Being Serb is being Orthodox.

The main religious influence in the life of people in Serbia is the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC). The SOC doesn’t look with sympathy on any other expressions of Christianity and doesn’t encourage people to explore other streams. There is a close relationship between the religious and national identity. Being a Serb means to be an Orthodox believer; to be an Orthodox believer is to be a Serb. People find pride in their family roots and national myths, and loyalty to the Orthodox tradition is very strong.

This has a great negative influence on planting and building churches in Serbia. Most of us (Protestant Christians) have been in one way or another accused by our family, friends or neighbours of treason – for not being faithful to Orthodox traditions and our national roots, for being an embarrassment to our families, or for betraying our culture and our nation.

Because of this strong national identity, and connection to a group in which religion is the sign of belonging, the concept of a personal relationship with God doesn’t exist. Salvation is considered possible only through the church and sacraments of the church. You are Christian because you are Serb and you are part of the Orthodox Church.

Intolerance and xenophobia

In Serbia, if you claim that you are not an Orthodox believer and that you are part or another expression of Christianity, it means that you are part of some kind of sect. The word sect has very negative connotations; it is insulting and demeaning. You are in the same basket as Satanists and Eastern religions. In the eyes of ordinary Serbs there is no difference.

This relationship between national identify and religion, combined with a lack of knowledge of other belief systems (under communism religion was first forbidden, then marginalised), a lack of dialogue, and fear of everything different results in Serbian society being very intolerant.

All marginal groups have felt this in one way or another. Evangelical is understood as being Protestant and Protestant is seen as Western or American, which in the light of recent history brings bitterness, intolerance and xenophobia in people’s minds. Doing any activities under the umbrella of the Protestant church in Serbian society brings doubts concerning our motives, and leads to accusations that we are paid by the West as part of a conspiracy.

Fast moving West and slow East.

For centuries, Serbian and Balkan culture has been under Byzantine and Ottoman influence. It has missed out on the fast development and modernity that have taken place in Western Europe, resulting in the Balkan mentality being very laid back, more fate orientated and less able to take responsibility.

People in the Balkans are not always open to change and do not accept new ideas easily. New ideas are often followed with doubts and suspicion, in contrast to keeping to tradition and living in the past, which are generally more acceptable to people. This is perhaps one of the reasons why evangelical churches have not taken up opportunities to share the gospel. Keeping the status quo is much more culturally acceptable than bringing any change.

That inherited mind-set and slow adaption to change is an obstacle at every level of building the church. It affects personal growth and taking responsibility amongst believers, and often results in churches not engaging with the current culture and embracing new methods and practices

Lack of responsibility and initiative.

50 years of communism have caused some damage in Serbian culture. In a system in which you and your work are always the responsibility of somebody above you, and where you are just a pawn, a cog in a machine, you don’t take responsibility and you are definitely not encouraged to take initiative. That, together with Greek and Eastern fatalism, has resulted in a mentality that unhealthily puts everything in the hands of God, often leading to laziness, no real sense of responsibility and a feeling of powerlessness.

In church that is translated into no real feeling of personal responsibility towards the church or church life. On a larger scale, the church does not see itself as an instrument of change in society, but more as a vessel in which to survive until Christ comes.

Economic obstacles

Since 1990, the economy in Serbia and most of the Balkans has been in decline. People are losing jobs and young people are finding it much harder to find jobs.

Under communism it was always considered to be somebody else’s responsibility to provide you with a job and you never worked for yourself. The Western way of thinking is that your knowledge, your education and your skills are the tools that you trade in order to receive an income, but this is not the case in Eastern Europe. Entrepreneurship is still a new concept, and people mostly wait to find a job instead of creating one. This, of course, has a negative impact on the economy, which in turn affects building churches. Evangelical Christians are among the economically underprivileged, and tithing and giving in churches is low. Another reason for the low level of giving is that the church in Serbia is mostly made up of first generation Christians and new converts, who are still learning about this whole area.

Building self-supporting churches needs to be in the DNA of the church, as well as teaching on giving and generosity. The church needs to have a desire and plan to help change the economic climate in the local community by initiating projects that provide jobs for people, and helping people to start their own businesses. This depends on many factors but it is possible.

Until then, partnership with Western churches is very much needed, with financial support to release workers, but without creating an unhealthy mentality of dependence. This is a huge obstacle, but again, it is not impossible. And it will be beautiful one day to see quality, financially self-sustaining Eastern European churches who are able to support themselves, release workers, train and send missionaries, and plant churches. It is a beautiful dream and it will be good to partner with others until we see it become a reality.