How the YMCA Lost the Way, the Truth and the Life

Keeping Jesus at the Center of Our Mission

I enjoy going to my local YMCA.  You may know it as just the “Y” these days but it was once the YMCA, the Young Men’s Christian Organization.  My family has a membership at the local branch and we enjoy its swimming pool, workout facilities, and exercise programs.  The 90 minutes of quiet time is priceless as a parent of a three-year-old.  I appreciate the services that the organization offers.  Every time I go to the YMCA, though, I can’t help but feel a great loss.  I feel tremendously sad for the organization, for the world and for the people who gave so much to it over its history.

The YMCA was once so much more than just a swimming pool and some exercise equipment.  It was once a shining light of Christianity that brought the salvation of Jesus to thousands of people all over the world.  Now it is just a gym.  Somewhere along the line, the Gospel of Jesus Christ was replaced as its core message with lifting a few weights.


DL Moody was one of the most influential evangelists in American history.  He started his Christian career 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.

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 those who had left their farms and families were bars and prostitution.  A whole generation was being led to ruin by the temptations of a culture it had never encountered previously.

The goal of the founders of the YMCA was not just to have these men avoid the unhealthy things in life.  It was not to get the people to stop drinking and exercise.  That was a beneficial result of their mission but not the actual point.  Rather, it was to give to these people the unrivaled joy of salvation through Jesus through evangelism and then Bible study.  The YMCA began as the Young Men’s Christian Association.  It was birthed out of a prayer and Bible study meeting.  It was started after the founder was inspired during a Bible study to bring Bible study to a broader audience. Regular working class people needed better access to quality Bible teaching was the idea.  Salvation, the Bible, and Christian fellowship were the foundations of a better life.

Does this sound at all like the Y of today?

As other YMCA’s were founded, they formed a worldwide organization united by common goals.  They were to unite Christian men to do the work of the Kingdom of God and promoting evangelical Christianity through regular services and athletic activities.  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 and evangelistic outreaches.  It employed giants of the faith like Sunday, Moody, and Chambers to get the Gospel and help the lost people of a new 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.

This awesome work continued and even grew until the Y lost sight of its actual mission.  It traded a focus on a life-changing relationship with Jesus with some baseball thrown in for just baseball.  Somewhere Jesus started to get left out of the organization.

Athletics which had been part of the Y’s mission began to be the only focus.  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 current mission statement.

The Y of today looks nothing like the YMCA of Billy Sunday or DL Moody.  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. The transformation can be seen in their very identity.  They removed the Christian Men’s Association and made it just the “Y”.  They are just Young apparently.   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.  It is like when Jesus is talking with the Woman at the Well in John 4.  The woman repeatedly tries to distract Jesus from the purpose of His discussion with her.  She brings up racial issues, religious issue and tries every way to try to get off the subject that brought Jesus to her – her great need for Jesus.  Jesus refuses to get sidetracked and remains clear on why He is there – her salvation.

john 4The temptation to follow the very same diversions is faced by every Christian and Christian organization.  The loss of focus by the Y is the same error that many American churches have made in the same time period.  Churches are formed to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to minister to Christians and teach the Word of God with the goal of transforming people and society.

Just as a good life would result from the evangelism of the Y, Biblical morality flows from discovering Jesus and His Word.  A moral society is a result of rather than the goal of Christianity.  Yet in many churches, the Gospel and freedom from sin are being phased out in favor of the social justice or a social club.  Even belief in Jesus as the Way, the Truth and the Life, the only way to the Father is being deemed as not part of the essential mission of the organization for many.  Like the Y, they have chosen exercise bikes to tone the body over the Gospel that tames the soul.

Where once great denominations stood, they are now not much more than tradition clubs where people go to have potlucks 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 and add some exercise equipment as they will make no eternal difference.

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.  We are just rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship.  Only Jesus can stop the actual disaster.

The good news is all we need to do is turnaround – repent of our rebranding and turn to Him.  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, He is still there waiting to bring His lost sheep back into the fold.   Ask and we will be answered and Jesus will take His proper place in our lives.  he does it without condemnation and bringing with Him the joy that had been missing in our lives.

“Jesus, Jesus, there is just something about Jesus”, the old song goes.  Is He at the center of our mission statement?  Is He the reason we are doing whatever we are doing?  If not, there is plenty of time to change that before it is too late.

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