What the Church Can Learn from the YMCA

A version of this post is featured on Sojourners


Last week I was a little under the weather so when my husband and kids took off after church for a hike, I headed to the Y.  It’s only a two minute drive from our house and we’ve been members for nearly 5 years now.   I initially looked at several gyms in our neighborhood but ultimately settled on the Y for the cost and the included-in-your-membership childcare while you workout.  I used to take the boys every afternoon after their naps so that I could workout SIT IN THE HOT TUB.


My days of desperate-for-a-break-even-if-it-means-working-out are a thing of the past but now that I actually do workout (wonders never cease, people), I’m still at the Y several days a week.   Last week as I sat in the hot tub in introverted bliss, watching folks come and go, I had the sensation of being in a thin space. According to Celtic tradition, a thin place is when Heaven & Earth feel particularly close together.  Or, as Eric Weiner put it in his New York Times travel article a couple years ago, it’s…


…where the distance between heaven and earth collapses
and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent.


The YMCA seems a strange place to behold the holiness of God, I know, but this is what I noticed while I was sitting quietly with the water swirling around my feet:  I heard Mandarin, Spanish, Korean and what I think was Amharic.   I heard English, too, of course, and for a brief moment, English with a heavy Nigerian accent.  I saw brown skin and black skin, tan skin, white skin, splotchy skin and smooth skin.

I saw a young girl and her mama soaking together in the hot tub; the mom still fully clothed & her head wrapped.  I saw heavily tatoo-ed 20-somethings heading for the steam room.  I saw three women, probably in their 70s, with drooping skin and sagging suits, laughing uproariously on the benches near the shallow end of the pool.  I saw fat people, skinny people, tall people, short people.  I even saw an old man in his underwear!  Not sure what was going on there!

I saw a middle-aged guy limp in slowly and finally sink down into the hot tub.  I saw two women walking arm in arm, one obviously leading the other who could not see, to the sauna.   I saw two of the lifeguards re-positioning and working with tools on the lift that lowers those who are wheel-chair bound down into pool if they are unable to get in on their own.  There was a man sitting beside me at who talked to himself at length.

I was there for about an hour and as I sensed the nearness of God in that space, it occurred to me what I was seeing:


I was seeing the Kingdom of God.


I was seeing a diversity of age and gender, race and ethnicity, ability and culture that I have never seen in any other place at one time.  I was seeing what the Church is supposed to look like.  I was seeing Revelation 7:9 in living color.

As I eventually made my way back to the locker room, I marveled at it.  It wasn’t a unique day at the Y.  On the contrary, this sort of diversity is always on full display there.  But what makes it possible?  How has the West Seattle YMCA managed to do what the Church often only dreams of doing?  What makes my local Y successful at living into the image of the Kingdom of God when so many churches fail to come even close?

When a person walks into the foyer of a church, what do they do?  They usually try to get a peek inside the sanctuary before they commit to walking all the way in, right?  They want to see who’s in there first!   They want to see what sort of story the church is telling.  Who’s standing up front?  Who’s leading the singing?  What kinds of songs are they singing?  What does the pastor look like?  What sorts of people are sitting in the pews?  In essence, the first question the visitor in the foyer is asking is this:


“Are you telling my story here?”


Am I going to belong?  Will I feel out of place?  Will I stick out like a sore thumb?  Will the sermon and the singing resonate with me in some way?  Will I be comfortable showing these people who I am?

When the bleeding woman touched the cloak of Jesus; when the woman at the well heard about the living water; when Zacchaeus looked down in surprise from the sycamore tree, each was struck with the realization that Jesus was telling their story.  Jesus saw them.  Really, truly saw them and insisted on telling their diverse and otherwise untold stories when nobody else would even consider it.

Is it mere chance that the Y in our neighborhood is able to draw in such a vast conglomeration of people?  No, it’s not magic and it’s not coincidence.  It stems directly from the story that the West Seattle YMCA is telling. They have made a concerted and intentional effort to tell diverse and often untold stories.  When I walked in last week, a Black woman greeted me and helped me sign my boys up for Kids In Motion, a transgendered person took my card and exchanged it for a locker key, and the signs that greeted me throughout the facility showed an eclectic mix of families and races and abilities.  Scholarships are readily and openly available and when I left, a woman with a mental handicap swapped my locker key back for my Y card and told me to have a nice day.   At any given time on any given day, I think almost anybody could walk into that Y and see themselves represented in some way.

Churches likewise have to make an effort.  It’s not going to happen just by hoping or even by praying for more diversity.  We have to work at it and not because we want to be hip or edgy.  We don’t seek diversity because it’s a buzz word or because it’s politically correct.  We work hard at diversity because we want to live out the vision of shalom that we’re given in the book of Revelation; the vision of the world as God intended it to be; where every conceivable nation, tribe, person, color, and language are represented.    We do it so that we can be like Jesus. We do it so that people can walk into our foyers, peek inside our sanctuaries, and see that yes!  –like the bleeding woman and Zacchaeus and the woman at the well-  their story is indeed being told.

Update 2019 — Last year the VP of Storytelling & the Y Experience in Cincinnati, Jeff Saunders, contacted me and asked if they could turn this piece into a video.  They finished it up earlier recently and you can check it out here.