Yes, praying with debt victims makes us queasy – but it’s the state that’s failing them

Backlash against the dodgy ethics of evangelical debt advice in the BBC’s The Debt Saviours masks a broader problem.

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“We pray that our journey with him will eventually get him out of debt completely and he can start to rebuild his life. We ask this in your name. Amen.”

A debt coach wearing an ID card on a lanyard is sitting forward on a couch, eyes closed, praying for Ronnie in his bedsit.

Ronnie, who became homeless and went into debt after leaving prison (where he was on remand for over two years before being found not guilty), is sitting on the edge of his bed, hands perched tentatively on his knees, closing his eyes.

His debt coach Neil, from a charity called Christians Against Poverty (Cap), has introduced him to Christianity. The camera hones in on a shiny copy of The Life Recovery Bible next to Ronnie’s bedside table lap and strewn prescription boxes.

Living in debt for the majority of her life having grown up in care, fending for herself from 17, and after a relationship breakdown, 25-year-old Holly was finally declared debt-free with the support of her Cap debt coach’s local church and work by the charity’s head office team.

Now, she no longer fears bailiffs or arrest – and has since been baptised and is a regular at the church.

BBC Two’s documentary The Debt Saviours follows the work of the charity – which has more than 6,000 staff and volunteers around the country – to ask if its real motivation is relieving people’s debts or bringing them “to Jesus”.

Cap is controversial for its evangelical practices; it was kicked out of the national body representing advice providers, AdviceUK, in 2011 because its faith promotion was deemed “incompatible” with its membership. AdviceUK’s chief executive Steve Johnson described its offer of prayer to people as an “emotional fee”.

However, its founder Dr John Kirkby is open about his charity’s methods, its belief in how prayer can help people in poverty, and says the charity continues to help those who do not wish to pursue a religious path.

Although it doesn’t receive direct funding (though it does have tax exemptions as a charity), Cap has a working relationship with the Department for Work and Pensions and local authorities, which can refer clients to its services. It is also regulated and authorised by the FCA. 

For The Debt Saviours’ audience, the success stories are moving but the methods can make you feel queasy.

The power dynamic between the adviser and the vulnerable person they’re visiting makes you question whether victims of debt are truly making their own decisions if they decide to pray or join a church when receiving such help. In a piece responding to the documentary, the CEO of the National Secular Society, Stephen Evans, asks: “Is it appropriate to exploit the situation vulnerable people find themselves in as an opportunity to proselytise?”

The questionable ethics, reasonably pointed out by viewers and secular commentators alike, nevertheless mask the real problem here.

The UK faces what’s being dubbed as a “debt epidemic”: a quarter of young people in England and Wales have to borrow to make ends meet, and a quarter of the lowest-income households are struggling to repay loans or are behind with their bills. And there’s not enough support from cash-strapped councils to help.

“Talking to people in local authorities, secular commissioners who are partnering with, supporting and signposting people to [faith-based] services, we found that there was a considerable anxiety [about the faith aspect] – although a lot of them were saying ‘we need to do more of this’ because what the state can do is changing and it was ‘any willing hand, really’,” says Paul Bickley, director of Political Programme at Theos, who worked on a report three years ago into the practices of organisations like Cap called “The Problem of Proselytism”.

“There is no state actor in that space. There is no one to turn to,” he found when interviewing service providers. “There are other voluntary sector providers, and they do an excellent job as well… They can build a relationship with somebody. What they [the service users] get is welcome and friendship; what they get at the Jobcentre is discipline. If you’re a Universal Credit account manager, you barely ever see, if ever, one of the hundreds of clients whose cases you might be managing. It’s about the pressures on the system.”

Update: This article was amended on the 5 November to clarify that it was a debt coach, not advisor who was featured in the show, and that Cap is regulated by the FCA.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.