Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Why do people do what they do?

What factors impact their response in worship?

This series on the Psychology of Worship is to equip us with insight into human behavior in order to lead more effectively.

First and foremost, worship is all about God . Jesus Christ is our worship leader. The presence of the Holy Spirit is what transforms the hearts and minds of men and women.

Worship is primarily a spiritual activity.

Yet worship is also “the work of the people” , leiturgia , done by, for and with human effort. As leaders, we must develop our skills and understanding to get better at what we do. Our goal is facilitate authentic worship in spirit and truth, to help people connect and engage with the presence of God, that they may live to the praise of His glory (Ephesians 1:14)

Worship leadership is an art form combining skill in music, theological knowledge, spiritual sensitivity, and leadership intelligence that understands human dynamics.

A Theory of Human Motivation

Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” (see  the pyramid diagram above), is a framework for explaining human behavior and a staple of entry level psychology classes. It’s been used for years in educational and economic theory,  I first discovered it in my business studies.

Maslow refers to the four lower needs -  physiological, safety/security, love/belonging and self esteem;  as “deficiency needs” , if we are lacking something in a lower level, we will strive to have the missing need met before acting on the higher level needs.

The highest level, self-actualization, is when we focus on realizing our potential to becoming all we can be. These are the needs for growth, what Maslow called “being needs”.

Jesus taught we have a responsibility to fulfill our potential, and to help our people fulfill theirs in the Parable of the Talents. (Matthew 25:14-30, Luke 19:12-28)

Many different levels of motivation are likely to be going on in a human all at once. For our purposes, Maslow’s Hierarchy  simply identifies the basic types of motivations, and the order that they generally progress as lower needs are reasonably well met.

Some Practical Insights For Worship Leaders

Level 1 – Physical Needs: Food, Clothing, Shelter

That physical needs have to be met seems obvious. Simple example, if there are issues in the worship environment, people will not be as responsive because it’s a distraction.

How this relates to leading the worship experience in your context.

For example, if it’s too hot, too cold, too dark, too bright or otherwise unbearably uncomfortable, then participation in worship will be diminished. Same thing if it’s too loud or if people can’t hear or see.

Can you think of other ways physical needs might affect the worship experience?

Level 2 – Safety & Security Needs

Safety is the feeling people get when they know no harm will befall them, physically, mentally, or emotionally. Security is the feeling people get when their fears and anxieties are low.

How does this relate to worshipers in your context? What threats to their physical, mental, or emotional security might congregants perceive in your context?

Physically, this could be a concern if you’re in a rough neighborhood. For example, the number of shootings that have happened in churches in recent years is troubling. Of course this is rare and extreme, but I have served in churches where we implemented security patrols for safety reasons.

How this relates to leading worship in your context.

Mentally or emotionally, people can feel insecure if we’re asking them to do things out of the norm for their context. One common example is trying to coax passionate expression out of a non-expressive culture. People’s resistance can be rooted in many areas, but you need to know it is natural for humans to resist things that threaten their sense of safety and security.

Same thing goes for changes that surprise your congregation. They will feel insecure.

A simple word of explanation can help alleviate this.

“Today’s worship marks a special occasion as we celebrate with our new polka team “

Even saying just a word or two to teach and introduce a new song will reduce resistance and increase acceptance.

Level 3 – Love and Belonging Needs

The needs for love and connection are met by healthy relationships— relationships with family members, members of the church community, friends, peers, teachers, pastors and other people with whom individuals interact.

Healthy relationships reflect acceptance by others.

How this relates to leading the worship experience in your context.

The need for love and belonging is a major reason people come to church. Some are seeking connection. Other have long-term, even life-long relationships. They come because this is where they feel they belong.

Think about people in your context. What do they need ? How can we help them feel welcome and accepted?

Reach out and touch someone. Include a “meet and greet” moment. Pass the peace. Hold hands. Hug the person next to you. Look at one another. Pray for the person next to you. Do things that facilitate community interaction.

Level 4 Self-Worth and Self-Esteem Needs

According to Maslow’s theory, once lower needs are met, then people work on meeting the need for positive feelings of self-worth and self-esteem.  Our team members want to feel good about their contribution and in themselves as people. Before they can work toward self-esteem, however, they must feel safe, secure, and part of a group

How this relates to leading worship in your context.

Be aware of your leadership style and whether you are expressing high personal regard for those you are leading. Are you building feelings of self-worth, confidence and self-esteem for them?  It is basic human nature to desire to be treated in a respectful and appreciative way.

I’ve seen leaders make serious mistakes in this area.

 Mistake #1 – Public Criticism. Criticizing publicly from the platform how bad your people are responding in worship is basically telling them “you’re not worshiping good enough.” This is a bad idea and demotivating.

Mistake #2 – Lack of Encouragement. I once served under a leader who for years never gave me an encouraging word. He rarely expressed appreciation to our volunteers. This does not build self-esteem, in fact the absence of encouragement leaves a void resulting in lower feelings of self-worth.

Mistake #3 – Make it Unsafe to Make Mistakes. In worship music and the arts, sometimes mistakes happen, whether it’s out-of-tune singing, poor flow, missed communications, whatever.

If the resulting action is punitive (“don’t ever let Susie sing on mic again”) rather than corrective (“let’s give Susie vocal coaching before she sings on mic again”) then you foster an unsafe environment.

These types of mistakes can seriously damage the self-esteem of people in your ministry. Don’t do that.

Level 5  Self-Actualization Needs

The need for self-actualization is the desire to become everything one is capable of becoming—to realize and use his or her full potential, capacities, and talents. These are growth needs and as growth needs are met, people’s motivation to meet them increases.

The more people are growing in the areas of creativity, meaning, purpose – and really making a difference, the more people want to pursue them.

Growth can happen when lower level needs are being sufficiently met. However, this is not very common, as Maslow estimated that less than 1% of adults achieve total self-actualization.

Which means you have a lot of unhappy people with unmet needs out there.

How this relates to leading worship in your context.

Authentic creative expression will naturally be a desire of a healthy growing church or ministry. They will want an outlet for the creative arts. There will be a desire to create with more beauty and higher skill.

Sing to the Lord a new song! Psalm 96:1

Songs should be written by and for members that give language and original expression as a reflection of their community’s unique personality. This should be encouraged by church leadership.

Scripture commands that God’s people worship Him wholeheartedly and with new songs.

A greater desire to serve. More people will be willing to volunteer and contribute their time and talents. More will desire to go deeper in their commitment. Some will expand their sphere of ministry service, perhaps on missions trips or community outreach.

Your people will volunteer freely in the day of Your power. Psalm 110:3


The bottom line is that worship is all about God and ultimately individuals choose how they respond to Him out of their own free will. No amount of human effort changes that, but understanding the nuances of human nature can illuminate our approach and alleviate frustration.

May the Lord give you supernatural insight and anointing to lead well!

More on the Psychology of Worship coming in the next post. See also : “The Standard Answer” on prayer, wisdom and discernment.


Have you experienced any of these insights to be true for you? How?