26 February 2016
Christians Against Poverty: an opportunity for the Church
Our survey shows 20 per cent of evangelicals polled felt under pressure to consume. With advertising becoming increasingly sophisticated, turmoil in the global economy and weaker UK growth, many of us are feeling the pinch. But what about when that pinch turns in to a punch, and all the money runs out? Evangelical Alliance member Christians Against Poverty are working on the frontline, providing support and advice for anyone weighed down by debt. The charity has helped thousands of people since 1996, and now runs 209 debt centres across the UK. Amaris Cole met CAP's UK chief executive Matt Barlow to learn more.
"For me, it feels like a tragedy that Christians can be in a situation where they're helping people with their practical needs, yet the most powerful thing they have to change that person's life is held back."
CAP's chief executive thinks the Church is missing an opportunity when it does good without explaining that the good news is the motivation behind it. "The gospel, the good news, the fact that God has come to earth to save us – in the midst of struggling and feeling suicidal about debt – if people
can find the hope of Jesus, then you give them something beyond measure. Not justfor eternity – but hey, eternity is a pretty bigdeal – but something for the here and now."
It's a unique gift to be able to step inside the lives of those who are struggling and see them saved, Matt believes – the reality is everybody needs to hear the message of Jesus. "Some people are doing ok with life. I know we like to paint the picture that everyone who is rich is actually really poor, but the truth is some people have a family they love, a job they really enjoy and a bunch of hobbies that they get to do, whereas step into the life of someone in poverty and life just sucks. It really does. Jesus calls us to do something about the practical elements of that – to feed those who are hungry, clothe those who have no clothes and release the captives from the burden of debt or addiction, but the greatest thing you'll ever give that person is the good news."
Anyone can help someone build a CV, Matt says, but only the Christians can help people experience the tangible love of God. And CAP's work is based on these biblical principles: "I think if you do manage to read the Bible and come to the conclusion that economic justice is not part of God's kingdom plan, then perhaps you're reading it from a place of self-interest." He added: "Every Christian is called to care for the poor."
Matt sees evangelism as a key role for the charity, alongside the practical help it offers. "We give the Church professional tools to serve the poor and save the lost in this country," he explains. There are many different pathways into poverty, but key factors include over- indebtedness, unemployment, lack of money education and addiction – not the niche addiction of heroin users, but the day-to-day addiction for the binge eater, the smoker, the occasional gambler."
So how is CAP responding? In debt centres across the country, churches are running CAP's debt help, job clubs, money course and release groups.
Sitting in our comfortable, often middle class churches, some of us may be detached from the reality of poverty today, and have a stereotypical view of the kind of person that might seek the help of CAP. But Matt says there is not a typical client.
"Within our debt service we will cross all ages – we cross all nationalities. When it's single people or even single parents, it tends to be women more than men, because they tend to have less pride and believe that someone can help them.
"In our job clubs, again it's quite often single people, but often more men. In the job club I run we have a lot of single men who are very lonely and struggling to get back into work."
The common factor of the majority of the clients CAP helps is that they're struggling on a low income – "lower than most of the UK".
The Evangelical Alliance's survey on ethical consuming showed that 20 per cent of evangelicals feel under pressure to consume. What's Matt's advice for us? "A phrase that is really important to remember as Christians is: we need to make money serve us, not us serve money." Jesus told us we have to choose to either worship him or worship him, Matt said. You've got to choose.
The chief executive says he "shops with an ear to heaven".
"The fallacy that 10 per cent of our income belongs to God is rubbish. It all belongs to God. We start with 10 per cent as a helpful guideline."
He admits it's not always easy, though. "Advertising is the modern day theme tune to all that we are. What advertising does is it really plays on the need that we all have to be accepted and secure. As Christians we should find that in Jesus, but adverts sell us a whole set of lies and convince us to part with money. It's the constant barrage – the lies of the enemy – that what we are is not enough."
Through the charity's release groups, people are being set free from these lies. "It's been amazing to see people with gambling addictions come along and be properly freed. Some people who have racked up debts and spent tens of thousands of pounds."