An Indian Global Research Institute (GRI) scholar at the Center for Missiological Research (CMR) of Fuller Theological Seminary asked three questions around the dinner table a few years ago: “Are there any Pakistani Christian theological contributions in any field (i.e., Biblical, Systematic, Practical, Missional)? Can any of us name the leading Pakistani Christian theologians from the past or present? Is there any development of a discipline of Pakistani Christian Theology?”

To answer the questions, I approached social media and asked a few friends to respond. Two names surfaced in response to the second question: Dr. Michael Nazir-Ali and Dr. Charles Amjad Ali, Christian scholars from Pakistan. However, there is a great dearth of scholarship regarding Pakistani Christian theology, and our theological institutions still need to produce theology in Pakistan. Another friend commented, “Not an awful lot has been produced which could fall under ‘Pakistani Theology’ per se.” We gloomily agreed that “the intellectual contribution of Pakistani Christians to the global church is, sadly, very little, even negligible” (Kamil 2016).

The above discussion and responses are pretty honest and admit that Pakistan’s theological thinking is in crisis and needs a new pedagogical perspective with cultural sensitivity. This discussion also inspired further investigation: Why have we failed to produce Christian scholarship from Pakistan? What best practices need to adapt? Moreover, seminaries must ask what does not work and what hope they have. What does theological education have to say about contextualizing in Pakistan? How do we equip thriving leaders for the community of worship in our Muslim context? What would be fruitful new additions to the theological curricula? Who will teach this new material?

Being a musician, minister, and missiologist for the past twenty-five years has given me a personal interest in the theological education of future church leaders. In particular, I have observed that, often, pastors and parishioners misunderstand doxology (worship) and music. How can we think about doxological studies (worship and music) from the vantage of theological education? Is there a liturgical and doxological way to read and teach the scriptures in seminary?

Responding to all these questions is beyond the scope of this article, of course. Here I offer a prolegomenon outlining some areas where theology, doxology, and ethnomusicology can be mutually informative. This article presents the case for a biblical and cultural understanding of doxology (worship and music) as a theological method for Pakistan’s theological education curriculum. It unfolds in three ways. The first section diagnoses the dearth of theological thinking in Pakistan. The second section discusses some aspects of doxological data that would benefit from biblical-theological exploration and reflection. Finally, section three proposes doxology (worship and music) as a theological method. The author offers a model that may be used in other parts of the evangelical theological community, after critical reflection and assessment in light of Scripture and local realities.

Three-Self Formula and Theological Thinking

To understand the lack of critical and contextual theological thinking in Pakistan, we need to begin by diagnosing the dearth.

For over 160 years, starting in 1817, a pair of mission executives, the Englishman Henry Venn (from the Anglican Church Missionary Society) and the American Rufus Anderson (from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions), promoted the idea that the indigenous church in colonial mission fields would have three defining characteristics, which compose the “three-self formula”: It would be self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating (Shenk 1983). Where did this idea come from, and why was it implemented in mission fields?

Mission historians have found that two realities of the late-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries gave birth to this three-self formula: first, the Anglican Church’s crumbling wealth, and second, colonial powers’ weakness. Together, these crises led mission societies to hand over church work to local leaders. As one scholar writes, “The financial crisis showed Venn the need to create a ‘native church’ responsible for its pastoral duties and independent of foreign support for its spiritual health and financial security” (Dorn 1982). The weakness of colonial powers furthered the drive to implement the three-self formula, as Western missionaries withdrew and transferred mission enterprises to local leadership.

In the wake of colonialism, did the three-self formula succeed? Have local churches achieved self-sufficiency? An Egyptian missiologist states, “After a century, the three-self formula of mission theorists were partly applied and not as hoped. The church became self-governing, partially self-propagating, but never self-supporting and self -self-theologizing” (Wahba 2016, 85). Indeed, we see that, globally, the three self-formula failed (Reese 2007).

Furthermore, the formula’s original proponents did not envision the day when churches planted by Western missionaries would become self-theologizing. They forgot to add self-theologizing as a fourth defining characteristic. Yet the Global South has become the new center for theologizing today (Newman 2016).

The Perils and Pathos of the Three-Self Formula in Pakistan

As Western missionaries were zealous to fulfil the Great Commission, they established theological institutions. In South Asia, theological education traces its roots to 1818, when William Carey established Serampore College in India. Pakistan’s history of theological education began with Gujranwala Theological Seminary (GTS), opened by Presbyterians in 1877. Other theological educational institutions in Pakistan include the Salvation Army Training College (1913, Lahore); Pakistan Adventist Seminary and College (1920, Sheikhupura); Full Gospel Assemblies Theological Seminaries (1967, Lahore); Philadelphia Pentecostal Bible College (1960, Karachi); Universal Theological College; Open Theological Seminary (1971, Gujranwala); Zarephath Bible Seminary (1982, Rawalpindi); St. Thomas Theological College (1987, Karachi); AOG Bible College (Lahore and Quetta); the National Catholic Institute of Theology (1997, Karachi); Tehillim School of Church Music & Worship (2003, Karachi); and the Lahore School of Theology (2010).

When Pakistan came into being as a nation on August 14, 1947, following the partition of India after two hundred years of British rule, many Western missionaries withdrew in order to implement the three-self formula. Suddenly, impoverished local leaders found themselves holding power and privilege. Corruption and conflict engulfed the church’s leadership, and theological institutions became centres for church politicking. To take just one example, the “Battle of Pasrur” (David S. 2017) between Presbyterian leaders that began in 1967 is still causing problems. So the ideals of the three-self formula actually resulted in an opposite situation in Pakistan. Tragically, the Western missionary vacuum created a religious elite, a court case mentality, and lasting factions in the church.

Because of this situation, Pakistani theological education is deeply flawed. Although Pakistan boasts so many opportunities for Christian theological training, that education is substandard – as Paul James Burgess, a former Scottish professor at GTS, has pointed out. Unlike African and Middle Eastern Christianities, Pakistan’s Church has not linked itself to historical Christianity. Instead, it has relied on Western ecclesial connections, curricula, and finances to train local leaders. As a result, Pakistani theological education has five significant challenges: insufficient resources, less qualified and incompetent faculty, lack of research and development, gender inequality, and localization (Dewan 2022). Every year, institutions produce myriads of pastors who have no skills in analytical critical thinking.

Moreover, people in privileged positions are scared of educated individuals, so no one has attempted to reform theological education in Pakistan. Despite over a century of history, only two Pakistani institutions – Open Theological Seminary and Zarephath Bible Seminary – are accredited by ATA. Even if Pakistani institutions were to pursue accreditation, they would need trained faculty, which is a major gap. Educators lament that Pakistan’s many institutions actually have a great need “for more suitably qualified staff, particularly those with higher academic qualifications who can write courses and train others” (Carey 2012). Furthermore, “dead white men” still dominate curricula, which were designed by foreign missionaries equipped within the Western education system (González 2018; Pratt 2012; Dale 2008). At the most basic level, materials emphasize reading and writing, which is quite tricky for oral-based learners, as many Pakistanis are (Chrispal 2019). Thus, the crisis of Pakistani theological education is not that seminaries lack students, or that students lack seminaries, but that the many seminaries and students lack culturally aware faculty and curricula.

To address this critical situation, what direction does theological education take in Pakistan? Some might ask, “Could you not do what we have done in the West?” (Tennent 2012). Pakistani theological systems must address Tennent’s call to train Pakistani Church leaders doxologically. A doxological approach could reinvigorate the Pakistani Church intellectually, theologically, and spiritually.


What is ethno-doxology? Ethno-doxology is a compound adapted from the Greek words “ethno” (from ethne: people, race, or culture) and “doxo” (glory or praise). It is a theological and anthropological framework that guides all cultures to worship God using their local artistic expressions (Schrag and Harris, 2014). Ethno-doxology is an emerging discipline that explores culturally appropriate ways to worship. Ethno-doxologists define this practice as “a liturgical expression of praise to God” (Harris 2021; Agnew 2021). It affirms that each culture’s local context has gifts that glorify God.

Although this concept is taking shape among theologians, local doxology is still a missing piece of the missional puzzle. In Pakistan, it is absent from curricula and Christian culture. Globally, various institutions offer courses on doxology in theological education, among them the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics (Dallas), Payap University (Thailand), Fuller Seminary, Liberty University, and Tehillim School of Church Music & Worship (Pakistan). However, no seminary in Pakistan has a worship and music studies program.

In this situation, I would like to argue for ethno-doxology from and for my own context.

The Old and New Testaments provide the biblical bases for the doxological approach. To represent the doxological dimension of God’s salvific plan, theologians have drawn connections between the Garden of Eden temple (Genesis 2-3) and God’s throne room in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 7:9-10; 21:22–27) (Beale 2004). Prophetic literature (Isaiah 6:3; Ezekiel 40-48) and the Psalms provide thick bases for doxological engagements. Indeed, the five subsections of the Psalter each end with doxologies (Psalms 41:13, 72:19-20, 89:52, and 106:48). Many psalms urge people to “Bless the LORD!” and are followed by an “Amen.” The five psalms that close the Psalter each begin and end with “Hallelujah” or “Praise the LORD”; Psalm 150 serves as a doxology for the entire collection (Man, 2023).

In the New Testament, Luke and Acts both present doxological narratives. They portray encounters with the religious culture of Second Temple Judaism and the religious practices of the Greco-Roman world. Luke’s narrative begins with characters attached to the temple and its rituals (Luke 1:25; Luke 1:46). Mary’s “magnificat” (Luke 1:14-68), Zachariah’s prayer (Luke 2:19), and Simeon’s and Anna’s praises over the child Jesus (Luke 2:25, 2:37-38) serve as liturgical poetry. As a twelve-year-old, Jesus spent time in the temple (Luke 2:41-52). Jesus tells a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector going to the temple to pray (Luke 18:9-14). Indeed, Luke tells his readers three times that Jesus was teaching in the temple daily. So concerned is Jesus for the temple that he drives out those who were selling things in it (Luke 19:45-46). Thus, Luke portrays Christ’s incarnation as God’s glory coming to the temple and to the worshipping community.
Luke’s narrative of Christ’s ascension (Luke 24:50-53) echoes five features of the Jewish Tamid service: (1) the raising of the hands, (2) the blessing, (3) the worship prostration, (4) the praising of God, and (5) the prayer for the joy of heart, as the disciples return to Jerusalem (Twelftree 2020; Penner 2010). The very last words of the Gospel depict Christ’s followers continually in the temple “praising God” (24:53). They have seen Jesus offering liturgical ministry in the heavenly sanctuary with his hands raised, just like the high priest (Psalm 22:22; Hebrews 2:12). Motivated by this vision, they offer this praise to God (Luke 24:52-53). After this, in Acts, Luke portrays the followers of Jesus as deeply involved in the three focal points of traditional Jewish worship: the temple, the synagogue, and the home. By shaping his narrative with reference to Jewish worship, Luke reminds us that the physical temple transformed into the spiritual church, the body of Christ. People worship God out of gratitude for the risen Jesus, who is also the object of their worship.

As Acts continues these doxological encounters and explores what proper worship might look like in various places, its answers to questions about worship are as challenging to our worship now as they were to the early believers who read Acts. The doxological content of Acts allows us to discover how the heavenly model of worship confronts false worship in diverse localities.

If mission historians claim that worship and witness are the two primary purposes of a church (Sunquist 2013; King 2019), then, to apply this theologizing to Pakistan, how might worship help communicate the Christian message in a Muslim context? Pakistan has a fifty-eight percent literacy rate, but its culture is still heavily oral overall; ninety-seven percent of Pakistanis are Muslim. Therefore, the Pakistani Church exists in a Muslim-majority context that deeply values oral means of communication, especially music. Ethnomusicology can help the Church to enter the untapped territory of religious music in a Muslim context.

Muslim canonical music and non-canonical music in Pakistan reflect a rich shared tradition with Christianity. Poetry and sacred texts of both faiths are rooted in hymns and oral performance. This rich shared musical heritage provides a space in which to educate future leaders of both faiths about one another. Christians can engage their Muslim neighbours with cultural sensitivity through music.

Muslim Music Culture in Pakistan

Missiologists have noted that, among many other reasons, tenuous Muslim-Christian engagements can partly be blamed on a misunderstanding of Muslim music culture (Sarwar 2023; King 2019). Muslim music is divided into canonical and non-canonical (Al-faruqi 1984). During doctoral field research in Pakistan, I explored these two classifications of Pakistani religious music (Sarwar, 2023). The chart below communicates a summary of my findings, with a few local distinctions. I then describe these genres in more detail.

Canonical: Qur’anic Qir’at and the Call of Prayer

Islamic art is voice-centric. Writing/calligraphy in Islamic culture is only decorative, but voice has a sacramental status. The life of the Prophet and early Islamic resources show that at the very beginning of the Hijrah (migration) to Medina, the Prophet initiated two vocal arts that are perhaps the epitome of the Islamic faith: Qur’anic qir’at and the Adhan, or call to prayer. Qur’anic recitation describes lehn (recitation), tartil (continuation), and taranum (melodic) as the proper vocal techniques with Arabic consonants and chords (Sarwar 2023).

Islamic historians have argued that interactions with Christian, Jewish, and Bedouin neighbours prompted pre-Islamic Arabs to borrow elements from those other cultures as they built their own poetic genres. Al-Jahaz goes so far as to claim that the written Qur’an is actually oral communication that drew partly from Jewish Christian liturgy (Neuwirth 2012). More specifically, the first revelation began with the word Iqra, “recite” (cf., qiryana-Syriac for Liturgy; Quran 96:1). The melodic structure of the Adhan may have been initiated by the enslaved Ethiopian, Bilal the African. Even the text of the first half of the Adhan, the call to prayer, is verbatim from the Shema, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is, the Lord is one” ( The qirat and the call to prayer are influenced by Syriac and Coptic liturgical chants without any instrumental accompaniment (Sarwar 2023; Shiloah 1995,39; Padwick 1996; Michon 1991). This canonical oral tradition may pave a path for missional engagement.


Now we turn from canonical religious music in Pakistan to non-canonical music, to vocal art in social spaces. Pakistan’s three primary streams of music centre around the Sunni milad, Shi’a majlis, and Sufi Sama. Genres of non-canonical religious music include naat, hamd, manqabat, marsiya, and rajzia (Sarwar, 2023). In addition, Muslims have optional hymns meant to enhance important occasions, such as celebrations on Ramadan nights, Muhammad’s birthday (mawlid), death anniversaries (the birthdays or death anniversaries of Sufi imams), weddings, and funerals (Shiloah 1995, 39; Michon 1991, 485). Music is a medium of emotional, spiritual, and relational language in the Pakistani context.

The Arabic recitation of the Qur’an, the oral performance of cantillation, is another important musical aspect of Muslim practice. Muslim Sufis have spread Islam through music, dance, and singing. In Pakistan, Muslim religious artists, particularly reciter/singers, hold a special rank with distinct titles such as qari (Qur’an reciter), muezzin (prayer caller), naat-khwan (reciter of praise to the Prophet), qawwal (Sufi devotional singer), and azadaar (mourner of Husain).

Furthermore, in the 21st century, globalization has brought more media freedom to Pakistan. Music circulates widely online. Religious singers are bringing tunes from film and folk music into religious genres. And the film industry is featuring famous quawwali tunes. On the conservative front, extremists are employing poetry and music to hail the Talibanization of Pakistan. And at the same time, progressives are using music to call for political change, as people protest government policies with polemic songs and animated musical videos.

Theo-Musicology: From Theological Neglect to Theological Method

The brief survey above demonstrates that music in Pakistan is multifaceted – Muslim and Christian, canonical and non-canonical, sacred and secular, conservative and progressive. Nevertheless, in theological and missiological spheres, “music’s emotional [and missional] power is probably its single-most controversial feature” (Begbie and Guthrie 2011, 323). Reisacher observes the negligence of the arts in Christian witness and appreciates the presence of “multisensory communications in interfaith relations” (Reisacher 2016, 65). She refers to qur’anic chanting and the art of the human voice as part of Islamic tradition.

Thus, the Church in Pakistan needs to overcome this reluctance toward music. It needs to draw from its contextual roots, to use music to be a reliable and joyful witness to our Islamic context. Jacques Attali wrote, “Music is more than an object of study: it is a way of perceiving the world” (quoted in Begbie 2000, 4). Attali’s profound statement prompts us to ask, “What would it mean to theologize not only about music but through music?” The study of theology needs to go hand in hand with the study of music to “shape Christian truth” (Begbie and Guthrie 2011, Intro). So how might sung theology serve as a vehicle for Christian witness? Having presented the critical role of music in a Muslim oral context, we now turn to the doxological importance of theological thinking.

Theological Education as a Doxological Dialogue in

Doxology and music can open doors for Christian witnesses in Pakistan. Whether the oral context is qur’anic recitation or Sufi qawwali, Qaumi Tarana (patriotic anthems) or political rallies, faith or film or folk songs (Milli Naghmey), music offers a route for identity for Christians in Pakistan.

Christians and Muslims share the same heritage of music in Pakistan. For instance, in 2019, a Christian gospel singer was invited to lead a patriotic song at the celebration of National Minority Day at the president’s house in Islamabad (

While music can offer a way for Christians and Muslims to collaborate in the non-canonical and social space, the existential question for theological institutions in Pakistan is how to decolonize their curricula in ways that allow them to engage their Muslim neighbours (Tennent 2012; Tayob 2018; Brown 2017). Missiologists emphasize that local Christian leaders’ lack of training in Arabic and Islamic religion, history, and jurisprudence has affected Christians’ ability to communicate the Christian message to Muslims (Wahba, 2016). In Pakistan, we must decolonize Western literalist and cognitive approaches and find new strategies that reflect our oral and emotive Muslim-majority context. Understanding Muslim music culture can allow us to connect with these oral, affective traditions. We need a new generation of worship leaders who are so well-grounded in contextual theology that the praise of Christ pours from their mouths in ways that are gracious and true.

Conclusion: Music as a Theological Method

On August 16, 2023, a massive mob attacked and burned 21 churches and more than 50 houses of poor Christians in Jaranwala, Pakistan. They were motivated by a blasphemy accusation (Aqeel and Asaph, 2023). In solidarity with the victims, the worship community in Pakistan, the U.K., and the U.S. protested by singing, in Punjabi, “Dukha De Wailay Yahowa Teri Sunay Dua” (“May the Lord answer you when you are in distress,” Psalm 20:1) ( Moderate Muslims and Christians in Karachi organized another public protest, during which they sang Psalm 46 in Punjabi. Despite losing their church building and houses, the victimized Presbyterian congregation worshiped on open ground with joyful hearts and shouted, “O Zor Mera Hai” (“O Lord, My Strength,” Psalm 18:1). Their voices were the jubilant roar of the Punjabi church in Pakistan. The most surprising expression of Muslim-Christian solidarity came from a group of Shia Muslim lamenters (Marsiya and Noha Khwan), who visited the church in Chakwaal and publicly chanted, “O Sanctity of Mary, how you dishonoured publicly.” Their singing was a profound example of the shared heritage of chanting in public places. Thus, persecution led not only to public Christian witness in Pakistan but also to shared Muslim-Christian expressions of mourning. Psalms and laments raised a cry to the heavenly throne room.

This paper has proposed that theology and doxology walk hand in hand and that teaching doxology is crucial to developing contextual theology in Pakistan. The Christian Church can employ its shared musical heritage as a way to engage with its Muslim neighbours. While music emotionally expresses our most profound feelings, it is also essential to Christian education in Pakistan. Music must be brought out of negligence and negativity, so this paper invites fellow pilgrims to taste the transcendent with transformed hearts through the emotional and relational language of music. We need to understand theology through the lens of music and provide a suitable space for music in theological conversation, which will, in turn, enrich our missiology. In sum, theological seminaries must rediscover music’s doxological and missiological power and adapt music as a theological method for participating in the missio Dei in the twenty-first century. Music is probably not a universal language; however, without musical sound, God would be silent in the Indian subcontinent.


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Eric Sarwar

Eric Sarwar holds a PhD from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, U.S. Currently, Dr. Sarwar is writing a “History of the Presbyterian Church in Pakistan” at the Overseas Ministries Centre, Princeton Theological Seminary, U.S. He is the Founding President of the Tehillim School of Church Music & Worship in Pakistan. His email address is