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03 December 2012

Christians Against Poverty

Earlier this year I was on the phone to someone at Christians Against Poverty (CAP) HQ when a bell started ringing in the background. I thought the phone call was about to be cut short while the building was evacuated. But in fact this wasn’t the fire alarm. It was CAP’s ‘salvation bell’. Every time a client becomes a Christian the bell rings and the staff celebrate. 

Turns out the CAP office is a noisy place to work. With 40 to 60 clients welcoming Jesus into their lives every month, there are not many days when the bell doesn’t ring at least once. I later found out that every time a client becomes debt free, it’s the sound of  harmonicas you hear. The two celebratory events capture both the passion and the purpose of this dynamic and rapidly growing organisation.

In the UK, churches are becoming better and better at social action. Churches are now meeting a wide range of needs that can be found in the local community. This is essential work; however, there is increasing concern that evangelism is taking a back seat. There has been much discussion about the relationship between social action and evangelism, and to me it often feels like these discussions are exploring how the two can be held together in tension.

I visited the CAP team to find out how they connect the two and manage this tension as all the evidence suggests that they are very successful at both social action and evangelism. As I began to ask questions exploring this issue, I soon discovered from their baffled looks that I was confusing them! That’s because at CAP, social action and evangelism are not held in tension, they are seamlessly intertwined. Embedded in the DNA of this organisation is both the desire to provide professional debt relief services and a desperation to see people encounter Jesus.

CAP, through its network of 205 centres based in local churches throughout the UK, provides a comprehensive and professional debt counselling service, which helps people practically climb out of debt as well as dealing with all the other related issues. Their work is highly regarded by many, including Martin Lewis, the finance expert behind the popular website moneysavingexpert.com. The whole organisation is impressive. The atmosphere at the HQ is casual, relaxed and friendly, yet the 200 plus staff are extremely motivated, efficient and professional.

The numbers speak for themselves. In 2011, 1,085 clients became debt free. Since its launch in 1996 CAP have helped more than 45,000 people. By 2015 they aim to have 500 centres throughout the UK. Despite the impressive statistics, they’re keen to focus on the stories, emphasising that every person who comes to CAP has their own.

I was introduced to a client called Su. She told me her story - children taken into care, drug addiction, homelessness, domestic violence, prison and debt. It was a seemingly insurmountable amount of debt which left her feeling fearful and worthless. Every time the doorbell rang, the phone beeped or the mail landed on the doormat, she was scared that she was being chased for more money. CAP hadn’t found me a story-with-a-happy-ending for my visit. CAP has been working with Su for almost a year now; helping her get on top of her finances. During that time there have been ups and downs, and there’s still a long way to go. But she no longer feels alone and she’s beginning to feel like she’s worth something. As I listened to her story, I was thinking to myself, this must be exactly what Jesus had in mind when he laid down his manifesto to proclaim good news to the poor, free prisoners and restore sight for the blind (Luke 4:18-19). 

Su told me that a few weeks ago she attended a CAP Discovery Break (a short holiday for nominated clients). While she was there, she became a Christian. Her conversion was part of a gradual journey. It began when Dianne, the CAP centre manager for Bolton North, first met her. Toward the end of their initial meeting to talk about her finances, Dianne gently offered to pray for her. This is something that every client is offered; 95 per cent say yes, and a recent survey found that 90 per cent really appreciate it. For Su, as for so many clients, it was the moment when she began to consciously recognise God moving in her life for the first time. Many talk about feeling a sense of peace, others talk about a glimmer of hope. 

People at CAP would like others to experience God’s love and enter into a relationship with Jesus because it’s the best life on offer. CAP staff and volunteers talk about Jesus passionately and directly, yet entirely naturally and from what I’ve heard, sensitively and respectively.

What became obvious was that their approach to evangelism is not about technique. It is something that bubbles up from their passionate staff and wanting the best for their clients. Evangelism happens naturally.

Along the way, as well as the offer of prayer, every client is given a befriender from the local church – this person will be with them throughout the often long journey to become debt free. On top of that, there’s a combination of client events (which others might describe as seekerfriendly events), being welcomed into the church community, being encouraged to read the Bible, and huge amounts of prayer going on behind the scenes. 

Beryl, who is a CAP centre manager for Southampton East, currently has eight clients that through CAP now regularly attend church. She said: “For me it was a real eye opener when I first started that people were so open to Jesus. People are open to hearing about the gospel. They might find church hard because it is another step, but on a practical level we can provide a real one to one personal service, through CAP, which demonstrates God’s love. 

“I am able to pray with clients and they share themselves and their lives so easily. It amazes me how open they are. CAP gives me the opportunity to pray or to help people practically in some way, which shows them what God’s loves is all about. I always offer to pray for something specific. Even if they don’t believe in prayer, we do and we have seen prayers answered.”

What struck me is that CAP are not involved in debt counselling so they can then do evangelism. I didn’t get the impression that their social action was a vehicle for their evangelism. At CAP they’re just busy doing the business of God’s kingdom. They want to help people in desperate need and they want to tell people about Jesus. Both are seamlessly intertwined. There’s no sense that evangelism compromises the professional service they offer people. God is not forced on people; they offer the same service level to people regardless of whether they accept CAP’s invitation to pray with them.

The reality is the majority of the clients don’t make a commitment to Christ, but every time the salvation bell rings there is a celebration. There is a celebration every time – because each story is seen as important. There were 547 celebrations during 2011. The CAP salvation bell rings more often than I make a cup of tea for myself. Each time the bell rings, their confidence levels must increase, making them more eager to share the good news of Jesus with the next person. It’s a positive perpetual cycle.

Over the next two years, as part of the Alliance’s Confidence in the Gospel programme, we will be visiting bright spots – places where successful evangelism is taking place. We’ll be telling the stories, both in idea and on our website, of what God is doing throughout the UK, and along the way we hope we can all learn how we can more effectively communicate the good news of Jesus with our families, friends, work colleagues and communities. Let us know if you have a good story.

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