. Unmet safety needs
These are needs for long-term security and a sense that the future is now predictable. Once a person feels they can meet their hunger and thirst needs, they turn their attention to Security Needs, such as a place of their own (i.e. housing), long-term employment, learning a job skill, etc..
Churches that only address short-term physiological needs will not fulfill long-term safety needs. Too often churches offer short-term places to stay, short-term food staples, short-term loans, etc.. These offers will sound hollow and incomplete for travelers at this waypoint, for they are looking for assistance that will ensure long term survival.
Examples of self-sufficiency and sustainable development programs are:
Job training.A homeless person once told me “I am at home on the streets…I’ve learned to survive and that’s the only thing I’m good at.” Helping such people acquire marketable skills is key toward helping them meet long-term needs for safety and security. Examples can include:
- Job skills evaluation and training
- Vocational rehabilitation
- Congregants can hire out of work individuals to give them an opportunity to learn new job skills
- Community service work at the church can provide references for future employment
- Scholarships provided by the church call allow for training to improve employability
Job placement. Oftentimes a predictable future begins with dependable employment. Churches that help community residents attain secure and long-term employment will often help them meet long-term safety needs, including:
- Employment counseling and networking
- Career research
- Mentoring for application and resume writing
- Personal hygiene, clothing and conversational skills to help prepare for job interviews
- Networking the under- and unemployed with potential employers
- English as a second language (ESL) assistance
- Support for GED and equivalency education.
Health programs. Insecurity about the future can arise from an illness with an uncertain or vague prognosis. Helping people at this stage means assisting them in finding adequate health care, information about their illness and specialists in their malady.
One church was located adjacent to a large hospital. When patients and family visited the church in search of solace, the church prayed for them. While this was an authentic and beneficial act, the patients often left with less inspiration than the parishioners. The church discovered that in addition to prayer, they could offer a patient advocacy ministry. Soon the advocacy ministry had fostered a connection and cooperation with the hospital. The church now not only offered prayer, but also patient help for those suffering from an unpredictable future.
3. Unmet belongingness and love needs.
These needs have to do with acceptance into a community of inter-reliance. At this waypoint, the person realizes that living in a symbiotic relationship with others will enhance their life.
A person may join a faith community, volunteer for a ministry and/or seek acceptance. It is at this point that Christians often exhibit their most energetic efforts. There is nothing wrong with this, for travelers at this stage want to belong and be accepted. But, when churches focus only on incorporation they appear manipulative and self-absorbed to people who have been struggling with safety or physiological needs. Therefore churches must have a robust ministry to meet both physiological and safety needs before they can legitimately offer (and campaign for) assimilation.
At this stage of belongingness and love needs, recipients are also seeking unconditional acceptance and love. But, because they may have an unstable and inconsistent background they may have habits that test Christians’ acceptance. Foul language, addictive habits and ignorance of church traditions will often perturb Christians accustomed to a more genteel church environment.
The church must not allow itself to be agitated because people are early in their God-ward journey. Instead, travelers need to feel a different love from the church than they have experienced in the secular realm. To demonstrate this, Christians must offer unselfish love. The Old Testament word for this love, chesed, conveys a “kindness, especially as extended to the lowly, needy and miserable.”
Do you have a balance between ministries that meet physiological needs and those that meet safety needs? Use the following chart to measure your balance between physiological needs and safety needs. If they are not balanced, what will you do to ensure that both needs are met and the route of the Good News is unbroken?
 Adapted from Abraham H. Maslow, Motivation and Personality, 2nd edition (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), p. 300-394; and Abraham H. Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, (New York: Viking Press, 1971), p. 300.
 The church’s enthusiasm for primarily meeting belongingness and love needs sheds light on how churches grew during the post-World War II economic expansion. The Builder Generation (b. 1945 and before) was basking in unrivaled prosperity and a church-friendly milieu. Thus, tactics that meet belongingness and love needs such as membership classes and assimilation standards were touted (see Finke and Starke The Churching of America as well as additional factors discussed in Laurence Iannacone’s 1994 essay, “Why Strict Churches Are Strong” in American Journal of Sociology(Chicago: University of Chicago, 1994), vol. 99, no. 5, 1180-1211.
 Hebrew chesed, Francis Brown, S. R. Driver and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), 338.
Excerpted from Spiritual Waypoints: Helping Others Navigate the Journey (Indianapolis: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2010), “Waypoint 15: Awareness of a Supreme Being,” pp. 41-54. Download the entire chapter here (not for public distribution and if you enjoy it, please consider purchasing the book): Book ©Whitesel EXCERPT Spiritual Waypoints 15 Maslow
Bob Whitesel (D.Min., Ph.D.) is professor of missional leadership and founding professor of Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University. A sought after speaker, church growth consultant and award-winning writer of 12 books on missional leadership, church change and church growth; he also holds two earned doctorates (D.Min. and Ph.D.) from Fuller Theological Seminary where he was awarded “The Donald McGavran Award for Outstanding Scholarship in Church Growth.”
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