A JOURNEY DOWN
Mark grew up in Georgia, where he became a Christian early in life at age 11. He attended Mercer University where he played college basketball and in 1992 received a B.A. in Communications, which also included an internship with CNN Sports for a short while. Although he had learned some piano as a child, it was during his senior year in college that he picked up the guitar. “My friend Chris and I used to travel around helping out a good friend of his (Paul) from Nashville, TN, who was leading retreats, camps and giving concerts all over the southeastern U.S.” In 1991 Paul, was asked to open up for Steven Curtis Chapman on New Years Eve at the First Baptist Church of Orlando. "What a treat that was,” says Mark, “experiencing someone ministering grace and truth to so many through music." Getting to meet Chapman and see him live with his acoustic guitar was inspiring, and upon returning to school he began praying for God to help him use music as a ministry.
Not long after that prayer, he was walking through the school cafeteria and noticed someone in the office strumming on a 12 string guitar. Mark walked in and started up a conversation with a soon to be new friend — a friend who was going to be instrumental in starting him down the path as a musician for the Lord. Scott Long and Mark would became fast friends his last year at college. “Scott was a true blessing to me in those years and I thank God for him. He starting teaching me some old 70’s singer/songwriter tunes like Dan Fogelberg & the Eagles, and I was introducing him to various Christian artists and the songs I wanted to play.” This friendship of music, along with various Christian influences, helped Scott to eventually become a Christian. In the summer of 1992, Mark moved to south Georgia where he served on staff as the youth intern at a local church. He then moved to Dublin, GA where he served as youth pastor for the First Baptist Church.
(An original Dan Fogelberg guitar!)
ALL SIGNS POINT TO BIRMINGHAM...
Eventually God called him to full-time vocational ministry and in 1994 he enrolled at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, AL.
“My time at Beeson was life changing, not only because of the theology & Biblical studies, but just being around some choice servants of the Lord. Spending time with men like Dr. Lewis Drummond or Calvin Miller was inspiring and helped me see what a lifetime of servant-hood & excellence in ministry is all about.”
In the summer of 1996, Mark had the opportunity to travel with Dr. Lewis Drummond to Ukraine. There he took some courses in a local seminary, preached in local churches in the evenings, and used his guitar to encourage believers in the Lord.
When Mark returned to home that summer, invitations began to pick up, and that fall he began to pursue those opportunities. “I began meeting staff members from various churches and the invitations began to come to lead worship at a retreat or give a concert for an event.”
In the meantime, Mark continued to press forward with his schoolwork, and in the spring of 1998 he graduated with a Master of Divinity degree. “I was so thankful to the Lord for finishing my degree from Beeson. I firmly believe that having a good voice or being a skillful player should never overshadow my knowledge of God’s Word & the ability to teach it clearly. The music is a creative way of communicating the Word of God,” says Mark. “Over the years God has brought me to a place where I am as comfortable teaching a Bible Study or preaching from the pulpit as when I have the guitar in my hands. As one of my preaching professors used to tell me, ‘Mark, God has given you a spiritual double barreled shotgun.” Asked about these two passions he remarks, “King David is a great example to follow in this. He was a man of the word and a man of music — a man of prophetic words and a man of poetry. The ministry of the Word and the ministry of praise don’t necessarily need to be separated. In the best of scenarios, the one feeds and complements the other."
It was in his last year of studies that Mark began to make some new friends that would be instrumental in his continued calling. One of these new friends was Brent Lamb. An established songwriter (Household of Faith & It’s My Turn Now) and veteran Nashville recording artist, Brent agreed to produce Mark’s first CD entitled “Held Deep Inside”. “The title of the CD comes from a line in the song We Belong To Him,” says Mark. “The verse says ‘held deep inside of…a Father’s tender love.’ What a great message God has entrusted to us. This is a message for the rich & the poor, as well as the young & the old. I hope we can sing this song in our churches for a long time."
In addition to producing the project, Brent was also interested in some of the songs Mark had written. This led to Mark becoming a songwriter for a publishing company and writers group Brent was developing called the “The PlayGround Writer’s Group”. “I had always wanted to be a writer but never dreamed then that a someone like Brent would be interested in my songs.” Soon after the CD was finished, Mark released his first single, “So Good”, which began receiving play on local Christian radio.
HYMNS & SPIRITUAL SONGS...
Although Mark writes much of his own material, he also enjoys singing classic hymns. “For a concert or worship service I’ll use my own material but I also work in other great writers.” Having grown up in a small church, he developed a love and respect for the classic hymns. “I enjoy taking old hymns & arranging them on the acoustic guitar, hammer dulcimer, or a fresh piano arrangement. Jesus teaches in the Scriptures that we are to worship in Spirit & truth. Well, no doubt those writers such as Fanny Crosby, Paul Gerhardt, Charles Wesley & Isaac Watts were filled with the Spirit of God & the hymns they wrote certainly contain truth that never changes. No matter what the age group, those hymns have a great & timeless message to which each generation needs to be reminded & exposed.”
Even though Mark has traveled through the years as part of his ministry, his heart remains with the local church. Mark served in a full-time capacity at two churches in the Birmingham area. “Serving in the local church gives me a foundation from which to go out & a community to which I can come back. We were made for the friendships community brings.”
Not only does Mark work to improve his musicianship, but he also routinely invests in his theological education. In the summer of 2001, he traveled to Oxford, England to study Biblical spirituality with Eugene Peterson (translator of The Message). He also had the chance to experience the Highlands of Scotland while visiting a pastor and friend on the West Coast. It was in that trip that God planted a small seed of interest in Scotland within Mark’s heart — one that was to grow far beyond what he imagined at the time.
In the fall of 2002, Mark would once again return to Scotland to visit some friends from his Beeson days. It was there he met a very special woman from Scotland, Dawn Buchanan, who became Mark’s wife. The two met at a post-graduate Christian luncheon in Aberdeen and then spent time together on a Christian retreat in the Cairngorm Mountains. “Who could guess the grand purposes of God? Dawn is a woman that exceeds all I ever thought possible in a wife and life-long partner in the ministry. To know that she is for me, no matter what, gives me a tremendous amount of confidence in ministry.”
In 2003, the Lord introduced Mark to an excellent musician named Kyle Bryant, who produced Mark’s next project called “Confessions of Grace”. Stylistically this new project reflected a growing attraction for Mark to the realm of Celtic folk music. It was during this time that Mark began to explore using the hammer dulcimer in his music.
Mark remembers, “I had a good friend who made them as a hobby. I bought one from him and could not stop playing it. It has such a mass appeal to all ages and can be used on contemporary songs as well as old hymns.”
HEATHER COVERED HILLS...
As his 2nd CD project drew to a close in May of 2003, Mark was off again. The seed planted two years earlier was beginning to grow, as he received an invitation to live in Highlands of Scotland for the summer working as an associate pastor. Mark’s preaching skills were strengthened and grown as every week he preached to several congregations in the Northwest Highlands. “I would have to say that has been one of the highlights of my journey with Christ. To live in Scotland, preaching the Scriptures and to be exposed to the music & culture that is so close to my heart…well, it doesn’t get much better than that for me.”
It did, however, get much better than that. Mark was also able to court his soon to be wife while living on the West Coast. Dawn was able to live there for much of the summer, as the two spent the summer getting to know each other better while seeking God’s will for their future. By the end of 2003, Mark was sure that Dawn was to be his wife — so he proposed Christmas Night in front of one of Scotland’s most famous castles.
Just a few days later, he was approached by a church in Scotland about coming to minister as a full-time staff member. In the meantime, as Mark and Dawn were making wedding plans and praying about where God would place them, his home church in Georgia approached him about working for six months as the interim youth minister. As God’s plan would have it, Mark was to begin work in July, so it was a perfect fit. God had confirmed His leading to them both by providing exactly what they needed. Mark and Dawn were married in the summer of 2004, and after spending their honeymoon in Ireland, returned to begin ministering and living in Scotland.
During this time, Mark provided pulpit supply and worship leading to churches throughout Scotland. He was also involved in the Aberdeen City Mission through his close friendship with the director. One of the highlights of his ministry with the Mission was leading worship for the City Wide Praise Night. All the compassion ministries for the Northeast of Scotland came together for one night of unified prayer, praise and testimony. “Nothing like that had really ever happened before.” says Mark. “Most compassion ministries never have a chance to meet other folk like themselves who are down in the trenches meeting the needs of the poor & forgotten. But that night became a catalyst for an annual night of worship for each ministry of compassion. To be a part of something like that at the beginning was really special.”
RETURN TO AMERICA...
In 2007, Mark and Dawn sensed God leading them back to America. “My heart will always be in Scotland. And who knows, in God’s perfect time and plan we could return. But for now I just cherish my time of growth in the Lord and thank God for the wonderful memories of ministry I have there, as well as the great friends I have to visit for years to come.”
The couple settled in North Carolina where Mark served on staff as a worship pastor for five years. “Working with the band I had for those five years and watching the congregation grow in their passion for authentically Biblical worship, was such a blessing. Those guys helped make some excellent music for the church to use in worship.
In July of 2008, Mark teamed up in the studio with long time friend Gil Gillis to record his third album entitled "Revelation Road." After cutting the guitar, mandolin, hammer dulcimer & vocal tracks in Georgia, Mark traveled once again to Nashville, TN to complete the project. With the help of some great session studio musicians (including Steve Brewster on drums, Matt Pierson on bass, Tammy Rogers of the Steel Drivers on fiddle & Skip Cleavinger on Uilleann pipes & whistles, Mark was able to make the album he had always wanted to make.
"These songs were very special to me because so many of them were written while living in Scotland." Mark adds, "Although many of the songs are of a Celtic origin and influence musically, the song I wrote for my father is the one I'm most proud of." Dad's Song tells the life story of Mark's father & compares his adoption by his dad to the love of God as a Father.
BACK TO SCHOOL...
It was during this time that Mark enrolled at Erskine Seminary to pursue a Doctor of Ministry degree in Christian worship, primarily under the direction of Dr. Hughes Oliphant Old.
“Studying under his direction was life changing for me in regards to my understanding of worship.” With classes on such as the Psalms As Christian Prayer, The Beginnings of Protestant Hymnody and Worship in the Ancient Church, Mark was able to study with a world-class scholar subjects that were of great interest & passion from the perspective of a pastor and worship leader. In May of 2014, Mark completed the degree and graduated. “Although it didn’t feel like it at the time, I’m sure I’ll look back on those days of some of the best of my life. Dawn and I were going through some difficult times in that season, but I just kept walking toward what God was calling me towards. He saw me through to the end and completed the work He began in me."
In January of 2011, Mark was invited by the his good friend Dr. Cliff Morris to teach a "Theology of Worship" course to thirty students at the International Bible College of Zambia.
Having begun working on the Doctor of Ministry degree in 2010, it was a perfect opportunity to move towards his final dissertation project. "That was a powerful, life-changing experience for me." says Mark. "I went to teach them about Christian worship, but through their passion & hunger for the Lord, they taught me far more about worship & the Kingdom of God." Mark continues to teach this course annually as time & travel permit.
In late 2012, Mark met a new friend name Michael Hiskey. The two were attending a hammer dulcimer concert and soon afterwards struck up a friendship. That friendship has since grown into a songwriting partnership & an acoustic guitar/hammer dulcimer duo.
“The first time I listened to his CD, I knew that he was pretty special.” says Mark. "He is a great songwriter and instrumentalist, with a knack of just knowing what a song needs to make it stand out.” Michael plays primarily hammer dulcimer in the duo’s live sets, but is just as strong and at home on vocals & acoustic guitar. Worship services, coffee houses & concerts are regular in their ministry together.
SUMMER IN SCOTLAND...
In the summer of 2014, Mark & Dawn embarked upon a six week visit back to Scotland. During this time, Mark had the opportunity to preach and sing every weekend. While staying on the West Coast in the Highlands, he met some new friends, the Mairs family, who happened to be on holiday at the same time. “After one of the services was preaching for, I struck up a conversation with Alan about the guitar I had used during the children’s message.” That conversation led to a jam session later that week. “We had supper and starting jamming. I could not believe the great bluegrass sound that was coming from their music — in the highlands of Scotland of all places! I didn’t leave until midnight, I think! I drove home feeling like I had known them for years.” Alan Mairs invited Mark to come to Glasgow and share his ministry with their church. While there, Mark worked up a set, with Alan on the fiddle, Louise on upright bass, and Hazel on vocals & flute. “Music is a wonderful way to connect and make friends around the world,” says Mark. The musical connection was instant, but deeper than that was their bond in Christ.
Another great highlight of the trip was leading worship at a house church north of Aberdeen. “I had met pastor Stuart the year before at an evening of praise I was leading. We started talking about the ministry and the state of the church in Scotland. He was so encouraging to me. He said if you are ever back this way please come to our church and minister to us.” That evening turned out to be a special night of worship and ministry for Mark and his father-in-law, John. “John is a very fine musician and songwriter, so every opportunity I get I love to play and sing with him. That was a special night of worship, of making some wonderful new friends, and enjoying time with family. God was good, indeed.” Through the providence of God, Mark met someone at the church that evening who worked for Waves Radio, an FM station covering the Northeast of Scotland. Mark’s music and preaching can be heard sometimes on Waves Radio Sunday evenings on the Christian Gospel Show hosted by Ken Cowe.
REVELATION ROAD GOES ON...
Mark continues to lead worship, perform concerts and preach the Word of God wherever he can. “The size of the venue really doesn’t matter,” says Mark. “The goal is to advance the Kingdom of God — this is all that will last. When we choose to follow Jesus, then not only do we take up the cross but we also pick up a basin & towel.” He explains, “That is what the guitar, and preaching of the Word have become…a basin & a towel. Servant-hood is about being obedient. Jesus was obedient to the point of death…even death on a cross. We may not be called to literally die on a cross, however, there are certain points of obedience to which we are called. For me, it is being willing to step out in faith in various seasons of my life all for the sake of Christ & His kingdom.”
Whether he is studying at Oxford, preaching in Scotland, teaching in Zambia, or leading worship at a local church in America, Mark continues to try and follow the call of Jesus on his own revelation road…wherever it may lead him.