Do you know what the C in YMCA stands for?
You may know it stands for “Christian,” but I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t. The YMCA has come far from its founders’ intent when it was organized in 1844 — so far that many people have forgotten its roots as a Christian organization established to disciple young men. Today, as John Alexander of the Danville, Illinois, YMCA says, “Unfortunately, people look at us and just see a swim and gym.”
Sadly, over the years the YMCA has redefined its original mission right out of existence. At first, the YMCA’s method of adapting itself to meet community needs looked harmless enough. They moved from what one article called “narrow evangelistic goals” to a goal of “developing the ‘whole man,’” focusing on physical and social development as well as spiritual development.
This wasn’t inherently wrong. But as YMCA staffers realized that physical development programs were becoming far more popular than Bible studies and prayer meetings, they found themselves with a choice to make. I don’t think I need to tell you how they decided.
Since it has abandoned its religious programs and focused on the physical, today’s YMCA is commonly seen as “successful” in terms of membership and revenue. But how is it successful if you fall so far short of your original goal that you end up getting rid of it entirely?
Or, as Christ would have put it, how is it successful to gain the world and lose your soul?
Thankfully, there are still those who battle for the soul of the YMCA, like my friend Dr. Jim Gills, one of America’s premier eye surgeons. Jim has given millions to fund the building of YMCAs in Florida — YMCAs that provide for faith as well as fitness. He is building one now that will have a basketball court where church services will be held on Sundays. Jim says YMCAs “aren’t just a place for people to lift weights.... They’re a place for people to go to have fulfillment.”
And at the national convention this summer, many YMCA directors and staffers spoke out about the need to “lift up the C” in “YMCA.” Some YMCAs have formed a movement for this purpose called YMCA Mission, which holds an annual “John 17:21 Conference.”
But it’s an uphill fight. At the YMCA convention, ideas like posting Bible verses on the wall or maintaining a prayer request box met with disapproval from many. Dick Blattner of the Hollywood, Florida, YMCA, complained, “I respect your religion. But when I see posters and placards on the wall that reflect Christian principles, I feel left out.... It offended me, and I don’t think it’s right for the Y.”