In the summer of 2010 the YMCA of the USA re-branded the organization to help improve awareness of their impact and tell their story better. One of the more visible aspects of this rebranding was a redesign to the logo, which still includes all four letters - YMCA. A primary goal of the rebranding is to bring focus to three areas of influence: social responsibility, youth development and healthy living. To the more than 78% of Americans who identify as being Christian (according to a report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life – 2007 survey) and others who have a different faith or no religious affiliation at all, the Y rebranding sparked renewed interest in how this non-profit, one of the nation’s largest, identifies with and represents its Christian heritage.
Measuring, understanding and building on that public interest would provide important data on how Americans could live healthier lives, respond to the needs of youth and engage socially. However, the YMCA of the USA doesn’t collect, on a national level, information on how Y members want a Christian faith influence in their Y experience. According to Mamie Moore of the YMCA of the USA, “Y’s are one of the most collaborative organizations in the nation” building on “values that most people have”.
Herein lies a significant challenge and opportunity for the Christian church. The Christian faith is more than common values that other religions or society in general share. When such a large and influential organization like the Y continues to identify that it puts Christian principles into practice it is important that a full scope of the Christian faith be offered. If the Y said instead that it puts Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist or some other faith’s principles into practice there would be an expectation for the defining qualities of that particular faith not just to be evident but embedded into the programs, services and culture of the organization.
The Y hasn’t lacked in receiving criticism. Comments like, “They dropped the [Christian] ‘C’” have abounded. Interestingly an article from outside the U.S. in CanadianChristianity.com summarizes a common perception quite well, “the present-day Y shows faint imprints of the soul-stirring of the past, it takes a lowest common denominator approach to spiritual issues that is inclusive of all faiths. Its evangelistic history - the list of spiritual 'heavyweights' that were synonymous with the organization in the past - contrasts so greatly with today's 'soft sell' approach, that it would now be misleading to call the Y a Christian organization.”
What is certain is that the Y is not a Christian church. The YMCA of the USA has never suggested that they are a church. So, it is important to not judge the organization or measure it as if it were a church. What can and should be carefully observed is how Christians within the Y are personally accountable to the God they serve. Christians are in the Y at every level from CEOs of associations, executives, managers, staff, volunteers and (by far the largest percentage) as members. Moreover, every Christian church that claims to be outreach minded and is in a community where there is a Y should be challenged to serve God and actively live out their faith in their local Y.
Beyond corporate positioning, retaining non-profit status and being socially responsible there is, for Christians, something much bigger at play within the Y. It may be something rather foreign for modern-day America to comprehend. However it is exquisitely displayed throughout the Bible. It is the concept of God making a covenant with man. From Abraham to Moses to Jesus there are examples where God makes forever-irrevocable commitments to His relationship with humanity. This covenant relationship appears to be very much a part of the beginnings of the Y in the 1800’s.
Y founder Sir George Williams wrote, “We met, our numbers grew and the room was soon crammed. In answer to prayer, the Spirit of God was present.” John Ernest Hodder-Williams in his book The Life Of Sir George Williams says, “Let it never be forgotten that the foundations of the Young Men’s Christian Association were laid in a prayer meeting in an upper room, in the fervent, effectual prayers of two young men.”
The premise of a covenant is that beyond our tendency to change, evolve and adapt, God maintains His commitment forever to the legacy of those who have submitted their will and had discipline to be faithful.
Apply this perspective and you’ll see that the Y isn’t getting born again through rebranding. Instead, the Y is getting an answer to fervent prayer. Imagine going to a Y where people don’t just workout, they leave saying, “The spirit of God was present.” That truly would reflect the Y’s goal to be (in the words of Y Chief Marketing Officer Katie Coleman), “a way of being warmer, more genuine, more welcoming.” Having spiritual transformation and growth is the ultimate way for consumers to engage and truly live the Y brand experience.
CONTACT A Y THAT MORE INTENTIONALLY COMMITS TO CHRISTIAN-FOCUSED PROGRAMS AND SERVICES
There are no doubt countless examples in the more than 2500 Y’s throughout the United States where Christians are living out their faith in one way or another. There are, at the time of this article, 20+ U.S. based Y’s or Y associations that have formally organized and promote a more defined commitment to meeting the spiritual needs of members and their community through Christian-focused programs and services. Connecticut YMCA of Norwalk Oregon YMCA of Columbia-Willamette Ohio Licking County Family YMCA Wisconsin YMCA at Pabst Farms New York Silver Bay YMCA of the Adirondacks Iowa YMCA of Greater Des Moines Ohio Antioch: The Church of the Y Illinois YMCA of Rock River Valley North Carolina Blue Ridge Assembly Texas YMCA of Greater Houston Washington YMCA of Pierce and Kitsap Counties Washington Mel Korum Family YMCA Ohio YMCA and JCC of of Greater Toledo Ohio YMCA of Youngstown Tennessee YMCA of Middle Tennessee Washington Morgan Family YMCA Washington YMCA of Snohomish County Oregon YMCA of Columbia-Willamette Sherwood Tennessee YMCA Restore Ministries YMCA Group Interests Ohio YMCA of Greater Dayton Colorado YMCA of the Rockies California YMCA of Greater Long Beach Alabama YMCA of Greater Birmingham Texas YMCA of Greater San Antonio
7 STEPS TO STRENGTHEN THE CHRISTIAN CULTURE AT YOUR Y
Thinking about how your Y can better meet the spiritual needs of your community? Start by reviewing these 7 basic steps then get support. You can CONTACT US to ask questions and find more ways to strengthen your Y.
GO FOR IT. DECIDE AND COMMIT– First things first. Get over the hump of “thinking about it”, establishing a committee and being satisfied with the token gestures of displaying a Bible, having a box for prayer requests, playing occasional Christian music and having a chapel space. That can all be good. BUT pursue GREAT! Make growing the Christian culture at your Y a visible decision that doesn’t waiver and an active commitment that grows stronger.
SURVEY AND RESEARCH – Most Y leaders and staff are horrified about asking members spiritually-based questions. Many view such questions as inappropriate when in fact it is simply part of the information gathering process and on-going customer service. Lori Simondides the Director of Health and Wellness at the Y in Massillon, Ohio describes how fluidly it can be woven into conversations. She says, “One of my favorite questions to ask [members] is “what is your definition of wellness or well-being?” The answers that I have received have been as different and individualized as the people who are being asked. Almost always, interestingly enough, there is a spiritual component. They recognize that needs to be present for overall wellness. I hear this from people who are not “Christian” and do not attend church nor do they plan on attending. It’s a great opportunity for conversation and a way to share the [basics of the Christian faith].”
DEFINE “CHRISTIAN” AT YOUR Y - Josh Heaston, Christian Emphasis Director for the YMCA of Greater Toledo says, “The word ‘Christian’ unfortunately has a lot of baggage attached to it. One of the first things that we had to do was define the word “Christian” for our Association and be clear on our approach to ministry. We are committed to loving, serving and caring for everyone that comes through our doors in the same way that Jesus did. We will not push Christianity down anyone’s throat but we also will not be ashamed to have Christian programs put in place for those that would like our help spiritually.”
REACH OUT TO AND WORK WITH THE CHURCH - The Y rebranding may not be so much a catalyst for greater Christian involvement but rather a “context.” Eric Ellsworth, CEO of the Indianapolis Area Y says, “I think this opens the door for opportunities for the faith community to work with the YMCA. I don’t think this will pull us away from our foundational roots. I’m encouraged by some of the boldness of the Y USA leadership.” As the publisher of Faith & Fitness Magazine I regularly talk with church leaders. It is shocking to learn how many have never stepped foot inside of a Y. They likely won’t until you invite them.
BUDGET FOR YOUR CHRISTIAN FAITH FOCUS – For Josh Heaston and the Toledo Y, commitment to strengthening the Christian culture ultimately came back to the money. He says, “We were challenged by the quote ‘Don’t tell me what you value - show me your budget and I will tell you what you value.’ Meaning, if Christian emphasis is truly important to a YMCA, they will have money allocated in their budget to help advance the Christian mission.”
STAFF FOR YOUR CHRISTIAN FAITH FOCUS - To the extent that a Y employs fitness staff with a fitness degree, nutritionist that know diet, childcare providers that have experience working with children, marketing and accounting staff that know business and so on, it is appropriate to hire Christian leadership that know the Christian faith, have appropriate training and are passionate to develop and execute a plan. If you can afford an executive director, a wellness director, an aquatics director or can figure a way to budget for rebranding your Y it is likely you can get the support of your board to add a professional Christian staff position.
DEVELOP PROGRAMS AND SERVICES TO MEET SPIRITUAL NEEDS – I visit a lot of Ys. When I do, I look at their print material. You can do the same by going to your local Y website. If you can’t find anything that has even a hint of a Christian faith basis, it likely doesn’t exist at your Y. Your Y needs to develop programs and services to meet spiritual needs. This used to be difficult. But – today there is no need to reinvent the wheel. There are an abundance of well-developed well-produced resources that are popular and include professional support. Moreover, Y members want it far more than you realize. Y leaders and Y members together, should carefully examine the full scope of programs and services offered at their Y and commit to expanding the opportunities to meet spiritual needs.