YMCA Tribute Breakfast: The “Big C”

(Editor’s note: These remarks were delivered by Leighton Ford during the Charlotte [North Carolina, USA] YMCA Tribute Breakfast on 16 February 2011. The words and convictions below represent the constancy of what we are called to as followers of Christ in a changing world. Our prayer is that as you read Ford’s words, that you will be re-inspired to make your witness for Christ stronger and more deliberate where he has placed you.)

In receiving this honor this morning, I do so gratefully, and on behalf of all the wonderful staff and volunteers who make this YMCA outstanding in our city, and our world. Most of all I want to give the honor to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, whose name makes the YMCA so distinctive.

Recently, the national YMCA changed our brand name to “The Y.” That has caused some consternation. I have no huge problem with that change. After all, we all call it The Y. I tell my wife several times a week, “I’m going to the Y”—not “the YMCA.”

What does matter to me, and I am sure to all of us here, is that we keep this a “Big C” Y, with Christ always unashamedly central. Think of those initials: Y – M – C – A. Which of them are distinctive?

Not “A.” There are many “associations.” That’s generic.

Not “Y.” It was at one time for “young” men. No longer. Just look around at all the gray hairs (and no hairs) in this room, including mine.

Not “M.” There are as many women as men at the Y, and especially at my Saturday a.m. yoga class!

That leaves “C” as the one distinctive letter. What would we be if we lose that?

I’ve been a member of Central, now Dowd, since the mid 1960s, with hardly a break. All of our local family are members now. I’ve used the gyms at most of the Ys in Charlotte. Starting with our oldest son, Sandy, I coached youth basketball on Saturday mornings. Tom Dooley was my big nemesis as a coach. He and I worked together to recruit the first young African-American men into the basketball program. I don’t think our team ever beat Dooley’s. For some reason, when we drafted players, he always ended up with some 7-year-old who was already six feet tall!

It was my privilege to speak at the first annual Y prayer breakfast, and then to bring the address for the next half dozen or so years—until I ran out of new things to say. Whenever I tell people in other places about the Charlotte Y, I do so with pride about the size and quality and diversity of the Charlotte Meckelenburg YMCA, with some of the biggest branches in the country.

But mostly, I tell them this is a “Big C” Y—with an emphasis on the centrality of Jesus Christ in all we do and are.

We should always remember the vision of the men who founded the Y—like George Williams with his heart for young boys in the slums of London; D.L. Moody, the Billy Graham of his day, who started as a Y secretary in Chicago. And most of all, one of my spiritual heroes—John R. Mott. Let me recount a bit of his story.

Mott was the son of a small businessman in Iowa. He was ambitious to be a success and applied to transfer as a sophomore to the new Cornell University to get the best education he could. At that point, he was a more or less nonchalant church-going Christian, but he was also a born leader and speaker. He joined the fledgling YMCA at Cornell and soon was made vice-president.

A touring team of British athletes came to speak at Cornell, young men who were devoted followers of Christ. One of them was a noted cricketer, J.E.K. Studd. Mott arrived late at the meeting. As he entered, he heard Studd utter two phrases from the Bible that riveted him: “Young man, do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not. Seek first the kingdom of God.”

Those words burned themselves into Mott’s mind and heart. An inner struggle gripped him. Would he seek a great career in business or a profession for himself? Or would he make Christ first in his life? He went down into a ravine near Cornell and wrestled with his conscience all one night, emerging with a determination to put Christ first in his life.

For some, that would have meant going into ministry. Mott always stayed a layman. He became a traveling secretary for the Y in the United States, crisscrossing the country not only to start Ys, but to call young men to serve Christ. This included visits to Duke, Chapel Hill, and Davidson here in North Carolina.

Influenced by evangelist D. L. Moody, Mott was also the prime mover in the Student Volunteer Movement, recruiting hundreds of young people to serve as missionaries overseas. He traveled to most of the world calling students to Christ, and to be leaders in the Y movement. In China, at least two thousand young men pledged their lives to Christ under his influence.

He was undoubtedly the greatest student evangelist of his generation. But he also became a leading force in missions, the key figure in the famous 1910 Edinburgh Conference. As years passed, he became the general secretary of the Y in the United States, and for years served as chairman of the World Alliance of YMCAs.

During and after the Great War, Mott was a leader in promoting reconciliation and reconstruction, and in 1946 received the Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership in promoting peace and reconciliation, and especially his service in Russia and other war-ravaged countries.

President Woodrow Wilson invited Mott to succeed him as president of Princeton, and later asked him to become America’s first ambassador to China, saying he knew China better than any other American. Mott graciously declined both offers. His call was as an ambassador of Christ to the world, and that came before any other call. With such a heritage, we should be proud that ours is a “Big C” Y.

This morning, I would like us to remember the vision Mott had for the Y—not just a “bigger vision,” but a “larger vision”—the vision of a larger Christ.

Out of curiosity, I googled the YMCA in my hometown of Chatham, Ontario, Canada. It looks as if they have a splendid program. But there was not a single reference to Christ on their website, or to anything spiritual. It is another well-run, community service organization.

I wonder what Mott (or Williams or Moody) would think if they dropped in on that Y and found it going on as if Jesus Christ and his kingdom had never been part of it? What if they dropped in here at Dowd? They’d see the chapel. The open Bible. A Bible class announced. A prayer breakfast coming. And they’d be glad! But perhaps they’d probe further to ask: are men and women, youth and older, actually being called to know and follow Christ here?

If Mott were here this morning, I believe he would recall us not just to a “Big C” Y, but to the a larger vision Mott had for the Y—to represent a larger Christ. And his “larger” vision would include four major distinctive.

First, a commitment to evangelism. At the very end of his life, this world statesman said to a gathering of global leaders: “While life lasts, I am an evangelist.” That is the “higher” part of the larger vision—the “upward call in Christ.” As Mott said, “The pervading purpose … of every … agency concerned with the spread of the Kingdom of God should be that of leading people to commit their lives to Christ as Savior and Lord.”

Here’s a question for every Y member, staff person, and leader here: is Jesus Christ so vitally present in my life that those I touch at the Y will be attracted to follow him? Am I ready and able to speak of the good news of Jesus when the opportunity comes? I like to describe evangelism as “making friends for God.” Do you and I have a transforming friendship to share? (And we have certainly seen Christ in many staff members.)

The Y has a unique drawing power. Many may come here who would never go to church. What an opportunity to touch their lives!

So here’s another question: is it possible that someone could belong to the Y, play basketball, work out, eat lunch, for year after year, and never be influenced to consider Christ as their Lord? If so, how can we determine to change that, while offering generous hospitality to all?

Second, a commitment to young people. “The supreme importance of taking advantage of the age of adolescence,” is how Mott put it. For him, that involved great student conferences and one-on-one meetings with potential leaders.

What could it mean for us? Prayers before games and chapel at camp are important. But what about a commitment for each of us to the spiritual and leadership mentoring of young people with great potential for the future. Let me ask: is there someone at least ten years younger than you who you are mentoring as leaders for Christ in the Y and the community?

That is the “longer” part of the larger vision: a vision for the future.

Third, a commitment to cooperation. Mott had a driving passion to bring leaders together. His work on behalf of missions led to relationships with leaders worldwide. Believing that disunity among Christians kept people away from Christ, he brought church leaders together. He also interacted with political leaders, including eight presidents. He was a friend of business leaders like John Rockefeller, and gained their support for the Y and other causes close to his heart.

One of his favorite quotes was the words of Jesus who prayed that his followers “might be one that the world might believe.” So he was committed to reconciliation. Another challenge emerges for us today, when we are so divided in our religious and political opinions: can the Y—with a Big C—hold firmly to Christ, but also be a place for all to meet and come together, to learn to know and trust one another?

That is the “wider” part of the larger vision.

Fourth, a commitment to spiritual formation and strengthening. Mott himself discovered early the value of a devotional life, guided by scriptures, and undergirded by prayer. He knew the value of having soul friends, a few intimates he would meet with each year after Christmas for a time of prayer and intimacy.

I think if he were here today, watching us in our hurried and distracted lives, he would remind us how Jesus would withdraw from the crowds to pray, and chide us with these words:

My dear friends, if our blessed Lord Who is our perfect example in everything else found it necessary … to hold unhurried fellowship with the Heavenly Father, what presumptuous and alarming folly for us to assume that in these busy, noisy lives of ours, and in the midst of the dangerous cross-currents of the modern world, we can do without this truly Christ-like practice.

That is the “deeper” part of the larger vision.

Mott’s grandson, Andrew, recalls a phrase his grandfather often used: “Old things are passing away. All things may become new. Not by magic, not by wishful thinking, but by self-sacrifice and the will to bring them about in the name of Jesus Christ.”

So I leave you with this larger vision for a “Big C” Y:

  • The higher vision: to follow Christ and call others to follow him
  • The longer vision: to mentor young leaders for the future
  • The wider vision: to live and show unity in Christ in a broken world
  • The deeper vision: to “take the hand of Christ,” knowing we can do all things through Christ who strengthen us

Then, as Willie Stratford, one of the Y’s long-time and beloved trustees used to say, the YMCA can be “Christ’s representative in the marketplace.”

Leighton Ford is president of Leighton Ford Ministries, which focuses on raising up younger leaders to spread the message of Christ worldwide. He served from 1955 to 1985 as associate evangelist and later vice president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Ford is honorary life chairman of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, having served from 1976 to 1992 as chair.