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How Not to Be an American Missionary in Scotland

Many years ago I wrote a response to a report I read from the Southern Baptists – talking about their mission work in Scotland.  To their credit they picked up on my article and used it.  I often get asked about this article entitled ‘How Not To Be An American Missionary In Scotland” –  so I am just reproducing a slightly updated version of it here. 


“Over paid, over sexed and over here” was one common saying concerning the American GI’s during the Second World War. I doubt that this is the appropriate description for the growing number of American missionaries who are coming to Scotland today in order to take part in a different kind of warfare – the spiritual battle for Western Europe.

This is a subject dear to my heart – I have been involved with American missionaries for over twenty years and continue to encourage them to come to Scotland. Bear that in mind as you read the rest of this article. I am writing from the perspective of someone who wants American missionaries here and who believes moreover that we need American missionaries here.

Cross cultural mission is difficult. There are dangers as well as opportunities. I believe that for American missionaries to be effective over here they need to have a passionate realism, a people centered ministry, a Biblical God centered theology and a willingness to work in partnership.

  • A Passionate Realism – Avoid the danger of Romanticism

    Scotland is not the land of Mel Gibson, Brigadoon, quaint wee redheaded Highland lasses, Eric Liddell running in the Glens and John Knox preaching in the pulpits!

Equally Scots going over to America sometimes get the ‘grass is always greener on the other side of the fence’ syndrome.

To be in large churches, with extensive programs and great wealth, who also seem to be making a significant impact upon their community – that is quite an experience and one which sometimes leaves the Scot feeling a) inferior and b) thinking ‘this is it. This is the way God wants us to work’. The result is that some of us come back with the notion that the Americanisation of the Church will be its salvation. That is patently not true. Likewise American missionaries who come over here thinking that all Scotland needs for revival is for things to be done the way they are back home, will not get very far.

Having that attitude will do a great deal of harm – not least by causing an opposite reaction whereby anything new is seen as American and thus de facto to be rejected. Cultural sensitivity is a basic requirement for any missionary.

Another aspect of realism is to avoid stereotyping and to seek to understand the culture you are coming to. A few years ago I looked at the Southern Baptists missionary website on Scotland (it has considerably improved since then!) – it was appallingly inaccurate – almost to the point of being offensive and laughable. The scary thing is that this information is what Southern Baptist missionaries come armed with. According to the website – Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism are infiltrating the country through ‘ambitious East Indian businessmen’. – Mormonism and the religion of the JW’s are taught in public schools – ‘Scots enjoy football (soccer), rugby, cricket, golf and Highland Games. On a sunny day beautiful parks are filled with families and their dogs..’

All this is fairly patronizing and harmless but when it comes to the report of the Celtic Languages team it becomes farcical – according to this report Scotland’s population is 7 million of whom 150,000 are potential Gaelic speakers.

“The Celtic languages team targets the minority population of Scotland who speak Gaelic, an ancient Celtic language…At present there are few (literally to be counted on one hand) or no evangelical Gaidhlig-speaking churches with a Gaidhlig outreach in Scotland. It would be estimated that there are probably fewer than 50 fluent Gaidhligh- speaking evangelicals in Scotland”

– lest those of you from Lewis  (with several hundred Gaelic speaking believers) cry foul at this it is only fair to point out that the Missionary organisation go on to helpfully inform us that that there are currently no Gaelic speaking Baptist churches in Scotland. The implication is obvious. Real Christians are Baptist. Pity that no-one told Knox or Chalmers or Eric Alexander or James Maciver.

As well as avoiding romanticism and stereotyping, realism means grasping and understanding the spiritual state of the nation. Scotland is in a bad way spiritually – but it is not helpful to act as though there were no evangelical Christians in the country nor is it helpful to come across with a superior mindset which screams ‘I am here to tell you how it should be done’. There is a distinct lack of humility in some of the presentations I have seen.

I once looked at a missionary team where young girls hardly out of high school were described as providing ‘church leadership’. Everyone wants to have a ministry that is considered ‘significant’ by their peers (It is a good job that Christ was not like that – he emptied himself). A worthwhile ministry is not achieved by down playing or ignoring the number of fine native Christians who are already labouring in this part of the vineyard.

It is also helpful to be realistic about what you can do. I have met men who tell me with a straight face that their mission is to bring revival to Scotland and Ireland; to unite the churches, to ‘disciple tomorrows leaders today’, ‘develop a CPM (church planting movement) that will envelop the whole nation for Christ’. Much of this is the Christian equivalent of spin and corporate business talk. Meaningless except to those schooled in the jargon. It is better to be honest. I know that saying you are running a pensioners club in a rundown area of an inner city is not quite the same as ‘bringing revival to Scotland’, but it is more realistic.

Of course your work could result in far greater blessing but you cannot promise that and you do not know that. The trouble is that American missionaries are often funded by individuals or churches who want to know what their money is achieving. Plus there is a lot of competition for a limited amount of cash – and when there is any kind of recession it is missionary work that often gets hit first – so each missionary is in the unenviable position of having to sell their work in order to obtain funds to continue it. In such circumstances it is not surprising that jargon and exaggeration come into play.

And the passion? Realism can sometimes come across as lifeless defeatism. That is not what we need. We need people who recognise the need, who have moved beyond the ‘Braveheart’ kilt and heather view of Scotland, who know their own weaknesses but who are passionate about Jesus Christ, his Gospel and the people of Scotland. And who are self-effacing.

  • People centred ministry.

Which brings us on to the question of methodology. Why are the Southern Baptists seeking to plant churches in Dingwall and Tain? These are hardly unchurched places – both small towns having good Free Churches, evangelical Church of Scotland’s, the APC and charismatic groups etc? What is the thinking and the strategy behind that? The thinking is betrayed in their websites view of other churches – real Christians are Baptist, (and real Baptists are Southern) or at least they should be because their churches are dead. At best the strategy seems to be non-existent. At worst it is a blatant attempt to plant a church, not in one of the many urban housing schemes where there is little or no gospel, but rather in an area where it is easier to get disaffected ‘Christians’ from the already established churches.

In terms of methodology – combine the system of raising finance; with Arminian theology, cultural insensitivity and a business ‘success’ model and you have real potential for a disaster. Why? Because these factors combined together mean that there is an enormous pressure on the missionary to be seen to be successful. Those who are funding you demand results – that means bottoms on seats. It means numbers. In order to be able to report home that God is at work through you and therefore people should be supporting you, you need to highlight the growth and the numerical increase. For that to happen in postmodern Scotland the easiest way is to go to an area where there are a significant number of churches (which you consider to be pretty dead) and poach.

Given the manpower and money it only takes a modest level of competency to gather 50 plus people. You can then send reports of how you have established a church (or to use the jargon – ‘how God is working through you’) and your supporters back home will be happy. But at what cost? I do not deny that the Lord can and does bless even through such methods. Of course there are people who are genuinely converted but there is also harm done – some churches are weakened, others are tempted to try such short-termism and overall the impact of the gospel on the community is severely weakened.

The methodology adopted should not be that of the commercial venture but rather that of the Lord. He came to save people and to glorify his Father. In many ways he was a disaster in terms of what the world would regard as success. For us, following Christ means that we will be people centered rather than programe centred. And I don’t mean that just as a soundbite or a neat turn of phrase. I am tired of being offered this program for church revitalization, or that proven method of evangelism, or this program to ‘reach Scotland for Christ’.

Of course there is value in looking at different methods and strategies. Of course there are new ways of doing things. And of course some of these programs are excellent. But we really do need to beware of the program mentality. It is often easier to sell a method than it is to live Christ. It is also sometimes far more lucrative – especially for the author. Several people have written, phoned and even visited offering ‘their’ particular brand or program. They come with all the right words (‘we are your servants… we want to help you reach Scotland) and as far as one is allowed and able to judge these things, their motives are admirable, but their agenda is very limited. They are answerable to a higher authority and it’s not the Lord. Their church or their mission board has told them they must use this program and that any help offered is conditional upon that. So what do you do if you are a Scottish minister in desperate need of help and someone comes and offers you untold riches – the only catch being that you must do it their way? If you think that what is offered is harmful or not appropriate then you must refuse. That is not easy.

In summary then our methodology is to be people centred and focused not so much on what the ‘folks at home’ might think. It needs to be relevant and culturally appropriate in Scotland. And Biblical. Which brings us onto the third requirement.

  • Biblical God centred theology

There is a tendency in some of our churches to divide the world into those who are theological and those who are mission minded. That is a fatal error. For both theology and mission. In terms of the latter it often leads to people saying that theology does not really matter – all that matters is getting the gospel/Jesus to people. The problem with that statement is that the gospel is theology and theology is Jesus. When theology becomes a dry academic discipline, used only to justify church division then it becomes blasphemous. When it is full of Christ then it is essential.

In terms of mission in Scotland we do not need any more Arminian evangelism. I do wish Reformed Christians would stop being emotionally bullied into supporting any and every work that claims to be Christian (providing it only sells itself well). I know the Lord can and does use it (I met a lovely Arminian Baptist from Alabama the other day – I am sure that the Lord will continue to use him. His grace and humility shone threw) but that does not mean that we should give into the notion that Reformed evangelism is a misnomer. There are far too many ‘Reformed’ Christians who think that we can evangelise like Arminians and then teach like Calvinists. Again the success model and the pressures thereof sometimes force us to act in that way.

I find it ironic that you will get mission teams ‘bringing the gospel to Scotland’ who think that they have done so by going and singing in St Giles in Edinburgh. St Giles is a bastion of theological liberalism. It is the church where Jenny Geddes flung her stool at the preacher when he tried to use Laud’s liturgy. Yet now her Presbyterian descendants celebrate their Scottishness and their Knoxian heritage by supporting a church which Knox would not be seen dead in!

I question how theologically valid it is to send mission teams over to ‘prayer walk’ the Highlands. Why not just come on a walking holiday and don’t use the ‘mission tag’? I have been offered clowns and drama groups, choirs and basketball players. Again don’t get me wrong – I actually believe there is a place for clowns and drama groups. That place is the circus and the theatre – or perhaps the school and the market place. I don’t say that to be facetious. We need more Christians involved in the popular arts. My objection is to calling that mission or evangelism – just because it is done in ‘a Christian way’ or tracts are handed out.

I believe that Christians should be involved in the wider culture and that there is a place for the fine Christian groups in the US who are involved in these things to come over here on culture trips.. But we need a lot more than that.

We also need a lot more than short term mission teams – which are often more for the benefit of the people who come and the sending church than they are for the recipients. Sometimes Congregational Mission Committees even use these as ‘vision’ trips to stimulate interest. But mission should not be sold like that. Certainly let people come on ‘vision’ trips to see what the need is and what might be done – but again please do not call that mission.

For any sending Church the criteria must not be – what can we get out of it, but rather what can we put in? Again let me stress that I support the idea of short term mission teams. We have had several very beneficial ones in St Peter’s. I have led about 12 to other churches. However the ‘hit and run’ type of outreach as so often exemplified by these teams is one of the least effective form of outreach one can do. Or at least it is if it is not part of a longer term relationship which gives a boost to the ongoing work and which can therefore be continued and followed up. Which brings us on to the last point.

  • Partnership

The key to work in Scotland is for the American Presbyterians/Baptists/Pentecostals to come and partner with us. Scots must resist the temptation to think that we do not need help and we must also resist the temptation to see the American Church as some kind of cash cow – that we have to woo or sell the ‘vision to. We must also avoid any kind of cultural or spiritual superiority or snobbery (we need to take the beam out of our own eyes before the take the spec out of our brothers).

Americans on the other hand must avoid seeing us as a ‘project’. And they too must avoid cultural or spiritual superiority. It does not really matter if Europeans do not think that Donald Trump is the best thing since sliced bread or do not want to eat hormonised beef. American missionaries are not here to defend or proclaim American culture – they are here to proclaim and live Christ. The fact of a MacDonald’s opening in Moscow should not be seen as an advance for the gospel!

What is more important is that we can work together in partnership in the cause of the gospel. We can learn from each other as we proclaim Christ together and who knows , perhaps we Scots may be able to be of some help to our American brothers and sisters as well?

American Presbyterians owe us a debt of love. It was the Scots who took Presbyterianism over to the US and it was the Scots who helped fund and plant Presbyterian churches in the US. Now we need the favour returned. Not just by romantic ‘Scots celebration’ services in memory of Knox, nor by reading lots of books about the Covenanters, nor just by sending the occasional holiday tour/mission trip, but we need your help. We need commitment, sacrifice, prayer and trust.

Let me add another note here…I can get any amount of missionaries, teams and groups who feel ‘called’ to minister in Edinburgh or St Andrews, but never have anyone volunteering to go to Cowdenbeath or Kilmarnock. Why? Part of it is a mistaken missiology which comes from the notion that if only we go to the city centres, reach the middle classes and the leaders, then there will be a trickle down effect. For various reasons I think that is worldly thinking and never works. But another reason for this attitude is just sheer snobbery. Its very easy to get money for areas that already have money (Edinburgh) but ask for Dundee and there is a kind of condescending ‘can anything good come from Narareth’ mentality.   If Americans want to come and help with the Church in Scotland maybe they would be better asking us what they can help with, not telling us what we should be doing?

In the years since I first wrote this article I am aware of several Scottish ministers, theologians and students who have been ‘called’ to the US. I am not aware of any experienced American minister coming over here. Can I make a plea to the American church – if you are going to continue to cherry pick our best people could you in return heed the Macedonian cry to come over and help us? And please send us your best – no other sacrifice is good enough for the Lord…

I have to add this – given the reaction already. Firstly this was not written about any specific individual (that should be obvious) – secondly it is not just about any particular group (the Southern Baptists are only mentioned as one example) whether MTW, PCA,  etc. I am talking about general trends and patterns.

Thirdly it should also be obvious that I am very grateful for those Americans who did a power of work here in Dundee and elsewhere in Scotland; and who have worked hard and sacrificially for the Lord here. However I am also aware that we have a reputation of sending home missionaries from Europe in general and Scotland in particular, in ‘body bags’.

Unrealistic expectations, pressures from home, inexperience, the tough spiritual climate, lack of understanding are some of the many reasons why this happens. As we say in Scots ‘its a sair fecht’ (its a tough fight), but then as Christians what do we expect? I thought we were to take up our cross – not just go to the places and people that seem to be more attractive.

I don’t think this is a problem that is particular to one nationality – it seems to me endemic in Western Christianity that our own personal comfort and situation is the priority (and I include myself in this). How can we do mission like that? Perhaps we need a deeper awareness of Christ and ourselves, before we think we can change the world?

Another PS….here is an example of what I was writing about….just came across this today…

”Scotland, we have found to be a spiritually cold nation. Many of its churches are practically empty with many of them being occupied by Muslims. Secularism is the modern day God. We have been preaching and taking mission teams there since 2002. The Baptist Union has become quite liberal. It is also completely Armenian. There is no Reformed witness or churches within the Baptist Union. The state churches, Church of Scotland, etc. are very liberal. There is a Presbyterian presence, mostly thru the Free Church of Scotland. But there is a very small Reformed Baptist presence in Scotland. We feel led to ask God to raise up Reformed Baptist Churches across Scotland, the U K and Europe according to His Will.”

It is really important that people get facts right….’many’ of Scotland’s churches are not occupied by muslims, there ARE reformed churches and witness within the Baptist Union, the Presbyterians churches are not mainly through the Free Church, and not all the State churches are ‘very liberal’. ( on a slightly more amusing note I am intrigued that the Baptist Union is completely Armenian….personally I thought it was full of Turks!).

There also seems to be the usual problem of equating the church of Jesus Christ with one particular group. Of course there then follows an appeal for money. Now I have nothing against this particular group and we do pray that the Lord will bless them in the particular situation they are in. But a great deal more humility, awareness of the situation, and a greater vision for the Gospel in Scotland (rather than just their own particular group) would be helpful. As indicated above we need more churches and groups committed to evangelism in Scotland….but this is not the way to win friends and influence people!



  1. A lot of what you say resonates with me as in the past I’ve been part of a Baptist church in Scotland which had two male Southern Baptist youth workers (amongst other responsibilities) with us for several years. My memory of those years is it was a huge culture shock for them but we had a wise Pastor and leadership team and that made all the difference as to how they settled into the fellowship and adapted to church life here. At that time my sons were school age and I am continually thankful for the friendship, teaching and general input they poured into their lives – they still look back with great fondness of that time in their lives and both love and follow Jesus. We are still in touch with our American ‘brothers’ and their love for Scotland has never waned. After all the years Southern Baptists have been working here I’m surprised at how poor and mixed up their info is and that’s very disappointing. I don’t know any liberal Baptist ministers in Scotland – I’m too busy pulling my hair out at the English ones!! 😲

  2. Great article filled with candid truths. It should be required reading (monthly) for all U.S. Mission Agency heads, then they might heed the wisdom. Thanks.

  3. David, I do wish you had written your article more clearly in reference to the different Baptist groups mentioned. It is very confusing and Sheila’s comment above confirms that. The Southern Baptists have generally had an excellent working relationship with Baptist Churches here and to my knowledge have never considered that only Baptist Churches are Evangelical. This is quite unfair and untruthful. Southern Baptists church-planting in Dingwall? I have no information that they ever considered doing that. An Independent Baptist church-planter served there for some years. I also have no information either way about Tain? I suspect that might also have been an Independent Baptist? Unlike the Southern Baptists, Independents rarely take any time to find out what kind of Evangelical witness is found in a place and usually disregard everyone else including Scottish Baptist Churches, as many of my colleagues can testify over the years. Thankfully there are some good exceptions but they are the minority Back to Southern Baptists there was a sad time c.2005 when a new leadership team took over its Mission Board that had unhelpful views and inappropriate ways of engaging in mission, and they withdrew from working in partnership with Baptist Churches here. Thankfully those days are past and new leaders are in place with a better understanding of Christian mission. You quoted a source you had seen ‘today’. I think I know where you quoted it from. If I am correct, and I have heard the person I have in mind utter such sentiments elsewhere, you ought to have pointed out that the individual responsible for that quotation is a UK national not an American and his view is not even representative of many in his own very small constituency. I greatly appreciate much of what you write David but this article is not at all helpful as it stands. Please can I ask you to take more time to write honestly and fairly as you would want others to do with respect to your own work and convictions.

    1. I’m afraid that I did write fairly and honestly. I realise you don’t like it and that there are things in it that are uncomfortable and there may be things that are wrong, but please be careful before accusing people of not writing honestly or fairly. When this original article was written it did refer to the Southern Baptist leaflet. They also responded to it and admitted what was in it. And they corrected it And I was not referring to a UK national. I’m afraid that I only responded to the article/leaflet as I had it. Perhaps you are being a little too defensive? And over sensitive? Lots of American missionaries have contacted me over the past few years since this article was written – basically agreeing with it and thanking me for it – and wishing that people in the UK had been a bit more up front with them! We need to recognise what is being said and what isn’t. And we also need to recognise the problems as well as the opportunities that US evangelicals have bought to, not just the UK but the whole of Europe.

  4. A wonderful article. I and my family were ultimately put through the shredder by U.S. “support.” It amazes me that the attitude prevails that Americans who have never been to the UK know how to do miss better than UK ministries who have been faithful witnesses for decades.

  5. Interesting article, much to consider as I seek to serve Scotland as a missionary from America. I like to think I am trying to serve the Scottish people and have ministered in more remote areas (including most of the Hebrides) but I am glad for a refresher in what to avoid.

  6. There is an independent baptist missionary from the US working in Scotland who went home to preach round some of his supporting churches. In one sermon he claimed there were less than a thousand Christians in Scotland and that the average Scotsman just lives for his next drink! I guess this kind of message keeps the cash coming in. Funny yo7 should mention reformed baptists. I am not aware of any reformed churches (1689 confession) churches in the union currently, but the small baptist church at lower largo in fife just moved into bigger premises. It is reformed, but not in the union. The heyday of the reformed baptists in Scotland was probably the 80s when they had some strength. Also interesting to note how many baptist churches no longer use the word baptist in their title.

  7. Oddly, perhaps, this reminds me of AJ Cronin’s 1941 novel The Keys of the Kingdom which is mostly about a Catholic missionary in China during the early years of the 20th century. The central character spends about 30 years in the country and makes hardly any converts at all by contrast with the more successful (American) Methodist mission nearby. The point, though, is that by paying attention to a lot of the things mentioned in this blog, cultural sensitivity and the like, the converts are fully converted, grasping the total meaning of the Gospel for the Gospel’s own sake. As such they become seeds with the great potential to yield even a hundredfold, in due course. Patience and playing the long game can be *the* most important part of missionary activity at times.

  8. One could be tempted to say that there is nothing new under the sun, David,
    Before the Disruption of 1843, two series of lectures were delivered and published by senior evangelical ministers on the subjects of Mission and Revival, respectively. One of the lecturers on revival was William Burns — father of William Chalmers Burns and Islay Burns — who said, if I remember correctly, that American Baptists had brought one local revival to a halt by trying to take it over but that the Particular [Reformed] Baptists had viewed the recent revival in Kilsyth as a work of God and didn’t do anything that might disrupt the work.
    You are right to put blame on sending committees whose unrealistic expectations have crippled many a good man. Free from such shackles a good number of Americans have proven to be able to do what we tend in our wisdom to assume cannot be done.

  9. I really liked your article. It resonates.

    The same can be said for most every country receiving missionaries.

    Jesus led with relationships, not organizational prowess or money.

    I am an American, living in Texas.

    If you ever need to vent, inquire, whatever…. drop me an email.

    Thank you for taking the time to write this

  10. Most of this article I find highly logical and much-needed. Thank you.
    I hope to make my first visit to the Scottish Highlands soon. Can you recommend churches I could visit and fellowship with while I am there? Specifically in small Highland communities and on Lewis (I would especially be thrilled to meet Gàidhlig-speaking Christians). I stumbled upon this article due to my search.

    1. I suggest you contact David Meredith in the Free Church offices in Edinburgh. He is the Mission director. There are lots of churches in Lewis – I would suggest Stornoway Free and Tarbat Free.

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