The YMCA and the Church without the Gospel – Keeping Jesus the Center of Our World


I love the local YMCA, now called just the Y these days.  My family has a membership at the local branch and we enjoy its swimming pool, workout facilities and exercise programs.

Every time I go to the Y though I can’t help but feel sad, for the organization and for the men and women who gave so much to it over its history.  The Y was once so much more that just a swimming pool and some free weights.  It was once an organization that brought Jesus to thousands of people all over the world.

DL Moody was one of the most influential evangelists in American history and he started his Christian service with the YMCA.

Billy Sunday was another and he was one of the first leaders of the US YMCA.

Oswald Chambers the writer of My Utmost for His Highest, the daily devotional that has been translated into 39 languages and has been in print since its publication was a chaplain for the YMCA during World War I.

Christianity, evangelism and Jesus Himself was once the very core of what the Y was all about, but now that is just history.

The group was founded in 1844 in London in response to the influx of rural men into the cities brought there by the jobs of the industrial revolution.  The only social activities available to these men who had left their farms and families and gone to the foreign city were going to bars and prostitution.

The goal of the founders was not just to avoid the unhealthy things in life, but to give to these men and eventually women the joy of Jesus through evangelism and Bible study.  The YMCA began as the Young Men’s Christian Association and its very existence was birthed out of the prayer and Bible study meetings that the original founder had participated in with other members of the business community.  It was started after the founder was inspired during Bible study to bring Bible study to more people.  Does this sound at all like the Y of today?

As other YMCA’s were formed, they began to work with one another and form a worldwide organization united by common goals – to unite Christian men to do the work of the Kingdom of God and promoting evangelical Christianity through regular services and athletic activities.  In other words, it was a Christian organization founded by Christians to evangelize and study the Bible and promote healthy lifestyles as part of the organization.  Ministering to the soul, a healthy body and helping the downtrodden was its mission.  It was kind of like a church, just with some baseball mixed in.

During the Civil War and the time period immediately thereafter, the YMCA was out in force in military camps and cities conducting prayer meetings, evangelistic outreaches and even employing notable men of God like Sunday, Moody and Chambers to get the Gospel and help the people of a newly highly mobile society.

Its influence for the Kingdom of God was enormous during its time – eternal life was offered and received on a regular basis.  Good, faithful Christians gave sacrificially to carry out these campaigns and for years the YMCA was a beacon of Jesus in this always dark world.

Until sadly, something changed.  Somewhere Jesus started to get left out of the organization.  Athletics which had been part of the mission, healthy Christian men playing games, began to be the only focus of the Y.  Pools and gyms that were originally meant as adjuncts to the teaching of the Bible became the main attraction.  Physical fitness and community involvement that were meant to be expressions of the Christian man’s impact on the world today became the goal of the YMCA rather than promoting evangelical Christianity.

Things got so bad that in the 70’s the YMCA became more associated with the Village People and seedy living than with DL Moody and evangelism.  They have recovered from the seedy living association, but Jesus is nowhere to be found in the recreated mission statement.

The Y of today looks nothing like the YMCA of Billy Sunday’s day or Moody’s.  I have asked my local Y workers whether they knew the history of the YMCA, Billy Sunday, or DL Moody and universally the answer was no – they had never heard it.  Jesus is just part of the unknown history of the place, like they used to have more letters in the name.  The core is way gone.

Jesus is just not involved in the mission of the organization unless He is hiding in the background somewhere. They even removed the Christian and made it just the Y – young?   While it has good exercise equipment, all that is left of the Christian organization is a smoking crater where great men once preached.  People may be drawn by the pool, but they will not be given living water to drink.

Before we go tar and feather the Y, consider the direction that many American churches have been taking in the same time period.  Teaching the Bible and evangelism, you know the things that Jesus said we are commanded to do as believers in Christ, are being phased out in favor of the social justice flavor of the moment or a social club that happens to meet in where a church once met.  Even belief in Jesus as the Way, the Truth and the Life, the only way to the Father is being deemed non-essential for many.

Where once great denominations were once spurring revivals in their not so long ago history, they are now not much more than tradition clubs where people go to have pot lucks and to hear about how to do works with little to no mention of Jesus Himself or His Word.  What was once established to save souls from eternal damnation through the love of Jesus would be offended if you mentioned any of the above.  They are also just smoking craters where once great men and women changed the world for Christ.

Without proclaiming Jesus and Him Crucified and holding to His Word, they might as well re-brand themselves the Y, wait that is take, the M or the A seems catchy, and add some exercise equipment as at least there would be some positive physical impact.

Our own lives can follow the pattern as well.  Did we start off doing this life for Jesus, filled with the fire of the Holy Spirit and intent on changing the world into a picture of the Kingdom of God only to lose our way at some point and lose our focus.  We can still be doing Bible studies and going to church and all the things that we think that Christians do, but if our heart is not about serving Jesus and proclaiming His name there is something very wrong.

The good news is that regardless if we are the Y or a church or a person who has lost their way and left Jesus behind on their mission statement, all we need to do is turnaround – repent of our rebranding and turn to Him.  Ask and we will be answered and Jesus will take His proper place in our lives without condemnation and with the joy that had been missing in our lives.

Jesus, Jesus, there is just something about Jesus as the old song goes.

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