Meeting The Needs That Matter Most- Andrew Gouge
Before I became a student pastor, I spent four years teaching 7th grade in a public school. One thing nearly all teachers can tell you is that sitting in front of a professor telling lecturing on how to teach does not at all prepare you to do the actual teaching. It’s kind of like that first Sunday your senior pastor was out of town and you had to fill in—there’s this really strong urge to get up there and teach in a manner leaving your students (or congregation) weeping in amazement at your beautiful oration on the correct use of gerunds (or the genealogy of Jesus) which leaves them begging you to teach again. You get the point—the way you construct the topic in your head is rarely—no—never the way it turns out. How can these talks we pour so much time into fall so flat?
For all the things I have forgotten from my days sitting in front of a professor, one lesson stood out to me enough that I carried it from my days as a teacher to my current position as a student and children’s pastor, and hopefully, I’m doing a decent job teaching this lesson to the adult volunteers in our my ministry.
In 1943, this psychologist named Abraham Maslow (along with his Tom Selleck moustache) came up with a concept concerning personal growth—particularly concerning buy-in to what we teach. In a nutshell, Maslow argued that before a student will ever really be motivated to buy-in to what we teach, they have to know we care. Duh, right?
For example, check out the pyramid (Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs) and this scenario I’m gonna make up: If it’s February, and I’m in 8th grade, and my physiological need for warm clothing is not met when I go to school in the morning, because my jeans from last year don’t fit, and I’m forced to wear athletic shorts, I could probably care less about what my science teacher is instructing. I’m too preoccupied with being cold because I have no warm clothes.
The second step is Safety. So, again, if the reason I didn’t have warm clothes at home was because Mom and Dad are always fighting and never take the time to notice my clothes don’t fit, I won't say anything to Mom or Dad because I’m afraid a fight might ensue.
If every interaction with my family at home results in an argument, I will not feel a sense of love or belonging from the people whose job description is to love me.
Esteem. If no one at home loves me— not even my parents, I will have a poor sense of worth as a person. This leaves me with poor self-actualization. I will make poor choices because to me, nobody cares, so why should I?
So, as leaders of students, we have to make sure our students are getting these things from us REGARDLESS of whether or not they get them at home.
None of this is intended to insult your intelligence, but have you ever given any thought to the fact that there’s a good chance you have kiddos in your ministry who don’t have all their physiological needs met each day?
As a teacher, it seemed like each year I had more and more students who received a free or reduced price on lunch at school. According to schoolnutrition.org, in 2016-2017, students in a family of four that earns between $31,590 and $44,955 are eligible for free or reduced lunch at school. In the 2010-2011 school year, New Hampshire reported the smallest percent of students receiving a free or reduced lunch at 25.2%, while Mississippi reported 70.6% of students received free or reduced lunch (https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d12/tables/dt12_046.asp.). Many of these kids sit in front of student pastors all around the nation at some point on Sunday or Wednesday. Some of us have students who only had Christmas presents this year thanks to an Angel Tree.
Odds are, you know your students pretty well. You know which kids have trouble paying for camps, retreats, and events. But have you ever given any thought to the fact that they may have unmet physiological needs as well? I truly believe that one reason scripture teaches again and again that we should share with the needy is because once my need is met, I am no longer consumed with that need and will be more receptive to the teaching of God’s Word.
The second rung on the ladder, safety, speaks to the relationships a student has with all the adults in a student ministry. Safety is a big reason youth workers and volunteers need to be consistent in the lives of students. If leaders constantly revolve through the lives of students, it’s perfectly reasonable for students to never reach a level at which they feel safe in their small group to open up and allow the Gospel to change them. And it’s impossible to feel loved or like I belong (the third step on the pyramid), until I feel safe. It’s once they reach this point of love and belonging that a student begins to be impacted by the relationships with adults in their youth ministry and begin to see themselves as children of the Most High for whom the Lamb of God was slain.
Q: So if all this is true, what do we do about it?
A: The first step is to meet the physiology.
There Are 2 Things This First Step Could Mean For You:
1) If your ministry isn’t gargantuan, feed your kids…with food. It will amaze you how many kids on the fringe will become more regular if you dangle a slice of pepperoni in front of their nose.
2) Look at their shoes. If they’re held together with duct tape, you might need to intervene. Find a church member who loves to buy stuff for kids or come up with some money yourself, and take the student out for a new pair of shoes. Also, be sensitive to the fact that for many independent hard-working moms and dads, it might be a little presumptuous to buy their kid clothing without speaking to them about it first. Never “stoop down” when you help meet a need.
To make your ministry a safe environment, consistency is the key for of you and your volunteers. Odds are, you know that already. Your volunteers may not. Find resources and tools you can use to help bring them up to speed. No one likes to feel unprepared for a job they signed-up to do. Take five minutes before you get rolling before your next youth group meeting to offer tips on how to engage students, and keep them updated on vocabulary (is “lit” already lame? Gah!). Send weekly emails to your leaders about youth culture and trends.
Then, as you meet the physiology and you and your volunteers practice consistency, watch for students to form better and more meaningful relationships.
Sometimes, the inability to pay for a camp or event is just a symptom of a bigger problem. It’s so easy to focus on the tasks of ministry and the deep spiritual needs of our students and disregard the whole person. Take time this week to diagnose not just the physiological needs of your students, but the degree of safety, love, esteem, and self-actualization that stem from consistent healthy relationships with caring adults that students have in your ministry.
About the Author: Andrew Gouge
Andrew is a former 7th grade teacher and currently serves Overbrook Church in Greenville, SC as the Pastor of Students and Children. He and his wife Lindsey enjoy hiking, running, hanging out with teenagers because they themselves never grew up.