The Young Men's Christian Association ("YMCA" or "the Y") was formed in London, England, on 6th June 1844, by Sir George Williams as a result of his desire to "win souls to Christ" in the midst of the unhealthy social conditions in London during the Industrial Revolution. Since then the YMCA has grown to become a world-wide movement of more than 45 million members from 124 national federations affiliated through the World Alliance of YMCAs.The YMCA  is a worldwide, non-denominational (which means open to all denominations), non-sectarian and apolitical social movement with a special emphasis on community development and young people. Using a holistic approach to individual and social development, it encompasses spiritual, intellectual and physical methods. This approach is symbolised by the inverse red triangle used by YMCAs around the world representing the YMCA mission of building a healthy spirit, mind, and body.

In 1844, William's concept was unusual because it crossed the rigid lines that separated the different church denominations and social classes of England, making the YMCA a pioneer of ecumenism, as well as evangelical outreach. This openness would eventually lead to the inclusion of women and an open culture of acceptance of people of different faiths and backgrounds. Today, the degree to which religion is emphasized in programs varies between individual YMCA associations. Generally, YMCAs are open to all, regardless of faith, social class, age, or gender. I certainly see this as a positive force for evangelism, rather like the Salvation Army place their emphasis on openness and helping everyone.

The YMCA is organized as a federation of local associations and national YMCA movements, the individual YMCAs are related primarily by overall strategy and direction only. Volunteers and local employees operate the individual YMCA associations. This federated model of governance has created a diversity of YMCA programs and services, with YMCAs in different countries and communities offering different services in response to local community needs. In the USA, the YMCA is often believed to be only a community sports facility. This is not so, it offers a broad range of programs such as sports, personal fitness, child care, overnight camping, employment readiness programs, conference centers and educational activities. In many countries it is seen only as a place to find cheap, clean overnight accommodation: it is, but again this underestimates the contribution the YMCA offers.

The 19th century YMCA inspired the creation of the Young Men's Hebrew Association and Young Men's Buddhist Association. Its original male focus similarly inspired the establishment of a parallel Young Women's Christian Association.

The 'Paris Basis'
Ninety-nine YMCA leaders of individual YMCAs from Europe and North America met for the first time prior to the 1855 Paris World Exposition to discuss the possibility of joining together in a federation to enhance co-operation amongst individual YMCA societies. This meeting resulted in the Paris Basis which is still a guiding principle of the organization today. Two themes resonated during the council: the need to respect the local autonomy of YMCA societies and the dogma that Christian churches are united and the YMCA is a way of manifesting that unity: "The Young Men's Christian Associations seek to unite those young men who, regarding Jesus Christ as their God and Saviour, 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."

'Challenge 21'
In 1998, at the 14th World Council of YMCAs, the World Alliance of YMCAs adopted Challenge 21 as its modern day statement of mission for the 21st century:

"Affirming the Paris Basis adopted in 1855, as the ongoing foundation statement of the mission of the YMCA, at the threshold of the third millennium, we declare that the YMCA is a world-wide Christian, ecumenical, voluntary movement for women and men with special emphasis on and the genuine involvement of young people and that it seeks to share the Christian ideal of building a human community of justice with love, peace and reconciliation for the fullness of life for all creation.
Each member YMCA is therefore called to focus on certain challenges which will be prioritized according to its own context. These challenges which are an evolution of the Kampala Principles:
Sharing the good news of Jesus Christ and striving for spiritual, intellectual and physical well-being of individuals and wholeness of communities.
Empowering all, especially young people and women to take increased responsibilities and assume leadership at all levels and working towards an equitable society.
Advocating for and promoting the rights of women and upholding the rights of children.
Fostering dialogue and partnership between people of different faiths and ideologies and recognizing the cultural identities of people and promoting cultural renewal.
Committing to work in solidarity with the poor, dispossessed, uprooted people and oppressed racial, religious and ethnic minorities.
Seeking to be mediators and reconcilers in situations of conflict and working for meaningful participation and advancement of people for their own self-determination.
Defending God’s creation against all that would destroy it and preserving and protecting the earth’s resources for coming generations.
To face these challenges, the YMCA will develop patterns of co-operation at all levels that enable self-sustenance and self-determination."

1844: George Williams was a 23-year-old draper, typical of the many young men who were being drawn to big cities by the Industrial Revolution. His colleagues were similarly employed, and they were concerned by the lack of healthy activities for young men in cities such as London. The alternatives were often taverns, brothels, and other temptations to sin. On 6th June, Williams founded the first YMCA in London for "the improving of the spiritual condition of young men engaged in the drapery and other trades."

1851: There were YMCAs in Great Britain, Canada, the United States, Australia, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands and France.

1855: YMCA delegates met in Paris, France, at the First World Conference of YMCAs, marking the beginning of the World Alliance of YMCAs. The conference adopted the Paris Basis, a common mission for all present and future national YMCAs. Its motto was taken from the Bible, "That they all may be one" (John 17:21). Other ecumenical bodies such as the World YWCA, the World Council of Churches and the World Student Christian Federation, reflected elements of the Paris Basis in their founding mission statements.

1865: The Fourth World Conference of YMCAs, Germany, affirmed the importance of developing the whole individual in body, mind and spirit. The concept of physical work through sports was also recognised. This was a new concept for the time.

1878: The World Alliance offices were established in Geneva, Switzerland, where they have been ever since.

1880: In some of the member countries the YMCA was the first national organization to adopt a strict policy of equal gender representation in committees and national boards. Norway adopted this policy in 1880.

1885: Camp Baldhead (later known as Camp Dudley), originally located near Orange Lake in New Jersey, was established by YMCA workers George A. Sanford and Sumner F. Dudley as the first residential camp in North America. The camp moved to Lake Wawayanda in Sussex County, New Jersey the following year and then to the shore of Lake Champlain near Westport, New York in 1891.

1900: North American YMCAs, in collaboration with the World Alliance, began working in European ports with millions of migrants leaving for the USA.

1910: The YMCA was an early influence upon Scouting, including the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) and German Scouting. Edgar Robinson, a Chicago-area YMCA administrator, briefly left the YMCA to become the BSA's first director.

1916: K.T. Paul became the first Indian National General Secretary of India. Paul had started rural development programmes in India through co-operatives and credit societies. These programmes for self-reliance of marginal farmers became very popular. He also coined the term "rural reconstruction", and many of the principles he developed were later incorporated into the Government's nation-wide community development programmes.

1923: Y.C. James Yen of the YMCA of China devised the "thousand character system", based on pilot projects in education. The method became very popular, and in 1923, it led to the founding of the Chinese National Association of the Mass Education Movement.

1939-1945: The YMCA became very involved in war work. The YMCA increased its international work with displaced persons and refugees and set up War Prisoners Aid to support prisoners of war by providing sports equipment, musical instruments, art materials, radios, gramophones, eating utensils and other items.

1947: The World Alliance of YMCAs gained special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council.

1955: The First African President of the World Alliance of YMCAs was elected, Mr. Charles Dunbar Sherman from Liberia. At 37 years, he was the youngest President in World Alliance history.

1973: The Sixth World Council in Kampala, Uganda, was the first World Council in Africa. It reaffirmed the Paris Basis and adopted a declaration of principles, known as the Kampala Principles, which include the principles of justice, creativity and honesty. It stated what had become obvious in most national YMCAs, that a global viewpoint was more necessary, and that in doing so, the YMCAs would have to take political stands, especially so in international challenges.

1985: The World Council of YMCAs passed a resolution against apartheid, and campaigns against the system began under the leadership of Mr. Lee Soo-Min (Korea), the first Asian Secretary General of the World Alliance.

1998: The World Council in Germany adopted "Challenge 21," giving even more focus to the global challenges, like gender equality, sustainable development, war and peace, fair distribution and the challenges of globalization, racism and HIV/AIDS. All these topics are viewed as challenges against the will of God.

2002: The World Council in Oaxtepec, Mexico, called for a peaceful solution to the Middle East crisis.

2003: The YMCAs, especially in Western Europe and North America, have helped to build national YMCAs in Eastern Europe, with some success. Also in 2003, a youth convention was arranged in Prague with attendance from almost all countries in Europe to celebrate the healing of the wounds from the Iron Curtain.

2006: YMCAs are present in 124 countries. The current president of the World Alliance of YMCAs is Martin Meissner from Germany, and Bartholomew Shaha of Bangladesh is Secretary General.

The first YMCA was concerned with Bible study, although the organization has generally moved on to a more holistic approach to youth work. Around six years after its creation, the YMCA conference in Paris 1855, decided that the objective of the organization should be "Christian discipleship developed through a program of religious, educational, social and physical activities". The YMCA UK website includes no reference to discipleship. The Restore Ministries of the YMCA of Middle Tennessee, USA provides an example of how the Christian influence in the YMCA still exists today. Founded in 2000 by Scott Reall, Restore provides support groups and individual counseling with an aim of “lifting the ‘C’” of the YMCA. Aside from Bible study, many colleges and universities owe their creation to the YMCA. Springfield College was founded in 1885 as an international training school for YMCA Professionals, while Sir George Williams University—one of the two schools that eventually became Concordia University—started from night courses offered at the Montreal YMCA. Northeastern University (Boston, Massachusetts) began out of a YMCA in Boston, and Franklin University began as the YMCA School of Commerce. The YMCA pioneered the concept of night school, providing educational opportunities for people with full-time employment. Many YMCAs offer Evening School programs, alternative high school, day care, and summer camp programs.

In 1891 James Naismith, a Canadian, invented basketball whilst studying at the YMCA International Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts (later to be named Springfield College). Naismith had been asked to invent a new game in a desperate attempt to interest pupils in physical exercise. The game had to be interesting, easy to learn, and easy to play indoors in winter. Such an activity was needed both by the Training School and by YMCAs across the country. It was a success from the very first game. Naismith and his wife attended the 1936 Summer Olympics when basketball became one of the Olympic events. In 1895, William G. Morgan from the YMCA of Holyoke, Massachusetts, invented the sport of volleyball.

YMCA In War Time
Since the early days the YMCA provided nursing, shelter, and other support in wartime. During World War I, Irving Berlin wrote Yip Yip Yaphank, a revue that included a song entitled "I Can Always Find a Little Sunshine in the YMCA." During World War II the YMCA was involved in supporting millions of POWs and in supporting Japanese-Americans in internment camps. This help included helping young men leave the camps to attend Springfield College and providing youth activities in the camps. In addition, the YMCA was one of six organizations that helped to found the USO during World War I

YMCA in the USA
YMCA World Alliance