Poverty Safari: Who will reach our unreached?


Darren McGarvey’s mum was an alcoholic and addict. After an episode of childish disobedience, she chased him upstairs and held him against a wall with a knife.

A few years later she was dead – a tragic, yet all too common story of poverty, alcoholism and substance abuse on Britain’s council estates.

The Same Story

McGarvey grew up in Pollok – a deprived, council estate in Glasgow, or ‘scheme’ as they’re called in Scotland. 

He talks about the daily stress of scheme-life, asking yourself where the next threat is coming from. Asking how you can escape.

And with the social odds stacked against you, the answer is often a familiar one: alcohol and drugs.

McGarvey coped by becoming an alcoholic, a substance abuser and an all-out hater of anyone who could be blamed for this mess.

But now he has a new aim in life. And it isn’t to be pitied.

McGarvey has written an Orwell Prize-winning book, Poverty Safari, to call out the very thing that our country often wants to ignore:

In the UK, no matter how awkward we feel about it, we have a class problem.

The Elephant

In the book, McGarvey not only points out the elephant in the room; he asks us to take a seat as he introduces us to this huge creature. After all, who goes on safari to avoid the elephants?

The UK is divided by class

And with class comes culture – foreign cultures existing on the same island. While living apart from each other avoids all-out class war, sometimes we have to sit around the same table.

Like, for example, when discussing solutions to poverty. 

As a self-confessed poster-boy for the socially-deprived, relationally-dysfunctional and, yes, working-class, McGarvey says it as it is.

And he’s got beef that the people who hold the power in the poverty debate are usually those who’ve never experienced it – academics, politicians and charity CEOs who live in Glasgow’s leafy suburbs.

So it’s not surprising that middle-class values are imposed on the debate. When McGarvey speaks honestly, boldly and passionately – an approach that does not fit the middle-class value of moderateness – he’s labelled as ‘unconstructive’.

And so along the way, he’s learnt a lesson: to be granted a voice by those who hold the reins, he first has to give his, ‘shameless personal testimony… that’s designed to elicit a strong emotional response.’

He has to be pitied. Then we’ll listen.

As for me, I was listening. And I heard his main point: To bring lasting change to our poorest communities, we need to be listening to those who live there.

You’d think this was obvious. But if it was, McGarvey wouldn’t have needed to write this book. 

Hope for Poor Communities

McGarvey’s not about bashing the middle-class.

His conclusion actually situates the problem in our hearts. Before any change is possible out there in the system, it has to happen in here in our hearts.

‘Maybe allowing myself to evolve is a betrayal of my class or a renunciation of my heritage. [But] it would be a far greater betrayal of myself and my community to deny or conceal the fact that… I have changed. That, is the most radical thing a person can do.’

I agree. But McGarvey hasn’t met God, the only lasting source of internal transformation. This change can only ultimately happen by the gospel of Jesus Christ and by his Holy Spirit (John 3:6-7).

The gospel is the hope for our poorest communities. It gives us hope of personal and social transformation, as well as eternal safety (1 Thessalonians 5:9-10).

And it’s the local church which is responsible for proclaiming this gospel that brings hope and transformation (1 Corinthians 3:9).

The Church’s Response

But for so long, parts of the church have eased its guilt around the poor by offering quick-fix service ministries – food banks, soup kitchens and the like, some of which will include a short gospel talk.


These are good things which many have benefitted from.

But where are the converts? Where are the disciples? About 10% of the UK live on council estates and schemes, and yet the percentage of evangelicals who are from these communities is negligible, to none.

But should this surprise us when gospel-churches are all but absent in our poorest communities?

Hearing the stats should lead, not to surprise, but to tears.

Let’s take a leaf out of McGarvey’s book and say it as it is, if only for a second: for all their good, the soup kitchens aren’t working. They’re not winning souls for Christ.

So we need more than tears. If the church is to be faithful in its mission to reach the unreached, we have to do something different. 

What should we do?

It’s obvious why, on the whole, our ministries to the poor aren’t working. We’re guilty of the very thing McGarvey condemns.

So long as we’re happy to parachute in to offer food before retreating to the comfort of the suburbs; so long as we continue to start youth clubs in poor communities but keep our own kids away from those estate kids; so long as we pat ourselves on the back for attending a church plant on a council estate before commuting back home, we will never reach our poorest communities.

Like those well-meaning town planners, politicians, academics and charity workers who drop in to dish out a few handouts, why would our poorest communities listen to us about the free gift of God in Jesus, when we have little idea about what life looks like for them?

We don’t need church plants inhabited by members who claim to love the community’s people, but not enough to share their struggles, schemes and schools.

We need to move in. We need to listen. We need to understand what life is like. We need to live alongside them. We need to live like them.

In short, we need to be able to paraphrase the apostle Paul: to the working class I became working class so that, by God’s grace, I might save some (1 Corinthians 9:22).

What will it cost?

We need to call out our idols of moving up in the world into bigger houses, with burgeoning bank accounts.

We need to call out our gospel-denying favouritism, materialism and ambition which masks itself as ‘wanting the best for our kids’, ‘enjoying God’s good blessings’ and ‘using my position for God’s glory.’

Our kids do best by seeing what carrying a cross actually looks like. We’re best seated to enjoy God’s blessings on the front line of his mission to reach the unreached people of our country. Like Jesus, ‘using our position’ for God’s glory happens when we lay it down.

If we are to reach this country’s unreached, first and foremost, we need to become missionaries into poor communities, adopt the local culture and apply the gospel faithfully in the context of locally-rooted church plants.

Isn’t this what Jesus would have us do?

This Jesus who gave up heaven’s riches to descend into the mess of this world to save wretches like me (Philippians 2:7). Like that crack addict across the road. Like our more socially respectable addicts, getting their fix on comfort, money, possessions.

This Jesus says to all Christians, “Follow me” (Luke 9:23).

For some, this might mean moving away from our childhood dreams and parents’ expectations, getting proper training, and moving into housing estates and schemes with the blessing of a sending church.

But for every UK Christian, it should at least mean asking how we can use our wealth to further the gospel among all in our nation – including, especially even - the poor and the unreached on our doorsteps.

It should at the very least mean praying that God would raise up godly, gospel churches filled with spirit-empowered middle-class and working-class believers sharing one loaf and one cup as one body (1 Corinthians 13:12).

This is the mission and the power of the gospel. It’s God’s design for his church.


If you would like to know more about how you can think about and pray through your role in reaching the UK’s unreached people on council estates and housing schemes, we’d recommend starting with Acts 29’s Church in Hard Places and 20schemes. London readers may be interested in LCM’s pioneers training. Further review can be found here.