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The Young Men’s Christian Association was birthed in the factories of nineteenth-century London. It then spread around the globe to become one of history’s most successful parachurch movements. Today, there are over 14,000 locations, but “the Y” is probably better known in America for its physical fitness facilities and a campy song than for its Christian distinctiveness. Nevertheless, a rich history lies behind that often neglected “C,” and efforts are underway to again make it central to the organization’s mission. Whether that revival movement is prepared to take on the Y’s embrace of the LGBTQ agenda remains to be seen. 

Wedding anniversaries recently brought my extended family together at the beautiful YMCA facility in Estes Park, Colorado. Older than Rocky Mountain National Park, which it borders, the YMCA of the Rockies was founded as a respite for pastors in 1907. The location was inspired when future Colorado Governor William Sweet was hiking over the continental divide and saw that the snow on one of the mountainsides formed the shapes of a “Y” and a descending dove. The century-old Hyde Chapel now highlights that view—and yes, you can really see the “Y” and dove—in the picture window behind its altar.

A few hundred yards away at the Sweet Memorial Building, the programming hub for children’s activities, another picture window highlighted a different agenda. Construction paper rings formed a multi-colored flag, and accompanying materials celebrating Pride Month made it clear that this rainbow had nothing to do with Noah’s ark. Inside, a dusty Bible sat on a fireplace mantle near a 1937 portrait of Governor Sweet, who would likely be astonished at the sexualized creed that his building is now being used to proclaim to youngsters.

George Williams would probably feel the same way. Williams was the teenager who, following an evangelical conversion experience, started a prayer meeting at an English garment factory in 1841. Those prayers helped ignite a transformation at the mill. The YMCA’s flame spread quickly among the hungry souls of Britain and then across multiple oceans. In 1894, Williams was knighted for his efforts, and John Mott, a later president of the World Alliance of YMCAs, would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946. Among the notable names who worked under the YMCA banner were Oswald Chambers, author of the widely read devotional book My Utmost for His Highest; D. L. Moody, the founder of the conservative evangelical school today known as the Moody Bible Institute; and that most memorable of crusaders against vice, Anthony Comstock.

The Comstock laws were rooted in the YMCA of the City of New York, but decades later a YMCA boarding house in the city—the McBurney Y—would serve as the inspiration for the Village People record that would become both a favorite at wedding receptions and something of a gay anthem. The level of debauchery at the McBurney Y is debatable, as is the intent of the song’s lyrics (even among those who sang them). Nevertheless, by 1978 the YMCA in NYC had drifted significantly from what it was in the days of Comstock. Today, that drift is seen in the enthusiastically affirming attitude toward LGBTQ issues taken by the national umbrella organization that over a decade ago sought to deemphasize the “C” in its name. Its official history is now decidedly irreligious. 

In Colorado, I stepped into the YMCA chapel with little expectation that any of the original religious zeal would remain, but the robust programming initially appeared to be consistent with the YMCA’s evangelical legacy. The well-attended Sunday service featured contemporary praise music led by a young guitar-strumming worship leader. Traditional hymns like “Standing on the Promises” were also sung from a hymnal published by the evangelical imprint Word Music. Greg Bunton, the amiable chaplain in his early 50s, looked to have been plucked out of a typical megachurch. The numerous weekday activity options included screenings of made-by-evangelicals movies like Jesus Revolution.

A couple days later, Bunton sat down with me. He was wearing a “Hike-Sing-Pray” shirt after leading a bridal party on trek to Bible Point—a stunning hilltop vista marked with the scriptures in a mailbox. Surprising me, Bunton explained that he hails from the progressive group Disciples of Christ and is personally “affirming” on LGBTQ issues. Given the wide variety of visitors and volunteers that his mountain chapel attracts, though, he seemed uninterested in either inviting them to evangelical altar calls or lobbing culture war grenades at them from the left. (The rainbow-themed activities at the Sweet Memorial Center were beyond his control.)

When he interviewed for his current position over a decade ago, those doing the hiring required that Bunton, like his predecessor, be affirming of the LGBTQ agenda. They made no mention of the Paris Basis, the YMCA mission statement adopted in 1855 and reaffirmed multiple times since. It states in full:

The Young Men’s Christian Associations seek to unite those young men who, regarding Jesus Christ as their God and Savior, according to the Holy Scriptures, desire to be his disciples in their faith and in their life, and to associate their efforts for the extension of his Kingdom amongst young men.
Any differences of opinion on other subjects, however important in themselves, shall not interfere with the harmonious relations of the constituent members and associates of the World Alliance.

For those who do the backstroke or shoot hoops at a functionally agnostic YMCA “swim and gym,” the Christ-centered nature of the Paris Basis may be surprising. Some believers seek to make it better known. UNIFY has been gathering those working for Christian renewal in YMCAs worldwide since 2010. Mission Network USA and The City Movement, led by David Newman, are the principle organizational structures attempting to lift up the “C” in the United States. Newman’s book The Shining Light, written to accompany the 2021 bicentennial of Williams’s birth, chronicles the YMCA’s spiritual history and highlights the ongoing revitalization efforts. An annual conference at the Silver Bay YMCA in upstate New York serves as the primary gathering of the likeminded.

In his book, Newman uses a story from a New England YMCA as a metaphor for to illustrate the state of the movement. This facility had a towering sign that read “YMCA” in light-up letters, but one day the lights in the “C” burned out. After a long delay, the “C” was lit again. While refocusing on the Paris Basis seems a necessary first step for renewal, the task of defining “the extension of his Kingdom” and those “other subjects” that are to be left by the wayside for the sake of harmony is a likely source of tension. Plus, it is unclear if those working for a relighting of the “C” themselves have any unified position on the theological and sexual issues that have been dividing denominations for decades. Newman’s book is silent on such topics, but it seems unlikely that one would write and produce videos on the YMCA’s stirring Christian roots in order to reintroduce a religious component that is the equivalent of today’s United Church of Christ. If this reform movement is bold and successful, one day it may be even more fun for orthodox Christians to stay at the YMCA.

John Murdock is an attorney who writes from northeast Texas.

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