I’m often asked, “What are the differences between Scottish and American churches.” Obviously this is a very difficult question to answer because there is such a wide diversity of churches in both countries.

However, speaking in the most general terms, let me give twelve basic differences I’ve noticed in my five years in the USA. And I’m basing this not so much on own church here in Grand Rapids but on the exposure I’ve had to many Christians, churches, ministries, and conferences across multiple States – although most of it’s been in the Reformed tradition.

1. American churches are bigger: Scottish churches maybe average between 50-80 regular attenders, many are far smaller, and most of them are declining in size. There are far more large churches in the USA, and churches on the whole are bigger

2. American churches are richer: Obviously this follows from #1. However, I’ve been stunned at the incredible generosity of wealthy Christians in the USA. I’ve especially seen this in the donations to the Seminary, but churches also greatly benefit from the large hearts and wallets of those whom the Lord has blessed with material wealth and steward that gift for His glory.

3. American churches are younger: It wasn’t until I came here that I realized how disproportionately few young people there are in most Scottish churches. Why? See #4.

4. American churches have a greater stress on Christian education: The widespread lack of Christian schools in Scotland partly explains the lack of young people in Scottish churches. American Christians make Christian schools or Christian home education a top priority in their lives.

5. American churches are more complex: There are far more meetings, activities, clubs, Bible Studies, Youth Groups, etc., in America. Scottish church life is relatively simple. Many churches simply have a midweek prayer meeting in addition to two Sunday services.

6. American preachers use more paper: There’s much more reading of sermons in American pulpits. Most Scottish preachers take some limited notes into the pulpit, but they don’t seem to depend on them so much. Consequently, Scottish sermons are less polished but maybe more personal and passionate.

7. American sermons are more lecturely: Most American sermons are teaching sermons for Christians. In Scotland, while one sermon is usually a teaching sermon for Christians, the other is usually preached specifically to the unconverted. There’s expositional teaching in these evangelistic sermons too, but it’s clear that they are preached primarily for the conversion of lost sinners.

8. American churches are more diverse: Although most American Christians wish for more ethnic and cultural diversity in their churches, there is certainly more than in most Scottish churches.

9. American pastors are more specialized: Most Scottish churches have one paid pastor. And that’s it. No more staff. That means Scottish pastors have to be generalists, doing everything. American churches have larger staffs that result in more specialization, and sometimes the strange phenomena of pastors who only preach but never visit or counsel the sheep!

10. American churches have more pastors who are “Doctors”: While Scottish Christians value education, they are quite suspicious of ministers who pursue doctorates. This is partly historical – academics ruined our Seminaries – and partly because they’ve seen the damage that ambition to be a professor can do to a person. That’s why, when I was given my D.Min. I put it in the bottom drawer and didn’t tell anyone in my congregation. I didn’t even tell my parents!

11. American churches are more optimistic: I don’t think this is so much a spiritual trait as a national characteristic. Americans in general are a more optimistic, can-do people (is this changing?), resulting in more welcoming, friendly churches.

12. American sermons have more jokes: Thankfully not true in my own church, but wearisomely true in many churches.

So, anyone want to immigrate? Which way?

  • David Murray (Isle of Lewis)

    Very interesting blog. It seems to me that many of these differences are smoothed out a bit when it’s only Scottish cities that are compared. Much of Scotland is rural and sparsely populated and I think this accounts for quite a few of the differences. I have certainly experienced some of the American characteristics here in a Scottish city and the of the Scottish ones in a church in rural Scotland, with the exception of preaching style and education. Christian education is definitely a big difference. Again though I think people in the cities would be more open to it.

    As for specialisation, I’m not 100% sure what that entails in America but over here it’s taking shape mainly in the form of Youth Workers (which I’m pretty sure began in America). I think this is largely a waste of Church resources because I can’t see why the person needs to be employed full time and paid a full salary. In my rural and city church in Scotland we had plenty youth activity which were run admirably by a church member or couple who worked full time outwith this work. Very often money is spurned on socialising in these cases.

    Do you agree?

    • http://headhearthand.org/blog/ David Murray

      Yes, there’s a degree of smoothing when only Scottish cities are compared. I’m not convinced of the Youth Worker/Youth Pastor thing. You’re right, a lot of this can be done by committed couples.

  • SomeGuy

    Interesting! Is this true of all Scottish churches, or just fundamentalist ones? I’ve downloaded audio from Scottish churches which seem to follow the American model. Are these types of churches new to Scotland?

    (I’m racking my brain trying to think of the church I downloaded… it’s been several years and I don’t have their sermons on my hard drive right now. Isn’t it awful when you totally draw a blank on something? May have been these people: http://www.destiny-church.com)

    • http://headhearthand.org/blog/ David Murray

      No, not all Scottish churches. I’m speaking generally. Destiny Church does not sound typically Scottish to me. And its website looks VERY American!

  • oworm

    Im also a Scot(Actually from the same city as David) living in the US now. The last point is a major bone of contention with me. Sometimes I think its more about the preacher than the one being preached about!

    • http://headhearthand.org/blog/ David Murray


  • Alan

    Given that half of America seemingly is Scots Irish, and that half of my country came from Scotland, you’re all welcome over here…Northern Ireland!

    • http://headhearthand.org/blog/ David Murray

      The last thing Northern Ireland needs is more Scots ;)

  • http://www.hiskingdomprophecy.com Angus MacKillop

    I look forward to the next 12 :)
    Relevant and understated for sure…. but accurate from my experiences too.

  • Alistair Bruce

    David, thank you for this helpful list. I have been in the US since 1996, 3 places, 4 churches. Interesting journey!

    One addition to the list that I have observed from day one here is that American Christians have a completely different set of expectations regarding the type of relationship they are going to have with their pastor. In Scotland we expected regular personal contact with the minister, not just on Sunday but at other mid-week meetings etc. We expected the minister to get to know us and our family and critically we expected pastoral care. This pastoral care would not just be in a serious emergency but through life events. I attended churches of up to 500 members in the UK and this was pretty much the case.

    In the US Americans do not expect this degree of relationship in my experience. They expect interaction in emergency but that is about it. The pastor is pretty much a preacher and that is it. Pastor care is only available is pursued.

    I am not saying one model is right and the other wrong but it is a massive difference. Perhaps it is a function of the transient nature of the American urban population that many City churches are revolving door and the spills over the church.

    In my view there is a dearth of pastoral care here compared to the UK. All the talk about member to member pastoral care and leave it to the elders does not fill the gap in for me.

    • http://headhearthand.org/blog/ David Murray

      There are some happy exceptions to your observations, Alistair, but I’m afraid what you say is too often too true.

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  • benjamin meng

    As a Presbyterian in the United States who often listens to Sermons preached in Scotland via the Internet, I would say that in the United States a tendency exists to preach the importance of something, to the exclusion of actually preaching the thing itself which I do not find in any of the men I listen to in Scotland.