Renewing Christian Worship in Pakistan

Knowing who and whose they are helps illiterate Christians pass on their faith to the next generation.

Knowing who and whose they are helps illiterate Christians pass on their faith to the next generation. In the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, only three percent of people are Christian, about one and a half percent are Roman Catholic and about one and a half percent are Protestant or Orthodox. Yet Eric Sarwar, a Presbyterian Church of Pakistan pastor, sees identity and opportunity in religious minority.

“You can imagine in a vast majority of Muslim communities how God has put a church as salt and a light. Somehow we are free to worship and are not largely persecuted. But we are in daily threat from blasphemy laws and extremism. When you are surrounded by such kind of threats, your only hope, only refuge, only stronghold is your God. So church in Pakistan is strong in faith, active in evangelism,” he says.

Given that two-thirds or more of Pakistani Christians cannot read or write, Sarwar works to produce theologically rich resources that people can hear, watch, and sing. He focuses on youth and on church music and worship education for leaders. What he has catalyzed—despite financial challenges—may inspire your congregation to move forward in faith to renew worship.

“In God’s hand”

Eric Sarwar and his wife, Shumaila, are blessed to be from families that value education. They also know what it is to live hand to mouth, crowded into Christian slums.

“There is difference between rural and urban Christians, but overall, common Christians still live in miserable conditions. They have no voice, rights, and power—due to lack of education, leadership, awareness, and resources.

“My parents could hardly afford food and education for five children. I had keen interest in music but there was no way to buy any instrument,” Sarwar says. So he made do.

His maternal grandfather, “a converted Hindu from noble Indian family,” taught him classical ragas (melodies). Sarwar joined and later directed a Roman Catholic church choir and started a choir at the Pentecostal church where his father was an elder. He helped organize music and youth events.

He felt called to full-time ministry and worked in a garment factory, hotel, and school to finish college. Given his financial responsibilities as firstborn son, it was very hard to “leave the family in God’s hand” and go away to Gujranwala Theological Seminary. “It was a painful shock when my brother died one year after my graduation. We were not able to afford expensive treatment of his leukemia,” he says.

Sarwar planted a Presbyterian congregation in a squatter community outside Karachi. His congregation is too poor even to cover his commuting costs. He supports his family by teaching music in a Shiite Muslim girl’s school.

The 4/14 window

Christians need to cooperate to make an impact in Pakistan. Sarwar networks in person, on Facebook and YouTube, and at conferences with Pakistani musicians and Christians around the world. As he wrote in a recent newsletter to supporters, “Most important thing is to be a catalyst for ecumenical gatherings.”

He and other leaders of Pakistani childrens ministries worked for five years to organize a 4/14 window summit held in February 2012. It drew more than 400 pastors, teachers, parents, and child ministry workers. The global 4/14 window movement focuses on reaching kids from ages four to fourteen, when they are most open to spiritual and developmental input.

“We had to produce music resources for Sunday schools because for a gap from birth to 18 years, there were no materials. Children are facing a lot of questions. Everyone is. Muslims ask, ‘Why do you have three gods? Why did you change the Bible? Jesus was not crucified.’ When I was teaching a Christmas song at the Shiite Muslim school, one girl asked, ‘Sir, what is Jesus?’ She didn’t even know to ask who is Jesus,” he says.

The first CD Sarwar and his friends produced, with help from Heart Sounds International, recorded nine Punjabi zaboors. (The word for psalm is also spelled zabor, zabur, and zubor). Sarwar explains, “The Psalms are divine and inspired, a book for all ages, the first worship and hymnbook in our native language. This heritage is ‘the Bible of illiterates’ and the cord of unity in all denominations.”

Music CDs in Punjabi and Urdu teach the creation story, Ten Commandments, New Testament stories, and Lord’s Prayer and help youth deal with persecution. The music varies from traditional flutes, sitars, and hand drums…to modern violins, guitars, and keyboards…to Bollywood, which blends Indian and Western styles. “We are trying our level best to engage kids with these stories of the Bible,” he says.

Children learn the songs at festivals hosted on national holidays and through Sunday schools. A 2012 conference in Karachi drew 1,000 children. They learned how to reach other kids in their slums.

Sarwar’s wife, known as Shumaila Eric, is Montessori-trained. She heads Children Workers Network, which organizes conferences, camps, and seminars to train Sunday school teachers to use action songs, drama, games, and the Godly Play storytelling method. Teachers also host vacation Bible schools and sometimes provide math and language classes in areas where Christians don’t feel safe sending their kids to other neighborhoods for school.

Teaching music and worship

Every church needs good musicians and worship leaders to plan worship that forms and hands on the faith from generation to generation. Sarwar talks often about how “study leads to practice.” That’s why he founded Tehillim School of Church Music and Worship in Karachi and has pushed seminaries to offer courses in church music and worship.

“Tehillim is the Hebrew name for the Book of Psalms. The school is for Christians who have a calling but don’t know where to go to get training,” he explains. The school began in 2003 in rented rooms with four instruments—a keyboard, tabla (pair of hand drums), harmonium (hand-pumped portable organ), and guitar—that Sarwar bought on installment. He invited his professional friends to volunteer as teachers.

In 2007 a Presbyterian Church of Ireland youth project helped buy land. By 2009 the school had pieced together funds to build a cement block shell. Raising walls took three more years. Meanwhile, two nights a week, 50-plus youth and adults met, eager to sit on the floor and learn how to sing or play an instrument. They also study Western music literacy, liturgical music and worship, and biblical understanding of liturgical music. Sarwar also won permission to teach music to some of the 1,000 children (ages 10 to 18) and 6,500 adults held in Karachi’s central jail.

Annual psalm festivals help students showcase what they learn. On his own time, Sarwar wrote the first two Urdu language books on music and worship and translated others. He works with seminaries to organize ecumenical worship conferences. In 2012, he joyfully reported in a newsletter that Gujranwala Theological Seminary, founded in 1877, had agreed to start a worship and music department. “Although it’s my responsibility to raise funds,” he added, trusting God for things not yet seen.

Featured Links

Learn More

Learn more about Tehillim School of Church Music and Worship and connect with TSCM on Facebook. Listen to Punjabi psalms online. Watch videos made during a Punjabi Psalm Festival, album launch, and Sunday school program.

Here’s a brief primer on how Westerners can appreciate Indian classical music. Instruments often used in Punjabi music include the dholak (double-headed hand drum), harmonium (hand-pumped portable organ), and tabla (pair of hand drums).

Eric Sarwar arranges book launching ceremonies in major cities in Pakistan so that writers, scholars, poets, singers, musicians, publishers, and church leaders can review and comment on them together. Besides writing his own Urdu language books on church music and worship, Sarwar chose these books to translate into Urdu:

Start a Discussion

Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your staff, worship, youth ministry, or church education meeting. These questions will help people identify with fellow believers in Pakistan.

  • Discuss the challenges your congregation faces in handing on Christian faith from one generation to the next?
  • Tehillim trains Christians from ages 9 to 69 to lead music and worship at church, at Christian events, and for CD and video projects. What intergenerational training opportunities does your church offer?
  • Eric Sarwar depends far more on networks and relationships than on money to nurture worship renewal. What connections might you build on or plug into to create a collaborative worship renewal project?

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