Alumni

Not All Jokes Aside: Mark Lowry (’80) brings lessons and laughs in storied career

By Ted Allen, November 15, 2021

Mark Lowry’s greatest spiritual gift may be the gift of gab.

Known for his humor and harmony, Lowry said he has used comedy as a ministry to reach more people with the Gospel message than he has through his baritone ballads with the Gaither Vocal Band.

Mark Lowry performs at a concert in 1984.

“Much, much, much more,” Lowry said. “I’m an average singer. I think I’ve gotten better with age, but I never was that great a singer. But I knew I could talk, and in 1977, the Lord spoke to me — and I’m Baptist, so He doesn’t do that often,” he joked.

God told him to go into the music industry, which he did upon graduating from Liberty University in 1980 with a degree in youth ministry. 

“I surrendered to that (calling) and within a week, I was booked up through the end of the year,” Lowry said. “I started just traveling and singing in churches.”

Fellow student Roy Morgan offered to schedule and promote Lowry’s concerts after graduation.

“His job was mopping floors in his dorm, and I didn’t know him from Adam’s housecat, but he took a Baptist Bible Fellowship directory and booked me in 43 concerts in 41 days, and I was off and running,” Lowry said. 

Morgan scheduled Lowry when he wasn’t traveling with the Gaither Vocal Band (1988-2001 and 2009-13). 

“I had eight years of that, driving myself with my Bose PA system in the back of my car and my polyester suits on a bar across the back seat, where underneath the seat were cassettes and albums,” Lowry said.

He said his flair for comedy sprang out of a desire to avoid awkward silences during his concerts.

“I had to do something while the tracks were changing, right?” Lowry said. “A few-second silence can seem like eternity when people are staring at you.”

When he broke that silence with humor, it warmed the crowd to the Gospel message he shared through his songs and testimonies. 

“They were such an easy audience because Baptists back then, Independent Baptists, especially, they wouldn’t clap, because that’s giving glory to men,” Lowry said. “So when you’d finish a song, you’d hear an ‘Amen,’ maybe, but no one would clap. They’d never shout. They wouldn’t raise their hands back then, or people would think they’re Pentecostal. But they would laugh, and that’s how I knew they were listening, and that’s all I cared about.

Mark Lowry sings with his mother, Beverly Lowry, at Thomas Road Baptist Church in 1981.

“I wanted to convince them that a Man rose from the dead, and if they’re not listening, then how am I going to do that? Hearing the audience laugh … I know they’re hanging on every word, and I’m fixin’ to lay them at the foot of the cross and they’re not going to see it coming, and I love that. That is my favorite thing to do.” 

Lowry said his comedic means for communicating the Gospel came from a God with a sense of humor, since laughter is both good for the soul and as effective as medicine for those who are hurting. It’s a universal language, even transcending denominations.

“Every good and perfect gift comes from Him, and humor — oh my Lord, during this time of the plague (COVID-19) and all the other stuff we’ve been going through — humor really helps,” Lowry said.

Growing up in a Baptist church in Texas, Lowry recalls a time he responded to the preacher’s invitation to receive Solomonic wisdom.

“I said, ‘Well, I could use some of that,’ so I’d go to the altar and I’d ask the Lord for wisdom, and then I remembered before I got up, I asked for two more things. I said, ‘I’d like an interesting life.’ And come to find out later that’s the Chinese curse.”

God has answered that prayer over and over, providing Lowry a wealth of comedic material for his concerts.

“I don’t consider myself a comedian,” he said. “I’ve been labeled that and that’s fine, but I’m a storyteller. That’s the reason it takes so long for me to come up with new material, because I have to go through a dysfunctional childhood, a van wreck, tumor surgeries, a tornado on a houseboat, I mean all of these horrible events. Breaking my leg on a motorcycle, that’s one of the funniest stories I’ve ever told. But it was a tragedy, so I don’t ask the Lord for anything except, ‘Can I have some new material that
doesn’t hurt?’”

Having Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) — he describes himself as a “poster boy for hyperactivity” in one of his songs — gives his comedy a spontaneity and freshness that often surprises himself. 

“Sometimes, I’m hearing this stuff, literally for the first time,” Lowry said, attributing anything good he blurts out to the Holy Spirit’s inspiration. “I’ve been on stage before and stuff will come out of me, and I know it’s got to be the Lord because I’m learning from it myself. It is unbelievable how weird that is.”

Mark Lowry starred as Harold Hill in Liberty’s first-ever musical, “The Music Man,” in 1980.

The other prayer he offered up to God at the altar that day was that he would do something that would outlive him.

The answer to that request has most clearly come to fruition through penning the lyrics to the Christmas classic, “Mary, Did You Know?”

The idea behind the song actually started with a request from Liberty’s founder, Dr. Jerry Falwell, who asked Lowry to set the program for “A Living Christmas Tree,” the annual Christmas program at Thomas Road Baptist Church, where Falwell served as pastor.

He began with secular Christmas songs in the first half and spiritual Christmas songs in the second half and wrote monologues to go between them.

“One of the monologues that I wrote out was this: ‘I wonder if Mary realized the power and the authority and the majesty she cradled in her arms that first Christmas?’” Lowry said. “I wonder if she realized those little fingers that were wrapped around hers were the same fingers that had scooped out the oceans and formed the rivers, and those feet were the same feet that had walked on streets of gold and then brushed up to angels?”

“Then I said, ‘Did she realize the little boy she delivered that first Christmas one day on a cross would deliver her?’ I’ll never forget the chills that came over me when I wrote that, because I had not heard that before — deliver and deliver. And then, ‘When she kissed a little baby, she was kissing the face of God?’”

Falwell would requote parts of that monologue before giving the invitation every performance night.

Lowry polished off the lyrics by 1984 and carried them around until 1991, when, on a Gaither Vocal Band weekend bus tour, he gave them to fellow Southern Gospel singer Buddy Greene to put to music. Greene called him back the following Monday and sang it to Lowry for the first time over the phone.

It has since been recorded by more than 30 artists, including Donnie Osmond, Natalie Cole, Kenny Rogers, Zach Williams, and Pentatonix.

Mark Lowry (middle) performs a skit in the “Living Christmas Tree” at TRBC in 1981.

“There’s just so many versions, it’s amazing,” Lowry said. “Michael English recorded it first, then Kathy Mattea, then Kathleen Battle, so it went from contemporary Christian to country to opera, and now there’s even a
disco version.”

He is glad to know that he will leave something behind that will have an impact for eternity, but he admitted his songwriting skills stalled after the song gained fame.

“Honestly, ‘Mary, Did You Know?’ did take the wind out of my sails as far as writing songs, because I really set out to write songs just to see if I could. Then once I realized I could, I just didn’t care. … That’s the way I’ve always done things. I’ll do something and do it, do it, do it until I figure it out, and then I’m onto the next thing.”

Lowry has released several albums since then, including his latest, “Sit Up Straight and Sing,” an acoustic hymns project with Kevin Williams on guitar. He has authored a number of books, including “Out of Control” and “Live Long, Die Laughing,” which are compilations of some of his monologues and stories.

Lowry performed in the Liberty University School of Music’s Homecoming Concert on Oct. 8, along with Liberty alumni artists Meredith Andrews (’05), Jody McBrayer from Avalon, and former Gaither Vocal Band member Guy Penrod (’85). (See story on Page 17.) He often returns to Lynchburg to visit his father, Charles, but Homecoming, held in conjunction with Liberty’s 50th Anniversary celebration, was the first time he had made a public appearance on campus in many years.

Lowry appreciates the spiritual foundation he received at Liberty, which he used as a springboard to launch his performing career. Liberty is where he made friendships that have lasted a lifetime and where he developed a passion for storytelling and communicating the Gospel. 

As a special guest for Homecoming in 1993, Mark Lowry performed pieces from his Comic Belief Tour.

“It did prepare me,” he said. “Really, I look at Liberty as a great part of the journey. Those were some of the most enjoyable, fun, exciting five years of my life. I’ve had many, many exciting years since then, but boy, those were great years. If you’ve missed college, you’ve missed a lot.”

Now, over 40 years later, Lowry has continued to gain a wider audience through social media, including his website, MarkLowry.com. He recently eclipsed 1 million followers on Facebook, where he regularly hosts “Just Whenever” live sessions, with fans tuning in to sing hymns with him and enjoy his charismatic personality.

Whether virtually or in person, Lowry especially enjoys deep spiritual conversation with fellow believers and prayer.

“If somebody I meet knows more about Jesus than I do, I’ve got questions,” said Lowry. “I’m a freak, a fraud, and a failure on my best days compared to Jesus. (But) I’m curious. I think there’s nothing more interesting than the fact that if there is a God, then we can know Him. That’s got to be the most fascinating thing on Earth. And the more I learn about Him, the less frightened I am of Him and the more in love I become with Him.” 

He said his mom, longtime psychology professor Beverly Lowry (’84) who died in 2013, was the source of many of his humorous and heartwarming stories, and she also inspired his singing career. Falwell called her the “Loretta Lynn of gospel music” and she was a featured soloist on his “Old Time Gospel Hour” for several years.

She also instructed Lowry in the Word of God growing up and encouraged him in every step of his spiritual journey.

“My momma used to quote that Scripture, ‘The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom,’” Lowry said. “I say, ‘Well it may be the beginning, but it’s not the ending.’ The ending is when you fall madly in love with the One who is already madly in love with you, and that’s the Father and Jesus and the Holy Spirit. He proved that at Calvary, and He didn’t stop there. He got up, thank God. What does the Scripture say? ‘That if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe that God raised Him from the dead.’ That’s so important, and that’s been the hub of my ministry career.”  

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