Maslow’s Friend Deborah’s Hierarchy of Church Needs - Let’s Start With Belonging
I’m not quite sure how it happened. It could have been that divine intervention thing again. It was a feeling that became a thought that became an intention that became an action. One day, I just started running in the opposite direction. As I popped in my AirPods, picked a playlist and set Strava to record, I turned left instead of right at the traffic lights. I ran past the retirement complex with the allotments, past the remains of the Neill’s Hill platform¹, past Jamie’s memorial, under the bridge, past the saplings protected by their wooden tree guards, past the swampy bit where the frogs spawn and I kept going until I was running alongside the railings of my ‘old’ church. There were always cars in the carpark. On certain days, I guessed why they were there - Toddlers on a Wednesday, Bowls on a Thursday. I wasn’t sure about Tuesdays. I was 1.5 miles from home. I ran on to the main road and stood beside the City Council litter bin so I could see the noticeboard outside giving the times of services and gaze at its magnificent stonework and ponder how it sat majestically on the corner of a tree-lined avenue, the one that Van Morrison had sung about. I started to run a lot in that direction. I crunched leaves and avoided puddles to stand beside that bin and look at it. I watched the seasons change, the cherry blossom come and go. There were people heading to a funeral. I wondered did I know the deceased because I wasn’t up-to-date on who had died there anymore but I didn’t recognise any of their faces. One day, I smelt soup wafting on to the Greenway. It may have been potato and leek. I heard the songs of children echo in the sky². That could have been in my head, but I want you to get the idea that all the senses were involved in this divine intervention.
In August, I discussed pouring myself a Presbyterian No. 2³ because of the difficult relationship I was having with church. It had been the summer of discontent. I couldn’t sit still and relax in a pew. I was like a caged bird. I talked about parakeets. I wondered should I add claustrophobia to my midlife woes. I put my anxiety down to the many complicated rules, the lack of freedom to be myself, the woman issue surfacing again. But I was worried about having to psych myself up to enter a sanctuary. It wasn’t like me not to want to go to church. I’ve always wanted to go to church. I love the church. But I wasn’t feeling it, whatever I was supposed to feel. And then one day, I wondered if I was brave enough to go back to my ‘old’ church and I never thought that asking God to make me bold and strong would involve something like this.
I planned it well in advance. I’d go on a Sunday evening in early September. There would be a smaller crowd. There were visiting speakers. It wasn’t that unusual to be interested in mission in West Belfast. I took a plus one, someone who found it hard to go back in too. She picked me up and we waited in the car like we were waiting to do an interview until a retired minister passed and then we leapt out so we could enter under the wings of his protection. “A rose between two thorns. No, that’s not right,” he said. There was strength in numbers. When we sat in the back row where we could touch the sound desk and the people came to us, the whole way down and across the aisles, I could almost hear angels rejoicing, and I remembered how my glasses had fallen off in the vestibule when someone much taller than me had hugged me. And because my ego had taken a real bashing just before I left that church, I was delighted that some people had read my writing. One man had taken the Presbyterian Herald to browse by the pool on holiday. He’d told his friends about the introvert article. He thought it was marvellous. He laughed as he recalled it. Someone much younger had read ‘the Herald’ too but only when I’d written something in it, and I had to remind myself that I was in a place of extreme humility and there was no such thing as Presbyterian fame. “Did you feel like the prodigal daughter?” I said as we left. I felt something stir in me again. And later I’d read about being a theologian of the tangible and know exactly what it meant. And then a Very Rev Dr who bore no responsibility for me prayed with me in a carpark for a man he’d never met⁴ and that was it really. If I’d been looking for signs, they were there in abundance, like intermittent manna dropping from heaven.
But a Sunday morning was harder. There was a bigger crowd, less places to hide. It took courage for me to climb the stairs to the gallery and I was grateful that no one said I was sitting in their seat and for every single person who spoke to me until my daughter complained that I was behaving like a celebrity guest and that it was mid-afternoon before we got home. And I began to enjoy the Sabbath day again. When two elderly ladies clasped my hands and wouldn’t let go and asked me was I too young for the soup club and I remembered that smell wafting on to the Greenway, I made a note of the dates in my diary. They were all Tuesdays. And when someone came over especially to tell me that she still had the two well-used chairs we’d given to her when she married nine years ago and how she now sat in them to read bedtime stories to her children, I actually thought my heart might explode. And the man who took the Herald on holiday has welcomed me every single Sunday since I returned, and I hope there isn’t a Sunday that he doesn’t because now I look forward to it.
And I’ve been thinking a lot about why we go to church because I know God is everywhere so I don’t need to go there especially to find Him and I went to an event about how to make Sundays visitor-friendly⁵ and the man who spoke at it said first comes belonging, then believing, then behaving and I wondered what he meant by behaving at church as it didn’t sound that appealing and whether it was a bit controversial putting believing second.
But I’d already had this idea before I went about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Church Needs except it’s not fully formed yet because I am no psychological expert, but I think there’s something in it and I asked a Professor of Practical Theology about it, and he didn’t fob me off as an unsound woman or refer me to someone’s latest book. He said he had once mentioned it to his students, but he wasn’t aware of any known theory or official statement on it from the Presbyterian Church. And then I mentioned it to someone else who had never heard of Maslow and so I reckoned before I got too far into developing my theory, I’d need to ensure people understood that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is about motivation and there are five categories of human needs which impact an individual’s behaviour. They start at the bottom and build on each other, hence the hierarchy and if you don’t have your physiological and safety needs met, then you won’t care about esteem and self-actualisation. So, basically, if you are hungry and unclothed without access to education and property, then you are unlikely to be worried about fulfilling your potential. And I decided all those warm spaces and food banks really matter but that often churches get stuck at helping people to the next stage, the belonging bit and if they can’t get that sorted, then they will never progress to fellowship and worship and discipleship and evangelism and mission and all the other important outworkings of faith they keep talking about as evidence of success. If people don’t feel loved and safe and supported and like they matter, they probably won’t be spreading the gospel.
And because I’ve already exceeded 1200 words and am berating myself for it and realising I really need an editor, I can’t get into Deborah’s Hierarchy in much detail and besides it’s not that robust yet, so I’ll just keep it simple and draw a picture. First comes belonging then believing, as the man said, then beholding then becoming then building.
Why do I go to church? I guess it’s because I find God in the people who go there. And before I forget, a while ago I said I needed to process why I’d left that church and whether I was burned or burned out and actually I was both and rest is a physiological need, and we need to be careful not to forget the basic needs of churchgoers too. Nothing happens to build the ‘kingdom’ if we don’t get enough sleep. And soup….
 Shades of Michelangelo by Belinda Carlisle.
 Pour Me A Presbyterian No. 2 https://deborahsloan.substack.com/p/pour-me-a-presbyterian-no-2-im-having? (external link).
 Remember My Name https://deborahsloan.substack.com/p/remember-my-name? (external link)
 I’ve written a piece about it for the Presbyterian Herald which I hope you’ll read in due course because it’s important…