LONDON – The head of a national money education charity based in London spoke of the challenge facing the Church to preach on what the Bible has to say about money, debt and possessions.
"We are a middle class church with middle class values often totally ignoring Jesus' teaching in this key area," Keith Tondeur, president of Credit Action, said at the Evangelical Alliance's Life Beyond Debt conference this week. "We need to challenge our leaders and people in high places – wake up, get real, talk about real issues that can make a difference to people."
He chided the Church for failing to present the world with a Christ-inspired alternative to debt and borrowing.
"We are irrelevant to virtually everybody in this country because we do not show a radical alternative where we live out Jesus' unconditional love and we are Jesus and we are God's hands on earth and God's wallets on earth to every single person Jesus puts in our path. But we are no different; we handle money in the same way," he said.
Tondeur urged churches to help people shift their priorities from the temporal to the eternal.
"There is a world out there that wants love, forgiveness, grace, hope, joy. That's what they need. They don't need more things. And the church by and large is not offering this," he said.
"We need to challenge congregations to help them understand Jesus' priorities. God is more important than money, people are more important than possessions, heaven is more important than earth."
Also addressing the participating Christian leaders and charity representatives was British politician Hazel Blears who stressed that faith-based groups have an important role to play in bringing hope in the face of today's economic challenges.
Communities Secretary Blears pointed to the example set by Jesus in bringing hope to the people around him.
"Even in the darkest times faith will endure and give us hope," she said. "Jesus knew exactly the kinds of challenges that people are facing today.
"Times were pretty tough for the people that he lived with. Practical matters of work and money and food were never far from his thoughts and indeed his actions," she continued. "In every story and every encounter he always brought hope and that's one of the reasons that faith-based charities have such an important role to play as we face today's economic challenges."
Blears reassured the audience that the Government was listening to them, although she acknowledged that ignorance or mistrust on the part of Local Authorities meant that religious groups had not always received their fair share of public funding.
She invited Christians to take part in a conversation about a possible Charter of Excellence under which faith groups would receive funding from public bodies on the condition that they do not proselytize or discriminate against people of a different or no faith.
"There's a balance to be struck here. It's not about trying to stop [faith group workers] from talking about their faith if people ask them or being open about what motivates them. It is not about sanitizing that faith motivation from the organization," she insisted. "It is just making sure that if we spend public money, which comes from everyone in this country, then that money is spent fairly and without discrimination."
Blears went on to praise Christians who demonstrate their faith with practical action, citing the Apostle James who said faith without deeds is dead. She concluded by reaffirming the hope her faith gives her.
"The Bible has a lot to say about hope. Paul rates it as one of the three defining qualities of Christian life alongside faith and love," she said.
"Faith for me does give hope for the future," she added. "There is a difficult path ahead … but I do believe we will get through this difficult time. Things will change and maybe some things will change for the better for the long-term, not only for our country but for the whole of the world."
"And that's why I think your input, your special point of view should be something all of our Government listens to, takes seriously, and tries to reflect in the values that we want to use to shape the future of our country."
The conference, held at The Salvation Army's International Headquarters in London, brought together 60 church leaders and anti-debt campaigners.
During the day, the Evangelical Alliance, together with a range of its member organizations, launched a campaign to encourage local churches to offer practical pastoral support to congregations and local communities and to challenge Christian attitudes to wealth and possessions.
It also launched a new website to encourage and resource churches to make a difference in their communities.
Matt Barlow, chief executive of Christians Against Poverty, said that people suffering debt felt "powerless and hopeless" to change their situation. But he said the power lies within the national network of churches to help people face the emotional and practical problems of indebtedness.
"We, the local church, can ensure that peoples' emotional needs and their practical needs are helped, more than probably any other group in society," he said.
The conference concluded with the release of a public statement from delegates calling people to regard wealth as a gift for the whole community that should be stewarded "justly and generously." The statement goes on to condemn usury and the "irresponsible," "morally unjustifiable and socially harmful" lending practices at the root of the current crisis.
On the Web: www.lifebeyonddebt.org