30 Hour Famine and the Hierarchy of Needs


By Beth Ruzanic

46 years ago some kids in Canada were heartbroken about the sheer number of children who die each day from hunger related illnesses so they did something about it, and the 30 Hour Famine was born. Building on the success of our neighbors to the north the first 30 Hour Famine in the USA took place 25 years ago in 1992. Since that time millions of young people have raised millions of dollars to combat the scourge of hunger across the globe. If we allow ourselves to stop and think about those statistics for a moment we realize that they cut directly to the heart of every teenager, in fact of every human being, that we all long to make a difference.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has long been the standard for the psychosocial development of the human species. It begins with a foundation of Basic Needs i.e. food, shelter, water, clothing. Then it moves onto Safety and Security which includes a home and people who are family. Next is Belonging and that includes relationships that ground us with a sense of place and the opportunity for intimacy. Following that is Self-Esteem where individuality and confidence grow along with achievements. The top of the pyramid is Self-Actualization and this is where we see the development of morality and creativity. More importantly during Self-Actualization is where experiences of purpose, meaning and inner potential start to occur.

For many decades youth ministry has focused mainly on the middle of the Heirarchy. Belonging and Self-Esteem are so critical to moving teenagers to a place where they are even able to be open to who God is and what he wants for their lives, so it’s normal that that’s where we aim. We talk about loving students where they are and showing them with words and actions that we care about them. We build programs that welcome them and give them a sense of Belonging so that they feel safe and secure. These are all great things that need to happen, but we can’t stop there.

Self-Actualization has to be the goal or else students will leave our programs without a God driven sense of purpose. They will move forward without the knowledge that their inner potential is something that the God of the universe cares about deeply. When a student asks me “where does God want me to go to college?” I recognize that they haven’t hit the stage of Self-Actualization yet. They haven’t yet discovered their purpose or the meaning of their life. So when I tell them that what God wants is faithful disciples and that they can be that anywhere they go I’m often met with confused looks and more questions. (By the way, self-actualization sometimes gets a bad rap with Christians who think of it as selfish or humanistic; but reframe is as ‘knowing who God made you to be.’)

So what do we do? Well we involve students in opportunities to move beyond themselves. Short term missions, sponsoring a child in the developing world, the 30 Hour Famine are all amazing ways to move students from being inwardly focused (the Self-Esteem phase) to being outwardly focused where they can begin to discover their purpose and meaning. We can’t stop there though, we have to reach for the tippy top of that pyramid and stay there. We have to provide continuous opportunities for students to stay in the Self-Actualization zone so they can develop a strong sense of self in Christ. Perhaps fun and games need to become the exception and not the rule. Maybe our regularly scheduled programming should be outwardly focused. In my city of Pittsburgh almost 20% of children are food insecure. The Pittsburgh Public School has more than 50% of its students qualify for free or reduced meals so the entire district gets free breakfast and lunch. Hunger is a problem in our city.

When students hear this they are motivated to act. They want to help. They want their lives to have PURPOSE and MEANING. So we partner with local food banks and urban farms who are trying to get healthy organic produce into the kitchens of people who wouldn’t normally have it. We donate snacks to local after school programs so kids can have something to eat before they go home to what may be an empty refrigerator. We develop long term strategies that keep students reaching for Self-Actualization because when they are there they begin to recognize that the tippy top of the pyramid is where their search for purpose and meaning converges with God’s desires for their lives. That in living life as a faithful disciple their longings will be fulfilled and through service and sacrifice their purpose is revealed.