Summer’s here! That sound you hear is a cacophony of kids shrieking with joy because it’s summer … and the groans of their parents prying game controllers out of their hands so they can send them outside. Better yet, many parents are hauling their kids to the Y. Why? Swimming, basketball, outdoor activities, anything to keep the kids outdoors and active—so mom can use the video game controller. (One report says 74% of moms play video games.)

I applaud the Y, but it is a far cry from what it once was. Today (June 6) marks the 175th anniversary of the YMCA: the Young Men’s Christian Association. We know the Y for its emphasis on physical and recreation activity, but it began with a wholly different emphasis. It began as a place to provide prayer and Bible study.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

We have to understand the seriously unhealthy environment—medically and socially—in the big cities during the Industrial Revolution. Young men would arrive in town to work, and they would end up working 60-70+ hours a week. They’d sleep on crowded floors right above where they worked. The areas were full of thieves, pickpockets, prostitutes, and a gazillion abandoned kids.

Enter George Williams. At 23, he organized the first YMCA in London as an alternate environment for men to use their free time. He created an environment for socializing that happened in the context of a Bible study. It was solidly evangelical, but its doors were open to all men. The YMCA was more than a refuge for many men; it was where they lived. (You can still stay in some YMCAs. I stayed a couple of nights in the YMCA in Hong Kong, and its accommodations far outpaced the best Motel 6 or Econo-Lodge.)

In our current day with the Y’s emphasis on weight rooms, aerobics, and physical health, it’s hard to imagine just how influential the YMCA was for decades. YMCA’s quickly spread in England and the United States as a place for spiritual health. The influence of George Williams and the evangelical YMCA spread far. When Williams died in 1905—he was by then Sir George—he was buried under St. Paul’s Cathedral, an honor reserved for England’s great statesmen and heroes.

Yet here we are, 175 years later, with a different image of the Y. Over the decades the leaders of the YMCA lost their original focus. Physical health and activity are important—and followers of Christ should be the first in line in seeking to live active, healthy lives—but spiritual health is even greater.

Ever lost your focus—your spiritual focus? It’s OK to admit it. We all have. This summer tens of thousands of teenagers are headed to youth camp. For a week, their schedules will be designed to keep them focused on Christ. Many will come to faith in Christ. Many will renew their commitment to Christ. I’ve been to my fair share of camps over the years, and I love the heart of those teenagers who get on fire and are eager to win their campus for Christ during the next year.

I applaud their zeal even though most of them will lose that zeal. Not right away, mind you, but over the course of six weeks, two months, maybe longer, most teenagers will lose that intense focus they had at camp.

I’m not a cynic. It’s just the reality of our lives—whether we’re teenagers or senior adults. Unless we intentionally keep our eyes on Christ and what He wants us to do, we will fade. We will lose our focus. Like the YMCA, we will likely not slip into something sinister. What the current YMCA does is applaudable, but it misses the higher mark with which they started: encouraging and building disciples of Christ. And we don’t fade into serial killers, terrorists, or telemarketers; we just fade from the higher, joyous plane where Christ calls us to live.

We would do well to remind ourselves of our greater calling .. and simultaneously remind ourselves of the danger of losing focus. Romans 12:11 says,

  • “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord” (NIV).

What habits or spiritual disciplines have you found helpful in keeping your spiritual focus?

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