what is your mission?

I just returned from three days serving as a chaperone at my son’s sixth grade camp, where I survived weaponized cans of Ax body spray (I now know who buys this stuff) and a few kids who have little respect for authority. It probably doesn’t help their humility when, after being asked to thank their teachers, chaperones, and camp staff, they were told also to clap for themselves and the great spirit they brought to camp. I was never told as a child to thank myself along with the adults who sacrificially served me. But that was so twentieth century.

Sometimes our concern for self-esteem and positive thinking becomes silly, as when a camp staffer told us that a radio would be more valuable than water or a knife if we’re ever lost in the woods, in part because its programming might “boost our morale.” This staffer then told us that we need five things to survive: food, water, warmth, oxygen, and a positive attitude. We can’t live 3 weeks without food, 3 days without water, 3 hours without warmth, 3 minutes without oxygen, and 3 seconds without a positive mental attitude.

Of course, if she was right, Cleveland sports fans would all be dead (Go ahead LeBron, it wouldn’t be right if you didn’t win a championship soon after you leave—see Art Modell. At least we still have Jim Tressel. See what I mean?).

 The funniest part of camp occurred during the “team building exercise,” when the staffer challenged my small group of nine campers to count to nine as a group, which each member contributing one number that hadn’t already been used. When he said to begin, my kids simply counted around the circle, from one to nine. What a team!

Overall the kids and the staff were great, as was the camp. It was a YMCA camp, and on a plaque in the dining hall it announced the YMCA mission statement: “To put Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind, and body for all.”

I noticed that something important was missing from this mission statement, and remembering that the YMCA was the stomping grounds of D. L. Moody, wondered if the organization’s original mission statement had been so blandly “Christian.” I did some googling this morning, and I found the original YMCA mission statement:

“The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) seeks 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.”

 The YMCA continues to do a lot of good in the world, as does this camp, but its change in mission statements should be a warning to all Christian organizations. When we replace the Person of Christianity with the Principles of Christianity, we have already ceased to be authentically Christian. It won’t be long until we remove the “Christian” veneer altogether, content to merely encourage people to be generally good. As evidence, observe this mission statement of a YMCA in Cambridge, Massachusetts:

“The mission of the Cambridge Family YMCA is to promote and inspire life-long development for children, adults and families through programs that build healthy spirit, mind, and body for all.”

The YMCA’s “Christian principles” of “caring, honesty, respect, and responsibility” are good and necessary for everyone, but they won’t make anyone a Christian. If you are going to lead others to Jesus, you’re going to have to lead them to Jesus. And that is too important to ever remove from your mission statement.

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  1. Mike, as a career youth pastor and father of tweens, I find your stories about the camp experience both humorous and heart-breaking at the same time. Thanks for your insight into these things.

    I just attended my 6th grade son’s induction into the National Junior Honor Society at his public middle school. They were applauded for and urged to pursue leadership, service, responsibility, and scholarship. Throughout the whole ceremony I felt the heaviness of how empty these values are apart from Christ. Your words describe it perfectly, Christian Principles without the Person of Christ. I want my son to know that those values are good, but that they are good because he is made in the image of God and as a Christian is being conformed to the image of Christ.

    I pondered what the value might be for teaching these values apart from Christ. I haven’t thought long about this, but two thoughts came to mind: First, it is good to teach Christless kids these character traits because these kids are made in God’s image and so they were made to live this way. Second, sadly, teaching these values will at least provide some sort of restraint of the flesh, otherwise our culture would be in worse shape than it already is. But even these two “advantages” of teaching Christian principles apart from the person of Christ are powerless to change the human heart, and may only serve to solidify legalism and moralism in those hearts. Sad, very sad.

    What are your thoughts? Are there other “advantages” to teaching Christian principles even w/out teaching Christ?

  2. Jimmy:

    I think you’re right–there are obvious advantages to having organizations and camps that emphasize good human values. And we should welcome their efforts. However, we must also recognize that these are limited to the realm of common grace, and so we must never be content with these alone.

    One way this practically works for me is that I give most of my financial donations to those organizations–such as the church and missionaries–who also actively support the ministry of special, redemptive grace.

  3. Very true Mike! If young people are to learn of Christ, he must be taught as well as his principles. I’m reminded of a prominent Christian organization I once served in where the executive director was also a yoga instructor. She made it publicly clear that she did not mention Jesus with her students because she wanted them to come to her for advice or help because of who she was as a person and didn’t believe it appropriate to bring Jesus into her classes.

    Very disturbing for me at the time as a young[er] missionary to students. Hardly an example to set for such an evangelistic organization or as a representative for Christ. I realized, however, this was not representative of the entire international organization, but rather a worldly approach at a local level by someone who really didn’t understand the power of the gospel.

    Thanks again Mike for your observations and insights!

  4. Very well stated. In fact, I have reposted your link and used to lines in your story as a Facebook status:

    “When we replace the Person of Christianity with the Principles of Christianity, we have already ceased to be authentically Christian. It won’t be long until we remove the “Christian” veneer altogether, content to merely encourage people to be generally good.”

    “This staffer then told us that we need five things to survive: food, water, warmth, oxygen, and a positive attitude. We can’t live 3 weeks without food, 3 days without water, 3 hours without warmth, 3 minutes without oxygen, and 3 seconds without a positive mental attitude.”

    Great post!

  5. thanks again…. couldn’t miss that one, could you!

  6. The movie “Time Changer” makes this very point.

  7. Thanks for this Dr. Wittmer. I too looked at the mission statement of our local YMCA with a similar question. Last fall I read Ned Stonehouse’s biography of J. Gresham Machen and was intrigued by Machen’s active involvement with the YMCA during and immediately following WWI. I couldn’t imagine Machen allying so closely with an organization claiming to be Christian whose mission statement was so…vapid. This of course indicates that he didn’t. Sadly it seems the YMCA gave in to the very liberalism/modernism Machen would go on to so vehemently oppose following WWI.

  8. skillfulshepherds May 16, 2011 — 4:53 am

    My first secular job was a youth worker in the community development division of our local YMCA @ Singapore. Our involvement in schools was mainly for character building workshops and adventure camps, but we also were involved as Christian staff with our Christian Emphasis department e.g. teaching pastoral care with students from our learning centre (for second-chance major exam sitters) and leading our staff devotions. In some sense, it’s still a Christian organisation, but the Christian emphasis is relegated to certain activities or events such as lunchtime prayer fellowship in our city, etc.

  9. I just cannot imagine you as a chaperone to a sixth grade class trip. Man would I like to be a fly on that wall!

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