Guest Post: The Psychology of Youth Night

November 7, 2012 — 2 Comments

Psychology and ministry are closely related.  More specifically, the study of adolescent development and the field of youth ministry are directly related.  Let’s be realistic, who we are and what we do as people can be defined and categorized by a textbook and even predicted by a professional psychologist.  I am in no way an expert in psychology, but I do recognize how it is used and identified on a youth night.  After all, youth ministry should be much more than “great games and bible study.”  It should be a refuge for students to thrive and grow not only spiritually, but also as humans and aspiring young adults.  Understanding the basics of human development only supports and empowers youth workers to more effectively and holistically engage the students they work with.  The field of youth ministry today would be a different place without including the keys to human psychology.

Anyone who has taken psychology class should have at least heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This visual model is the simple and profound truth of defining what we need as humans to survive and develop. If this is the foundation of understanding people, I would hope this is the core of our youth night model.

The order of development in this theory works from the bottom to the top.  In order to reach that ultimate goal of self-actualization, one must achieve a comfort in each category to move to the next.

I’m all about simple ministry models. The simplest is one that directly correlates with the five elements to holistic adolescent development – social, physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. If these are the elements of development, they should be the pillars of our ministry models.

So here is my idea: Maslow’s hierarchy could be used to diagram the 5 elements of adolescent development in ministry.

In short, students might need to follow this order to reach a place of personal growth and spiritual development.


  1. Social – Many students come to youth group because their friends are there.
  2. Physical – When they attend and have a core group of friends, they then need to feel safe and comfortable in their personal space.
  3. Emotional – When students feel they can be themselves with their friends, they begin to trust and open up to others (i.e. staff and other students not in their immediate social circle).
  4. Intellectual – If a sense of trust and community is established, students can begin to be more engaged and responsive during times of teaching of discussion.  This is a place where respect has been established and is being displayed.
  5. Spiritual – Finally, with all of these elements in play, students may begin to see beyond themselves and connect with their Creator and Savior.

Examine your own youth nights. Are they structured in a way that allows students to thrive in all elements of adolescent development?  Is your ministry a missing something?  Examine yourself and your ministry style. I strongly encourage you to sit back one night and simply watch.  Watch students in how they interact each other, who they gravitate to and what they are physically doing.  Knowledge of the psychology of adolescent development will begin to open doors to a more holistic youth ministry.

*Timothy Crossland is a youth ministry major from Azusa Pacific University who is now up in Kirkland, WA (looking for a youth ministry position, get him, he’s amazing). He just started a blog at and you can follow him on twitter at @tbxland


2 responses to Guest Post: The Psychology of Youth Night


    Right on! One of my cores is establishing our gathering times as a “safe” place for youth. This includes physical, social and emotional and works directly along this principle of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Good on ya!

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