How to Share the Gospel among the Eastern European Orthodox

What many in the West know about Eastern Orthodoxy comes from the 2002 comedy film My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding. It’s the story of Ian, an irreligious American, who marries Toula, a girl from a Greek Orthodox family. Ian happily undergoes a Greek Orthodox baptism and wedding to please the girl he loves. He seems to find quaint the rituals—all performed in Greek—that are so important to Toula’s family.

That’s how Orthodoxy often appears to outsiders–quaint and unintelligible. But Orthodoxy is neither of those characteristics to the people of Eastern Europe; it is the dominant worldview there. And tragically, despite its claim to be the true Church of Jesus Christ, its practices may actually hinder people from coming to know him.

History, Culture, and Worldview

In the centuries after Jesus’s apostles, Christianity expanded across the Roman Empire. When a ruler embraced Christianity, he declared his realm and people to be Christian. Over time the church also became more institutional and powerful. The two most influential centers of Christianity were Rome in the West and Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) in the East.

Cultural, political, and theological differences through the centuries led to the Great Schism in AD 1054. Western and Eastern Christianity remain separated today, with Roman Catholicism dominant in the West and Orthodoxy dominant in the East. Each considers itself to be the true and universal (catholic or ecumenical) church. Orthodoxy did not experience the Protestant Reformation and views evangelicals as neo-Protestants—basically, disaffected Catholics.

In the Orthodox worldview, religious affiliation is deeply connected to national identity. Ask an Orthodox person about his religious background, and he will typically respond with national identity: “I’m Greek [Russian, Romanian, etc.]; I’m Orthodox.” The Orthodox value their religious tradition and link it to preserving their cultural heritage and values. They see little difference between evangelicals and cults and regard evangelicals as foreign, heretical sects made up of discontented Catholics, intent on deceiving the faithful.


For the Orthodox, faith is church-focused. Evangelicals might typically say, “If you are in right relationship with God, you should also be in right relationship with a local church.” The Orthodox would say, “If you are in right relationship with the Church, you are in right relationship with God.” This is maintained through faith defined as relying on the Church’s teachings and participating in its liturgy and sacraments. The Orthodox do not see salvation as an experience at a point in time but rather a lifelong process involving obedience and sacraments, followed by time in purgatory before heaven.

Orthodoxy literally means “right glory/praise.” The Orthodox are more oriented to liturgy than theology, and they don’t typically think in precise theological categories. Eastern Europeans tend to be more superstitious and mystical than Westerners. They attach spiritual meaning to experiences like dreams and see pleasant things as divine favor and painful things as punishment.

Assumptive Faith

All of this means the typical Orthodox person assumes he is Christian already. It also means he has spent little time defining what he actually believes and much time using icons, rote prayers, and other religious acts to ward off evil and bring blessing.

Elements of Orthodox liturgy emphasize God’s transcendence or greatness but fail to reflect clearly his nearness and love. Orthodox people thus tend to see God as distant and unknowable. They rarely have any assurance of their salvation. They see that as God’s decision, not something we can know. 

Orthodox people today are caught between two cultural currents: their ancient, transcendent, and pervasive Orthodox worldview, and the torrent of influence (good and bad) coming from the West. Unfortunately, they sometimes link the gospel to all the West offers—freedom, prosperity, questioning of authority, and declining morality and religion. The relationship with God offered in the gospel does appeal to some Orthodox people, however.

Engaging the Orthodox

Orthodox individuals, as with all peoples, have a distinct worldview, and engaging them with the gospel requires understanding a few things about that worldview. The following is a short list of helpful practices when doing so, as well as a few things to avoid.

  • Pray. Only our almighty, gracious God can bring people from spiritual death to life.
  • Engage them. You will find Orthodox people who love the Lord and the gospel. But many show little evidence that they know Christ personally.
  • Avoid using the word “Christian.” The Orthodox assume they are Christian already.
  • Avoid using printed literature besides the Bible. Cults use these heavily, and the Orthodox already see little difference between evangelicals and cults.
  • Turn your foreign-ness into a bridge. Regarding religious background, you can say, “I’m not Orthodox. I’m not Russian, Greek, etc.” Then explain the differences with emphasis on the authority of Scripture, faith in Christ, and the gospel.
  • Be prepared to share your own journey of faith. 
  • Be aware that the Orthodox understand the term “repent” to mean “leave the Orthodox Church.” Clarify that it means primarily to “turn from self to Christ,” and affirm that your primary interest is to help people come to know Christ. Leave the “church” question for later.
  • Avoid dissecting Orthodox theology point by point. Most Orthodox people have spent little time defining their personal beliefs.
  • Get them into God’s Word. The Orthodox revere the Bible but typically don’t know much about what it teaches. Inductive Bible studies that challenge the seeker to interact directly with Scripture are effective. Here are some Scriptures that relate well to the Orthodox context:
    • Jesus’s parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9–14)
      The Orthodox typically value the things the Pharisee did, yet Jesus commended the attitude of the tax collector.
    • Colossians
      Its emphasis on the sufficiency of Christ addresses the dependence on works, liturgy, and sacraments.
    • First John
      The emphasis on “knowing” in 1 John addresses the lack of assurance that Orthodox people typically feel.
    • Romans 6:23
      Discuss either in a one-time conversation or a series of studies on each main word in the verse. Use other Scriptures to explain and sketch the “bridge” gospel illustration.
  • Avoid debating non-essentials. Stick to the gospel.