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The World Alliance's main motto is "empowering young people".With regard to the history and purpose of the founding, this "organization and its female counterpart (YWCA) were established to provide low-cost housing in a safe Christian environment for rural young men and women journeying to the cities." It was associated with industrialization and the movement of young people to cities to work.In 1865 The Fourth World Conference of YMCAs, held in Germany, affirmed the importance of developing the whole individual in body, mind, and spirit.The concept of physical work through sports, a new concept for the time, was also recognized as part of this "muscular Christianity".This marked the beginning of the World Alliance of YMCAs.The conference adopted the Paris Basis, a common mission for all present and future national YMCAs.

YMCAs continue to be religious organizations; many national or local organizations de-emphasize this aspect, while others choose to prioritize its religious mission above all others.

The YMCA was very influential during the 1870s and 1930s, during which times they most successfully promoted "evangelical Christianity in weekday and Sunday services, while promoting good sportsmanship in athletic contests in gyms (where basketball and volleyball were invented) and swimming pools." Later in this period, and continuing on through the 20th century, the YMCA had "become interdenominational and more concerned with promoting morality and good citizenship than a distinctive interpretation of Christianity." In 1878, World Alliance of YMCAs offices were established in Geneva, Switzerland.

Later, in 1900, North American YMCAs, in collaboration with the World Alliance, set up centres to work with emigrants in European ports, as millions of people were leaving for the USA.

Its motto was taken from the Bible, "That they all may be one" (John ).

Other ecumenical bodies, such as the World YWCA, the World Council of Churches, and the World Student Christian Federation have reflected elements of the Paris Basis in their founding mission statements.

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