Ok, let’s start with the positive.
Any charity that seeks to transform people’s live away from chronic cycles of debt is something to be celebrated. Christians Against Poverty (CAP) is one such charity.
They do amazing work, helping people in dire situations, people struggling with debt, poverty and the massive implications this has on health, relationships and wellbeing. They have helped thousands of people get out of debt and chronic cycles of debt, and given people a new start in life.
That has to be seen as extremely positive, because it is.
But, there is also another dimension to their work.
If you become a Debt Coach for CAP then your responsibility is to help present good quality debt advice to people taken on by the local CAP Centre as CAP clients. And you have to do this in such away as it positively reflects the Christian faith and the core values of the charity.
If taken on as a Debt Coach you’ll have measurable outputs such as:
- The number of people who get in touch with CAP for help. Part of your job is to promote, promote, promote.
- Number of people you get to volunteer and support CAP.
- Number of people you get to engage with CAP and pay into their CAP account. A CAP account is set up that takes on your finances and deal directly with those whom you owe money to.
And another measurable output?
- The number of people who approach CAP, get converted and become part of the local church.
That is part of your job as a debt coach, getting people who use CAP converted and into the local church.
Charities are facing all kinds of pressure as a result of a ruthless, and heartless Tory Government. As a result they are on, quite often, a massive PR exercise, self-promotion and drive to increase supporters. They often appear to be very slick enterprises, tapping into our emotions, telling of lives changed, seeking our support.
CAP are no different, and they are constantly on the lookout for churches to partner with them, highlighting how many people join the local church directly through someone using CAP.
It’s a great selling point for a declining UK church; we can help your church grow, get people saved whilst at the same time getting people out of debt. The gospel at work! God is using us to change lives!
When people are locked into chronic cycles of debt, or are struggling with repayments, and are in financial difficulty, they are extremely vulnerable. There is shame, guilt, denial, pain and a whole host of emotions that accompany financial struggle.
When someone comes into your life who offers hope from your financial burden, and actually provides a real and practical and tangible way out, then obviously you will be overjoyed, relieved and extremely grateful. More than that, you feel you owe them your life because hope breaks out once again into your life that was consumed with despair.
When we are at a place of vulnerability, anything can happen.
‘Come to church. These are the people who have made this possible.’
‘Look what God has done for you.’
The mixing of debt help and conversion fills me with unease.
The gospel is one of unconditionality, noncoersion, nonviolence, grace and love. There are no strings attached. God loves us because God loves us because God loves us.
When a Debt Coach has measurable targets of getting people into the church then the act of dehumanisation has begun, for relationships and not a matter of numbers but depth. And with numbers now a measure of success, human nature is such that we will search for ways to make sure CAP clients become part of the church in ways that militate against a gospel of grace and the God of relationship.
These are vulnerable people, and unconsciously, and maybe consciously too, they feel a sense of debt to you for helping them get out of debt. So how do you repay in this position? You take them up on their offer of church.
‘Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
The unconditionality of the gospel is one where nothing is expected in return, where love is freely given for the sake of love. Where those in trouble or distress are helped because they are in trouble or distress, with us expecting and wanting nothing back in return.
We feed, and clothe, and visit, and help, and heal, and serve, because we love, because we love, because we love.
CAP simply should help people get out of debt, end of. The link to getting people into church creates an uncomfortable and potentially abusive culture of unconscious manipulation towards vulnerable people.
CAP would obviously push back on everything I’m saying here, highlighting ringing endorsements from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Martin Lewis from Money Saving Expert, and story after story from people for whom CAP have genuinely helped get out of debt.
And like I said at the very beginning, getting people out of chronic financial debt is a fantastic thing.
But at what cost?
The theological landscape of Western Christianity is embedded in a theology of exchange, and we live in a culture of exchange, and so CAP unconsciously plays right into such a mix, with vulnerable people quite possibly believing that they have a spiritual debt to pay, and CAP (if evangelical Christianity is at play here) believing in the Deuteronomic god who blesses and curses; so come to church, stay debt free, and enjoy the god of blessing! Throw into the situation a ‘deus ex machina’, a god who will swoop in rescue when life gets tough, then we have a church culture that is ripe for something like CAP to step into.
The cost is the loss of the gospel. I say that unreservedly and forcefully.
The cost is the loss of the gospel.
God in Christ was pleased to reconcile to Godself all things and all people. The Cross is where God has fully revealed God’s Self, emptying the curse of the principalities and powers, overthrowing the darkness of humanity’s wrath and violence, absorbing the sin and death that enslaves the whole cosmos, overthrowing it and declaring ‘Freedom! Forgiveness! Love!’ It is a gospel of extravagant grace. Everything has already be done, forgiveness already given, life freely poured out. Repentance is the recognition that one has already been forgiven. The gospel is one of unconditionality, of grace.
Everytime we add anything, we deny the gospel its true power of unlimited forgiveness, grace, mercy and love. Everytime we make someone our debtor, however unconsciously, we deny them the humanity that Jesus came to reveal and called us to live in. When church helps people for something in return, then we’re no longer walking in the light of the gospel of Jesus. We need to get our theology as far as possible to reflect the extravagant grace and nonviolence, unconditionality of the God of Jesus of Nazareth, thus guiding us, by the Spirit, into a praxis of grace and love and freedom.
Because when the church wants numbers, and measurable outputs, well, then we have become Christians against the gospel.