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The YMCA isn't a church, but it sure knows something about bringing people together.

by Matt Tuckey

At the Y, I sometimes see people running alone on the treadmills. They stare straight ahead, eyes fixed on the TV monitors scrolling the news of the day. The only sound they hear is the one pulsing into their ears via buds. Eventually, they step off the treadmill, checking the pace and distance the cold machine has calculated for them. Satisfied, they move along.

It occurs to me that this is sometimes how we function in our churches, as well. We show up, get all we can for ourselves, and then move along. But just as there’s another, more fulfilling side to community at the Y, so Christ offers more than that in the Church. And while the Y doesn’t have it down perfectly, I don’t think it’s an accident that 23 million people in the U.S. and Canada engage in community at the Y each year. Actually, I think this is an indication that the Y is doing something right as it looks to cultivate a space for people to connect and grow. And maybe—just maybe—churches can learn something from it.

It’s about diversity (not uniformity)

Many people move through the fitness center at the Y, and, fortunately, they’re not all like the sole individual on the treadmill, plugging into things rather than people.

The faces that I see each day represent an eclectic mix of ages, races, and stories. I’ve sipped coffee with the former pastor who loves football and is always asking me about the church plant I’ve been attending. “How is the choir?” he asks. “You’ve got to have good music.” I’ve rowed beside the retired dentist, just soaking in his life experience. I listen to his life recounted, stories of joy and pain through times of war and peace. I shoot hoops with a recent Penn State graduate who’s eager to tackle the world—change it for good.

It’s these relationships and the unique stories written therein that form the underpinning of the fabric of the Y. This is community.

It’s about connection (not programs)

There is a group of people that frequent the Y who are fondly referred to as the breakfast bunch. They spend a few hours at the Y most weekday mornings, but physical exercise occupies only a portion of that time. They arrive before sunrise and warmly greet each other, making small talk with the Y staff along the way. They each get in their workouts, which range from racquetball to lap swimming. After showering, they gather at the tables in the lobby and wind down the morning by sharing about their lives.

Sometimes, they follow up their Y visit by going out to breakfast. They enjoy their time together. I believe this is the healthiest group of people at the Y.

The breakfast bunch wasn’t something that was planned for and promoted; the Y only needed to provide a space where something organic could form out of people simply wanting to spend time with one another. This is community.

It’s about collaboration (not isolation)

It’s widely understood that people remain committed to a gym (or any membership organization) only when they connect with another person. Community is about accountability. It’s about trust. It’s about recognizing our weaknesses and depending on others to pull us forward when we slow down.

My friend John Ulsh blogs at remotivate.wordpress.com about his journey of recovery following a life-threatening car accident. Much of his rehabilitation has been done in community, at the Y. John says, “Trust is always easier when things are going well or when things are so bad that you are unable to do things for yourself. Trust becomes a completely different thing when it is blind or when you could just do it yourself but, instead, you decide to put your faith in another person or process.”

His words reflect a self-reliant, successful man forced to depend on others in ways that he might never have imagined. Yet, through the process, he finds strength beyond anything he could possess on his own. This is community.

It’s about the young and old (not one or the other)

At the Y, we offer free memberships to seventh-grade students, teens who are at a pivotal point in their development. We want them to connect with their peers and other adults in a positive, safe environment.

We also want adults to have the opportunity to get to know young people. There is a component of wellness that is found in the circle of giving back. Those with more wisdom and experience in life can pour back into those with so much left to learn. And, likewise, those with fewer years encourage those who are older by sharing about their hopes and dreams for the future.

The Y recently looked at our youth mentoring initiative. We halted the program we were doing and instead invited our community to join a book discussion group on fatherlessness. This enabled people of all ages to come together and talk about what we’re seeing in our neighborhoods. This is community.

Redeemed and redeeming

At its core, community-building is the practical application of our God-given longing for relationship. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Church in New York City, says that the reason we experience breathtaking moments in nature is from our deep longing to connect with our Creator. It’s something we yearn for.

Yet in the interim, God offers us opportunities to experience slivers of real community through deep relationships with others. These communities of broken, beloved people crop up in places like neighborhood associations, the Y, and churches. God uses us to show His love to others, flowing over our wounds to redeem and transform. And when you see it, it’s beautiful.

As Ann Voskamp, a Christian blogger and writer, has remarked, “Maybe it’s crazy to hum hymns through airports and smile at strangers and keep counting the graces—but the way His light slants across this world in all its broken beauty, really, who can help it?”

This, too, is community.

This article originally appeared in the fall 2011 issue of In Part magazine.
Matt Tuckey

Matt Tuckey sums up his life’s purpose in one sentence: He loves God, loves people, deeply values time with his wife and kids, and ultimately finds life to be enough. Matt serves as associate executive director at the Carlisle (Pa.) Family YMCA, as well as on the leadership team at Engage Community, a BIC church plant in Carlisle.

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