What is Serbia’s religious context?
Serbia is nominally Orthodox, but it has never truly embraced the gospel. On a global level, the Orthodox Church does not have the gospel, nor the correct theology of salvation, nor the correct source of authority in God’s word. Even if all the Orthodox Church did have these things, observers would notice that the Orthodox in Serbia practice their religion superficially, with many rites and customs.
However, it is difficult to point out these things and evangelise the Serbian Orthodox because they have been taught that religion equals nation. Consequently, leaving behind the religion in which you were born actually means renouncing your own nation, heritage, and family.
What can we do to bring the gospel to these people?
Bearing in mind that the gospel is the power for salvation of everyone who believes, it is our task to (at the very least) share the gospel with our acquaintances, friends, and family in a simple way. We take care to mention several points. We tell people that they are sinful and that they have rejected the God who loved them and wanted to have a relationship with them. We say that there is a path to repentance and reconciliation with God. We say that this path is Jesus Christ, who came to earth even though he is God, and lived a perfect life without a single sin. We tell them how he was crucified on the cross and offered as the perfect sacrifice for sins of everyone who believes in him. We say that God raised up Jesus by the power of his Spirit from the dead into an imperishable, glorified body, showing that his sacrifice was accepted and that death was defeated, and that the same thing also awaits all people who surrender their lives to him.
Nevertheless, what are the specific features that it may be wise to adopt a special attitude towards in Serbia?
If we turn to the Bible and look at Paul’s example from Acts 17:16-33, we see that he met people where they were at geographically – in the synagogue and then the Aeropagus. But Paul also met people where they were at spiritually. He didn’t hesitate to be direct as he explained to the Athenians why their idol worship was wrong and pointed them to the one true God. He used simple language and concepts which they could understand. Of course, our gospel explanations need thought, but in our desire to be wise and considerate, we shouldn’t hesitate to be lovingly direct.
We also see Paul’s indignation when he saw that the city was full of idols, but that did not turn him away from people. Rather, it motivated him even more to tell them about the living God that they do not properly respect and know. This is also the case with Orthodox Christians – they do not know and do not respect God. Therefore, it is important to turn their eyes from worshipping and bowing to saints and icons and point them simply to Christ. It’s important to underline to Orthodox Christians that Christ is the only one who should be exalted and therefore the only to whom we should bow.
How can we apply this in practice?
Lately, I have been thinking about how to move towards Orthodox Christians. I wonder whether occasions when Orthodox Christians gather might be an ideal place for turning their attention from their idols to the one triune living God. Maybe we should start going to their patron saint’s day celebrations in order to talk about Christ, instead of fearing that going there will make it seem like we are participating in an unbiblical practice with them. Many Orthodox Christians consider non-attendance a disrespect. Of course, we want to be wise in how we do this. We have the opportunity to show them love and respect by attending and to mention in conversation how a specific saint might point beyond themselves to Jesus. For instance, if the family we are visiting celebrates St John, we have the natural opportunity to explain to them who Saint John the Baptist was. We can talk about what he did, what he preached and mention that John, above all, wanted to point everyone to Christ. When John, who was extremely popular at the time, started losing disciples to Jesus, John’s well-known response was: ‘[Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease.’ (John 3:30) That is the role of every saint – of Christians living today and of those who have gone before us – to exalt the only one who is worthy of glory with their life and their ministry.
Secondly, Orthodox theology is based on salvation by works. That theology has a strong influence on Serbian society, including people who are not religious – it is almost universally accepted that a person reconciles with God through good deeds. These people are completely unfamiliar with mercy and grace. Therefore, as Christians, we need to show mercy and live lives of forgiveness so that people can see the gospel in action. When we share the gospel, we must particularly underline that the Christian life is a life of freedom from the burden of legalism. Christians are sinful people who have been forgiven and called to a new life of obedience to God. It is important that we have a high standard of holiness and that we are gentle and show love towards others. We try to model that we are no better than Orthodox Christians in our good deeds before God because all have sinned. Yet we know the freedom of Christ’s love and forgiveness and try to live that out for others to see.
These are a few cultural adjustments that we can use to bring the gospel closer to the Orthodox, but our wisdom is limited. It is our task to open our mouths and share the gospel whenever the opportunity arises, in a way that our listeners will understand. However, we are only sowers and God is the one who makes the seed grow. We cannot change anyone’s heart, no matter how wise our words are or how strategic our evangelism is. Conversion is a gift from God. This is why, as we think and plan, we must never lose sight of prayer. We pray to God for the souls of our unsaved neighbours. And we trust his plan, which may be different from our wishes.
I am immensely grateful to God for delivering me of from the religion of legalism, for choosing me and bringing me into communion with him. It is my prayer that many other people will experience this, to God’s glory!
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Riste Micev is the leader of Project Timothy in Novi Sad, Serbia. Project Timothy's main work involves training church leaders for preaching, evangelism and discipleship.
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