"This is a very important, exciting time for the Y," said Neil Nicoll, president and CEO of YMCA of the USA. "For 160 years, we've focused on changing lives for the better… . People are concerned about the problems facing their communities. Like the Y, they understand that lasting change will only come about if we work together to improve our health, strengthen our families and support our neighbors. Our hope is that more people will choose to engage with the Y."
Problems? Change? Hope? This "new brand strategy" is a puzzle. While the Y's written mission still declares putting, "Christian principles into practice through programs," the newly rolled-out strategy does not mention the change and hope found in Christ.
So, is this organization still the YMCA? Or is this a new brand under the title of the Y, no longer with an emphasis on the "C"?
The Y's new key areas of focus—youth development, healthy living and social responsibility—are no different from the ones YMCA founder Sir George Williams set out to address when he founded the first chapter in London in 1844. What is missing today is the original mission's answer to these needs: the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Unbeknownst to most, there is much more to the YMCA than the Village People impart to us in their disco-era ditty. The organization's original motto—taken straight from Jesus' prayer for believers—reflected its goal to cross denominational racial, and social barriers: "That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me." (John 17:21)
Men like Williams and those who followed for decades to come sought to develop the whole person—mind, body and spirit. Thus, to the YMCA's founders, the 160 years of what Mr. Nicoll recently called "changing lives for the better" began with the transforming power found in Jesus Christ.
And herein lies the challenge that began when the YMCA moved away from its evangelical mission in the 1930s and continues today—what to do with the C in the YMCA. Speaking to the national council of the YMCA in the 1970s, evangelist Billy Graham said that to change society was to "change men's hearts first." Take, for example, the conversion experience of Cornell student and future Nobel Peace Prize winner John Mott.
In regard to the YMCA's role in Mott's life, historian Clarence P. Shedd noted that Mott had come to Cornell "to get away from religion." But upon hearing a YMCA-sponsored talk at Cornell by famed Cambridge athlete Kynaston Studd in 1886, three sentences forever changed Mott's life: "Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not. Seek ye first the Kingdom of God."
After graduating from Cornell in 1888, Mott was named executive president of the YMCA. During this time, Christian orthodoxy began to disappear from the curriculum and administration of American universities. Yet it was strongly maintained in the undergraduate body through the YMCA and Mott's work. His inspiration and leadership, and the Intercollegiate Movement of the YMCA fostered a missionary zeal at home and abroad, influencing new generations of young men and women to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as documented in Mott's 1905 book, "The Evangelization of the World in this Generation."
In his book "The Soul of the American University," Notre Dame professor George Marsden demonstrates the impact of the YMCA in an era when more than 3,000 of the American missionaries who went aboard from 1899-1915 were products of the YMCAs and YWCAs. "By 1921, the YMCAs reached their numerical peak with 731 chapters on the approximately 1,000 [college] campuses in the country; they had enrolled well over 90,000 members, or about one in seven, in a student population of about 600,000."
Regarding youth development, healthy living and reaching out to neighbors, Mott's work fostered "equality, justice and mutual respect"—which was later noted at his Nobel Prize Ceremony—as he encouraged Christian schools, hospitals and businesses abroad. Traveling to 68 countries from Europe to Asia, to the Far and Near East—Mott served as a Christian diplomat and dedicated missionary to the world—the work of which led to his Nobel Peace Prize in 1946.
Reflecting on the example of John Mott, I believe that it will take more than a brand strategy and a name change to meet our generation's needs today. I cannot help but remember the generational challenge issued by another Nobel Prize winner—Alexander Solzhenitsyn—to Harvard graduates in 1978:
"The West has finally achieved the rights of man, and even to excess, but man's sense of responsibility to God and society has grown dimmer and dimmer... We have placed too much hope in politics and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life."
That is why the "C" needs to remain in the YMCA.
Mr. Murray is headmaster of Fourth Presbyterian School in Potomac, Md.