SPRING HILL — Whether he's performing with the Gaither Vocal Band, telling jokes on concert stages throughout the world or writing songs, Mark Lowry does it with a purpose.
"When it's all said and done. I don't want to be remembered for anything but the cross," Lowry said in a recent interview. "What I want it to say on my tombstone is 'He believed.' "
Lowry, 53, will share his talents and his faith with a local audience at 7 p.m. Oct. 23 when he gives a solo concert at First United Methodist Church of Spring Hill.
The title for the concert, "Unplugged and Unplanned," fits Lowry's style.
"I know what the first song is going to be, and I know what the last song is going be, but it's an ADHD rabbit trail getting to it," Lowry said with a laugh.
His concerts also have a relaxed atmosphere.
"In my concerts, there's like a back-porch feel," he said. "It's like sitting on the back porch and I'm talking with a friend. But I'm the only one talking."
"Planning as you go" is a concert style Lowry learned from gospel music legend Bill Gaither during the many years he performed with the Gaithers and participated in their Homecoming DVDs.
"The first half of Bill's program is pretty much planned," Lowry explained. "In the second half when we're all up there together, we are beautifully flying by the seat of our pants — and it is fun!"
One hat fits all of Lowry's endeavors.
"My favorite hat would be storyteller," he said. "You can do that through a song, through comedy, through writing books. The story is really where the messages lie with little nuggets throughout. And you are making people laugh along the way."
While he has been singing publicly and recording albums and videos since age 11, becoming a performer was not a part of Lowry's original career plan. At Liberty College in Virginia in the late 1970s, he took classes with an eye toward a degree in business.
"I was on my bed in the dorm, and the Lord said, 'Why don't you do what I want you to do?' " Lowry said. "It was just that clear in my heart. I was stunned. He'd never spoken to me like that."
In fact, God had never spoken to him at all, Lowry said.
"I said, 'Well, Lord, I'll do exactly what you want me to do even if it means going into music,' " Lowry related. "I didn't want to do music. I did that as a child, and I thought then you grow up and get a job and be responsible. So I said (to God), 'I'll do that, but you've never called me.' He said, 'Well, I'm calling.' "
Over three decades later, Lowry has written two comedy books, performed on numerous CDs and has recorded seven comedy and music videos, four of which have gone gold and two of which have attained platinum status. Mark Lowry on Broadway debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard music video chart in 2001 and stayed there for five weeks.
A video released in 2005, Mark Lowry Goes to Hollywood, is Lowry's favorite.
"I love what I was able to say at the very end of the video — that God is truly, absolutely, unconditionally out of his ever-loving mind in love with us," he said.
The newest DVD release in January shares the name of his concerts: Mark Lowry: Unplugged and Unplanned.
Lowry is perhaps best known for penning the lyrics to the song Mary, Did You Know?, which has been recorded by more than 30 artists. He will probably end his concert with that song,
Though it became popular after composer Buddy Greene set the words to music in 1991, Lowry actually wrote the words in 1984.
"My pastor called and asked me if I'd write the 'Living Christmas Tree' program for the church, and I was too young to know that I couldn't, so I said sure," Lowry said. "I took classic Christmas songs, and I wrote monologues for people to say between them. And I wrote this thing about Mary."
Lowry drew on conversations he'd had with his mother while growing up where she pointed out that Mary's silence in not trying to prevent her son's crucifixion was the greatest testimony that the Gospel story is true.
"If anybody knew if Jesus was born of a virgin, Mary knew," Lowry said. "We've got to take that by faith. She didn't. She'd seen the miracles."
In his song, and in a monologue preceding it, Lowry asked what it was like to be Jesus' mother.
"I just thought if I could sit down and have a cup of coffee with Mary, what would I ask her?" he said. "I wondered if she realized that those little fingers that were wrapped around hers were the same hands that had scooped out oceans and formed rivers and those lips were the same lips that had spoken worlds into existence.
"I wondered if she realized that those feet were the same feet that had walked on gold and been worshipped by angels. And I wondered if she realized that compressed and compact in that little 8-pound bundle was the fullness of the Godhead. I was just trying to ask everything I could think of."
Lowry still asks thoughtful questions and hopes to convey the concept of God's grace to his audiences, including the one in Spring Hill.
"I believe in the same Jesus I was told about as a child, but I found out he's a lot more wonderful than they ever told me," he said. "I think if we could really get a picture of this father/child relationship we have with God through humor or stories or songs, we'd realize that he is really in control and he really can be trusted."