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.  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.  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 to bring Bible study to a broader audience. Regular working class people needed better access to quality Bible teaching.  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. Ministering to the soul, a healthy body and helping the downtrodden was the 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.  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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12 thoughts on “How the YMCA Lost the Way, the Truth and the Life
  1. Thank you for this insightful Holy Spirit led article. My wife and i just joined our local YMCA and on the 3rd or 4th visit as i waited in the lobby for my wife i noticed that “CHRIST” was nowhere to be found. I was shocked in a way and then i thought this is just like the world today. CHRIST JESUS who gave us HIS everything always doing HIS FATHER’S will has been left out of yet another organization that was named after HIM, for HIM and to lead people to HIM in Spirit and Truth. The YMCA is no different than 99.999999999% of organizations that at one time lifted up the name of CHRIST JESUS and were not ashamed to share the
    “Good News” that HE brings to our lives. We have removed HIS beautiful name, HIS very being from our lives due to the fact that we don’t have room for HIM! We want things our way, in our time, and we really are to lazy to study the history our LORD and SAVIOR. We put HIM on a nice little shelf in our homes and bring HIM out when we need HIM, or bring HIM out when it is convenient. We have lost complete knowledge and understanding of the true past and how CHRIST JESUS used to be worshiped. What else have we left CHRIST JESUS out of? What other parts of our history have we lost sight of and are living among the wolves rather than listening for and obeying the HOLY SPIRIT in everything that we do. I wonder how disappointed our HEAVENLY FATHER must be with us for always putting HIM second, third or even lower? Repent and turn to JESUS and share the TRUTH with everyone you come into contact with. We cannot continue to do the things our grandparent and parents have done just because it “tradition” or just the way we have always done things. In peace and love.

    1. Hi Steve – you are welcome. Yes, I agree with you. It is sad to watch the destruction of organizations that were founded on Christ as they drift away from Him. I am praying, though, that is just a rearranging of things and the Church comes out of this leaner and more dedicated to the Christ and Him Crucified than ever. Like the remnant that came back to Israel to rebuild under Ezra and Nehemiah! Since I wrote this post, I tried to do my part like you say and was regularly sharing Jesus at my local YMCA. Though the entire organization was not turned around, we did have a nice core group of Christians starting there starting to turn things around. We can do the same wherever we go. God bless you.

  2. Thank you for your well written article. I wish I had thought to Google and find this in January when we signed our daughter up for Camp Chief Ouray at the YMCA of the Rockies, Snow Mountain Ranch campus.

    We got her on Saturday and I am appalled at the things she came home knowing and the the music they played. There is definitely no C in the YMCA. So much that the faith they speak of on the website has a new definition. A girl in my daughter’s cabin was given a faith virtue bead, because she had amazing faith in herself and self confidence.

    I’m trying to get over the crushing feeling of guilt for sending my daughter to Camp Chief Ouray. While I knew it wasn’t an evangelical church camp like Kanakuk or Pine Cove, I did think they would mention God at least once or twice. We have vacationed at Snow Mountain Ranch several times and while not super evangelical, you could see the Christian history and the importance of family being encouraged in the activities.

    We will not be returning or returning to their properties again.

    1. Hi Linda – I am sorry you and your daughter had that experience. It is so sad that an organization that was once all about Christ is now about self. The good thing is you are aware of it and can talk your daughter through why it is a problem and why.

      I understand that guilt as every parent makes mistakes while trying to lead their kiddos. Yet, God is way bigger than any mistake we make and will use them for your daughters good and for His glory. I was just talking with my kids last night about some of the camps we did early on when they were young. They were with churches but turned out to be not Christ focused at all. The older kids who love the Lord were hysterically laughing about some of the incidents now and realize the problems. The short time there did not undo all the other work we did to get them focused on Jesus. God was wonderfully gracious in all of our errors.

      So I agree with you and will not send my kids to a YMCA camp either. But you can have confidence in taking that pain to the Lord and being forgiven. He will also use it to lead you and your family in the future.
      God bless you!

    2. As nonbeliever parents who don’t want to indoctrinate our child into an outdated mythology, we are thrilled to hear that the YMCA of the Rockies at Snow Mountain Ranch offers a secular camping experience at Camp Chief Ouray. If religious families want the Christian camping experience, there are many options for them here in Colorado. After lots of research, Camp Chief Ouray seems to be the only option for parents like us. So I’m thankful that it exists.

      1. Hi Michael,
        I understand that you want a camp that matches your family values and have no objection to that. The point of the post is not about freedom to choose, but about how people and organizations follow societal pressures, often unknowingly, and end up looking nothing like their original purpose. In this case, the YMCA was the Young Men’s Christian Men’s Association – now it is mainly just a gym.

        Your comment though highlights the very things I was addressing. You seem to imply that you and your family are somehow more advanced and likely are free thinkers because you don’t want to indoctrinate your child into an “outdated mythology”. I once thought the same thing. If you look at what you state, you are merely reflecting the societal currents that emphasize the post modern world view. This says that all things are getting better as time goes on, people are getting smarter, and old necessarily means “outdated” and not as good as now. The mention of “indoctrinated” is the cherry on top of this common viewpoint as it assumes ignorance, control, and superiority on the part of the speaker.

        Meanwhile, most people who make such accusations, myself included, are unthinkingly following the crowd from college, TV, and internet without ever digging deeply into the actual facts involved. I am a lawyer with a college degree in history, for example, and I never once looked into the mountains of evidence for Jesus and the Bible before dismissing Him and Christianity as fables or oral history. I thought I was so modern as an atheist, not knowing the Roman world Jesus was born into was filled with people who believed in nothing but themselves.

        There is nothing noble or new about being a post modern thinker. New is also not necessarily good. The most important thing is always what is true.

  3. This is a very important discussion. There are over 850 corporate local YMCAs free to adopt there own mission statement. 70% have adopted a faith based mission. It is painful for me personally to read this post and comments. The neighborhood Y where my family belongs has a chapel at the entrance off the lobby with an open Bible placed on a table with a linen cloth. Alongside the Bible is a fresh box of Kleenix. There is a Cross on the wall accompanied by a beautiful display of the flags of all our armed services to honor our uniformed men and women along with their families, many of whom belong to the Y. We have chaplains and plant church clergy present. Beautifully framed and professionally crafted images are hung around the hallways highlighting a verse from Scripture. When I finish my workout, there are volunteers manning a large table in the lobby distributing nutritious food to elderly who manage to live nearby. If someone asks what is going on here my answer is Scripture that teaches The James Paradox. It is not just about WHO we are, but more WHY we are here.

    1. Thanks for the comment and for the further information. That is great to hear about your YMCA. That seems wonderful! I suppose it is likely a reflection of the community around the local facility. I will continue to pray our community changes so that the Y and every other local facility changes as well.

  4. I would be happy to connect you with YMCA Chaplain resources to support your efforts to strengthen Christian presence through a lens of faith.

    1. cid:37EFC43F-7493-4D88-B9E4-F65FB0C0C957. I can put in touch with Josh Heston, Director of Christian Emphasis, YMCA of Greater Indianapolis, who has served as a resource for YMCAs around the country and beyond. This is your opportunity to act on your prayer to make a difference in your local community. Warning. It takes a great deal more effort and courage than writing a post to sow discord in the name of Christ.

      1. Norris – I am sorry you see this as sowing discord and I am glad that you are blessed with a Y as you described it. But you are making unkind assumptions about me without knowing anything I have done regarding my community or the local Y. You feel strongly about the mission of the Y in your area and I am glad. I pray that it continues and spreads to the East Coast.

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