Bob Morrison: 52 Years of Making Music and Doing Ministry

bob and annette at carnegie (2)

After 52 years of serving God through the local church, the final 32 of those at First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Bob Morrison, one of most respected and influential Ministers of Music in Baptist life, is retiring in July 2019.

To put his tenure in perspective, one study indicates that the average pastor tenure is 3.6 years and the average associate pastor tenure is 2.9 years. I suspect that the average Minister of Music tenure is slightly longer but not by much. When compared to almost any benchmark, Morrison’s tenure and effectiveness are remarkable.

Because both Morrison and I are from the same region of Alabama, I was familiar with his name and reputation, but didn’t have the opportunity to meet him until I moved to Florida. Little did I know that in 2005 I would be called to serve as the senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Pensacola and would have the privilege of serving alongside Bob for 12 years. In my 41 years of ministry, Bob would become the Minister of Music I served with for the longest period of time, and likewise, I would become the pastor Bob served with for the longest time frame during the course of his ministry.

Through the years I have been blessed to serve with many great staff members. However, Bob Morrison is one of the hardest working ministers I have ever encountered. In the words of Robert Frost, Bob’s vocation is his avocation.

Nix Daniel, a long-time church member, was chair of the Personnel Committee that recommended Morrison as Minister of Music at First Baptist Pensacola in 1987. Daniel remembers the call process clearly. “While Bob was relatively young, he had many years of experience in smaller churches and had developed a reputation as a very good minister of music with the potential to be a great one. We could look at what Bob had done but I truly felt that God led us to call him. He caused us to see some good reasons but ultimately we trusted what we felt was His guidance.”

As Morrison prepares for retirement, I asked Daniel why Morrison has enjoyed both effectiveness and longevity at First Baptist. Daniel summarized, “My father once told me that you will find people in life who do well because they are extraordinarily talented and others who do well because they have an exceptional work ethic. The people who are truly great at what they do, however, combine those traits. They are extraordinarily talented and have an exceptional work ethic. Bob is extremely talented, has an unparalleled work ethic and a clear calling from God to ministry. That is why he has been a great minister of music for so many years in my opinion.”

After serving alongside Bob Morrison, I can easily affirm that he is a music minister that majors in ministry. Some ministers of music are siloed and are only interested in music. At First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Morrison inherited a great music program and helped to grow it into one of the most outstanding church music programs in the country. But as gifted as Bob is in bringing out the best in choir and orchestra members through music, he excels even more in his care for all in the greater church family.

Morrison’s renowned program at First Baptist is grounded in a graded choir program led by a capable team of volunteers. In addition to his conducting of the Sanctuary Choir and Orchestra, Bob provided hands-on leadership for the Chapel Choir (high school), Surrender (high school auditioned ensemble), and the Singing Seniors (senior adults).

During his 32 years in Pensacola, Bob’s choirs have toured around the country and internationally including multiple trips to sing at St. Mark’s Cathedral (Venice), St. Paul’s Cathedral (London), Notre Dame Cathedral (Paris), St. Michael’s Cathedral (Vienna), St. Giles Cathedral (Edinburgh), First Baptist Church of Rome, and St. Peter’s Basilica (Rome).

In the fall of 2018, Bob received an invitation to be the MidAmerica Productions’ Guest Conductor Series’ “featured musician of the week” at Carnegie Hall. To put this honor in perspective, among the renowned conductors who have led MidAmerica Production concerts are John Rutter, Sherill Milnes, Lukas Foss, and Helmuth Rilling. More than 700 conductors have conducted on MidAmerica’s series in New York, sharing the stage with 1100 solo artists from the world’s greatest opera companies and concert stages, and 3500 choral ensembles from the U.S. and abroad.

Even though the invitation to conduct at Carnegie is extended to the director specifically, Bob would only agree to accept the invitation if he could bring his own choir. Morrison contends that the credit for his invitation belongs to his choir members. “We would not have been noticed at all without the reputation they have generated,” he said.

In April of this year,186 members of the Sanctuary Choir and Orchestra (including alumni and friends) presented a “Carnegie in Pensacola Concert” as a local preview of their upcoming presentation in New York City. On the following weekend, Bob took 160 choir members and friends to historic Carnegie Hall where they presented “The Peaceable Kingdom” by Randall Thompson, an unforgettable experience that served as a pinnacle moment of Bob’s 52 years.

Bob’s demeanor and approach to ministry are appreciated by a diverse group of friends and colleagues. Those of us who served as Bob’s pastor have a firsthand knowledge of Bob’s influence. Bill Shiell, the president at Northern Seminary in Chicago, was elected as Morrison’s first Chapel Choir president when Morrison arrived in Pensacola and later served as Morrison’s music associate. Through the years, Shiell has looked to Morrison as a mentor and confirms that many of the core values that shaped his ministry as a pastor and now an administrator, he learned from Morrison. Shiell reminisces that, “When I served as an interim minister of music, I imitated his style and followed his lead. Even though God’s call didn’t lead me to music ministry, I’m still imitating Bob’s professionalism, vision, and organization. His professionalism and his public and private character have molded me into becoming who I am today.”

Randel Everett, executive director of the Wilberforce Initiative and a former pastor at First Baptist Church of Pensacola, says “Bob and Annette have both made a tremendous Kingdom impact on countless number of lives including mine and our family. It was an honor and privilege to be able to serve with both of them during our time at First Baptist Church. During my tenure I accompanied them on the trip to Sweden and Russia with the choir and orchestra, a trip that is still one of my fondest ministry experiences. I look forward to seeing how God will use Bob and Annette during this next chapter of their lives.”

The current pastor at First Baptist Pensacola, Dave Snyder, has only served alongside Morrison for one year, but he already has profound gratitude for Morrison’s commitment to God and the local church. Snyder says, “Bob Morrison has a genuine love for the church. He maintains a consistent flow of integrity, passion, structure, intentionality, and humility in his work. People around him feel important to the mission of the church through music. Bob is a team player and demonstrates remarkable flexibility in working with his pastor and the staff team.”

Music ministers around the country have been inspired by Bob’s work ethic and his creativity. Billy Orton, Minister of Music at the First Baptist Church in Huntsville, treasures his friendship with Bob Morrison. Orton says, “Blessed with talent, personality, wisdom, and patience, Bob Morrison also possesses that indispensable quality found in truly great people–the willingness to work very hard. Bob has succeeded in myriad ways in the challenging field of church music ministry because of all these significant attributes which God effectively mixed with the love for people so evident in his spirit. Bob’s gifts and heart have touched countless lives. I am grateful for his enduring friendship and support as a colleague in music ministry.”

Across his many years in ministry, Bob has become friends with many well-known composers including Joseph Martin, Heather Sorenson, Pepper Choplin, Mary McDonald, Benjamin Harland, and Bob Burroughs. Harlan says, “Bob Morrison sets the gold standard for music ministry. From the time I first met Bob, I have treasured his friendship, his shared experiences, his ministry insights, his counsel and encouragement, his dedication to excellence, and the warm, compassionate heart that sets apart those who are musicians only, to those who use music to love people in Jesus’ name. It is one of life’s great blessings to have Bob as a friend.”

When I asked Bob Burroughs why composers have such appreciation for Bob Morrison, Burroughs replied, “Bob Morrison is the consummate Church Musician. He has a gentle spirit, a love for his people, a witness for Jesus. Bob Morrison is one of my heroes!” Burroughs composed a musical piece as a tribute to Bob on the occasion of his retirement. Burroughs said, “I wanted my anthem to send him out with joy – hence the title: Go Out With Joy! (Isaiah 55:11-12).”

Most of Bob Morrison’s choirs have included a few exceptional musicians, but most of the members have had little or no music training. However, Bob has a gift for bringing out the best in others. Throughout his ministry he has insisted that when individuals bring their best gifts, especially their voices, as an offering to the Lord, the blending of those voices produce a sound that far exceeds the talent level of any one individual. That is when “choir happens.”

And we can expect that during his retirement years, Morrison will continue to seize every opportunity that comes his way to bring out the best in others and to advance the ministry of the local church, but this time as a faithful participant.

Well done, Bob Morrison! Well done!

You might also want to read “Faithful to God’s Call: An Interview with Bob Morrison” at

(Barry Howard is the retired Senior Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Pensacola. He now serves as a leadership coach, congregational consultant, and columnist with the Center for Healthy Churches.)

Faithful to God’s Call: An Interview with Bob Morrison

bob m in rehearsal
(photo by Diane Allen)

After 52 years of serving the local church, the final 32 plus as Minister of Music at the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Bob Morrison is retiring.  Bob, and his wife Annette (who has also served as his administrative assistant) are transitioning to the next chapter, which will likely be a more relaxed season of life involving grandchildren, travel, and continued involvement with their First Baptist Church family.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of interviewing Bob Morrison regarding his remarkable tenure and his thoughts about retirement. Here is what he had to say:

Barry: Let’s go back to the beginning. How and when did you confirm your Christian faith which has been so foundational to your life and ministry?

Bob: I was 9 years old, and it happened on a Thursday night decision service at Shocco Springs’ RA Camp. For a couple of years, I had been attending this summer week-long camp, and for a few years after my decision I continued to attend until I was too old. The climactic point in the week was always a Thursday night decision service. I remember the night I accepted Christ, I couldn’t wait to call my parents and share the good news with them. I was baptized at FBC, Lineville, Alabama, the next Sunday. 

Barry: When did you sense the call to music ministry?

Bob: I felt called to actual music ministry while I was serving as BSU Choir director at Jacksonville State University in 1970, but I had made the decision to go into music in some fashion as a 2nd grader in Lineville Elementary School in 1958. My music teacher had selected me to “conduct” the little rhythm band for our spring program, which consisted of me pointing to the appropriate rhythm instrument when it was their turn to play…so, yes, pretty much like I do to our church orchestra now! At any rate, that experience captured me forever, and from that day forward I knew I wanted to do music with my life; I never wavered from that decision.

When I entered JSU as a freshman, I was on track to be a band director, having served as drum major for our high school band my junior and senior years. Through the BSU Choir experience, though, I felt God redirecting me to be in church music. Again, a decision I’ve never second guessed…even though I know that being a band director would possibly have put me more on the cutting edge of evangelism.

While I definitely had a God-called experience back in 1970, answering the call has been a dynamic activity for me, wherein I need to recommit to that call periodically. One of my life verses has been Philippians 3:12b: We press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of us. Staying in the ministry throughout my whole life definitely has been predicated on the truth of this exercise…taking hold of that for which you were taken hold.

Barry: You also started in music ministry at a young age, even before finishing college or seminary. What are the some of the advantages and disadvantages of starting ministry at a younger age and working your way through school?

Bob: Always active in my churches’ choir programs wherever my family lived through my growing up years, I was asked to serve as the “minister of music” during Youth Sunday when I was 15 at the First Baptist Church of Saks (Anniston, AL); I loved it! I remember my minister of music at the time trying to convince me it wasn’t necessary to hold extra rehearsals leading up to Youth Sunday, something I guess we disagreed on.

At any rate, a year later when we lost our minister of music, the church asked if I would direct the choir during the interim, which I gladly accepted. During that time, we did a full program for Easter, a John Peterson cantata as I recall. It went well, and the church asked if I would take the position permanently. Though it was only part-time, the experience I gained leading the adult choir, instrumental ensemble, youth choir and children’s choirs at FBC, Saks, for the next four years was invaluable! So…the experience gained at such a young age affected my life’s work in a major way and became the foundation on which everything else would be built.

Another big advantage of starting young would have to be how it helped determine who I married. I was already doing what I would be doing the rest of my life, so any prospective wife would already know what she’d be getting in to. God perfectly put me with someone that was active in our choir at church, and in my band at school. Annette has been a co-laborer from day one, and in my mind, is just as called as I am.

Barry: I recall that you completed your seminary degree at Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth. Many individuals bypass seminary altogether and go straight on to a church staff. How important is a seminary degree for a Minister of Music, and how have you benefited from your seminary training?

Bob: In my experience, seminary was a natural progression to preparing me to be a church musician. I can’t imagine doing this work without the knowledge I gained at seminary. There were some of my classmates who were only attending seminary because they felt it would afford them a bigger church ultimately, and who weren’t really buying in to what was being taught.

I was just the opposite. I hung on every word. There simply was not a subject I took that I didn’t grow from and enjoy, but some of my favorites were Music in Missions & Hymnology by T.W. Hunt, Choral Diction by Jack Coldiron, Practice of Church Music by Joe King, Philosophy of Church Music by Cecil Roper, and Conducting Techniques by Robert Burton. A couple of my non-music classes that I totally loved were Evangelism by Roy Fish, and Baptist History by John Baker.  Seminary showed me the BIG PICTURE and served to provide impetus throughout my ministry. 

Barry: I think you could have been an excellent professor, clinician, or composer. Those who know you are tremendously grateful that you chose to serve in the local church. What are some of the things you have enjoyed most about serving in context of the local church?

Bob: One of my favorite things about being a music minister in the local church is that I get to work with all ages, including children through senior adults. Fortunately, I’ve always had a healthy take on the aging process, and from the very start, some of my closest friends were senior adults. So, yes, this multi-generational landscape within the local church’s music ministry has been a highlight!

The local church music ministry has also been a wonderful place for me because of how diversified my interests are. That is to say, my interests are multi-faceted…music (obviously), choral, orchestral, traveling with music groups, sound systems, video systems, technology, etc. Where else could a person work and be able to delve into all these areas, and more! Whether it’s rehearsing a group to make beautiful music for worship experiences, touring with groups, soldering connections in your sound system, registering the colors in a camera, building cases for speakers to tour with, or…well, almost anything! Working in the local church has allowed me to do it all, and I’m so grateful.

Barry: Although your primary area of service has been Music and Worship, your responsibilities have covered other areas including pastoral care, technology, media, and others. How does serving in areas outside your major area inform and enhance your overall ministry and effectiveness?

Bob: I somewhat addressed this topic in the previous question, but just to add…doing those non-music parts of my job allows me to network and develop relationships with folks whom I may not get to know otherwise. It also helps me easily adopt the big picture of church work and keeps me from being totally tunnel-visioned (which could easily happen). Conversely, it allows the church folk to see me in a pastoral role, helping them to realize that I’m minister first, musician second.

Barry: You have worked with multiple choirs and music groups (Sanctuary Choir, Orchestra, Chapel Choir, Singing Seniors, etc). Do you have a favorite age group or music group?

Bob: You know, I don’t. I guess the best way to say it is, my “favorite group” is the one I happen to be working with at the time. It’s always been a goal of mine for the group I’m currently working with to think – based on how I’m acting toward them – that they must be my favorite…’cause they are (at the time)!

Barry: You have taken many choirs on tours around the U.S and around the globe? Is there one trip that stands out in your mind as groundbreaking, monumental, or most memorable? And do you have a favorite tour location?

Bob: Touring has indeed been one of the trademarks of our music ministries at every church. There are so many benefits and advantages that happen naturally because of touring; things like working hard together to prepare the music, living together for a couple of weeks which allows for deeper relationships, etc. And then the obvious: the opportunity to share the Good News of Christ with our listeners in some amazing places, and the sheer excitement of experiencing God’s creation and His people in far-away places. I simply cannot imagine doing music ministry without the tour experience!

As to a favorite tour, it’s impossible for me to say. They’ve all been my favorite on their year!

Barry: What is your favorite hymn or anthem, and why?

Bob: I have many of each, but I’d have to say “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” is one of my all-time favorite hymns, speaking of God’s constant care for us and interest in us. Also near the top for hymns would be “Here I Am, Lord,” a hymn that speaks to our total surrender to God in service.

As to an anthem, I often kiddingly remark to the choir that such and such song is my “new” favorite anthem…and that pretty much is right, for God keeps gifting composers to write new and wonderful choral and orchestral arrangements, providing for me a moving scale. So…my “new” favorite anthem for now is “More Than Conquerors,” relating how nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, and with His presence in our lives, we can overcome anything this world may challenge us with.

Barry: As someone who has served in the same church for 32 years, what do you see as the primary factors that contributed to your longevity?

Bob: What a great question! And how difficult it will be to adequately answer it. I’ve kiddingly responded to folks, as they’ve made comments regarding the accomplishment of being in the same church this long, “It’s not that hard, actually; you simply have to be someone no other church wants.”

Assuming one serves a church whose people can abide longevity from their staff member, though – which I definitely do – the greatest challenge of staying somewhere this long is simply to keep your own interest up…staying in the game for the long haul. Achieving that in my own case was made easier because our great church resources their music ministry extremely well, and the singing and playing participants themselves are willing to invest their own monies to be involved in some pretty exciting projects.

That means, in addition to leading regular Sunday worship times, we get to do some amazing activities. Things like bringing in big name Christian artists like Joseph Martin, Ken Medema, Steve Green, etc., to do a combined program with our choir and orchestra; like taking the adult choir and orchestra, and our older youth choir, on international tours every two years (each group goes once every four years, offset from one another by two years); like touring each summer with our older youth choir throughout the USA and Canada; like budgeting adequate dollars to support our annual DEO (Christmas) production; like investing in needed props to do the PENSACOLA EASTER PAGEANT; like purchasing instruments to be used in our orchestra program; and on and on I could go.

Knowing I’ve served a church like that gives you a bit of insight into the kind of people at FBCP. They’re the best folks anywhere and they stand ready to do just about anything you can put before them! If they even know about the word “can’t,” I’m not aware of it. It’s unnatural to “want to leave” folks like that! Even now as we’re on the cusp of retiring, I still can’t get excited about leaving this position.

I know it’s time, though, and once past the actual day of retiring, God will infuse me with excitement about what lies ahead. Things like time to spend with my grandkids, my parents, for traveling, and for making new and different kinds of contributions to Kingdom work.

And on a final note: To the person currently serving on a church staff, I would say stay as long as you can under God’s leadership. There are both advantages and benefits that you get to experience – and yes, that the church gets to experience – that simply are not available to short termers. I’m certainly glad I did!

Barry: What advice would you give to a young adult starting out on their journey in music ministry?

Bob: Go back, go back! (Just kidding.) I would encourage them in that, if they are definite in their sense of call to music ministry, then go for it. In my mind, there is nothing that will satisfy you more, or give you a greater sense of purpose and fulfillment, than doing church music. Second, I would advise them to place huge importance on choosing their life’s mate, for nothing can replace the synergy that will exist between you and a wife who also senses a call to music ministry. It’s a win-win (for your marriage and for the church you serve).

I would also encourage them to seek appropriate training. If I were advising a would-be minister of music today, I would encourage them to look seriously at some of our colleges with church music degrees, both on the undergraduate and graduate levels. Recent changes in some of our seminaries give me pause to confidently recommend them to a prospective church worship pastor, though I’m open to being proven wrong, for I’m still very indebted to my seminary experience at SWBTS.

Barry: As you prepare for the next chapter, what are some of the things you plan to do in retirement?

Bob: Top of my list, spend more time with my grandkids! Annette and I are fortunate in that we live in the same city as our grandchildren and oldest son and his wife. We even go to the same church! Same can be said about my parents; both my mom and dad attend FBCP, and I definitely plan to be more present in their daily lives. Our youngest son and his new wife live in Boston, where he is a Teaching Fellow at Harvard University in music; visiting them in their new place will be exciting! So…family takes on top priority!

I also want to further develop a little side interest of mine – which also benefited our choirs for the past 6 years here at FBCP – ChoirPrompt. You can find out more than you’d ever want to know about this at

Getting back to playing my horn is also a goal of mine. While directing groups is wonderful, by its very nature it prevents you from participating as an instrumentalist or singer. It will be fun to personally “make music” again, and not just be “directing music-makers.”

And finally, even though we’ve travelled extensively on our choir tours through the years, I think Annette and I will enjoy some travel. We both love to explore new places and things, and there’s a whole lot of the world we’ve never been to, so occasional travel will surely be in the picture. It’ll be different traveling without 100 of our closest friends and doing concerts, but I’m thinking it’ll be fun, nonetheless.

One of my greatest desires is to continue to be faithful to God’s calling on my life, even in retirement. I don’t know what that looks like, exactly, at this point, but that’s what I want to be. For my entire life I’ve encouraged folks to be responsive to God’s call to serve through music, and to be faithful in that service. Now that I’m here at my working life’s conclusion, may I prove just as faithful as those in my charge for all these years.

Thank you, Bob Morrison, for being faith to God’s call and for sharing your gift with so many for so long. We will miss your leadership, but your friendship and influence will continue to shape us and advance the kingdom for years to come.

(Barry Howard is the retired Senior Pastor at First Baptist Church of Pensacola. He currently serves as a leadership coach, congregational consultant, and columnist for the Center for Healthy Churches.)

Encouraging Those Who Are Called


While editing the recently published book, Call Stories, I had the privilege of reading dozens of unique testimonies of women and men God had called to pastoral ministry.

These stories prompted me to revisit my own call experience at the early age of 16. I am grateful and indebted to my church family and my pastor for the support, affirmation, and encouragement they provided for me. During those early days, as I navigated that divine nudge toward ministry, I was surrounded by an army of the faithful who helped me flesh out my calling.

I didn’t fully appreciate that early support until I encountered other young ministers who did not have the generous support system that had launched me into a positive direction in ministry.

Throughout my years as a pastor, I have tried to lead individuals in my congregations to offer that same kind of enthusiastic support to those who sensed God’s call to vocational ministry from within our church family.

While I believe that every follower of Jesus is called to serve with their best gifts, whatever their vocation, I also understand that the call to vocational ministry is more than a career choice. It is a mysterious summons to a unique lifestyle that requires devotion, transparency, and self-sacrifice.

What are some practical and healthy things churches can do to provide support and encouragement to those who hear and respond to God’s call to serve in vocational ministry?

1. Pray for them. I don’t say this tritely or mean this hyper-spiritually. What a blessing it was for me to have individuals from my home church continue to assure me of their prayers! Pray for a clear sense of direction, for their decisions regarding education and training, and for doors to open for them to serve.

2. Offer words of affirmation and support. After announcing a “call to ministry,” individuals who experience such a call may be overwhelmed with anxiety and perplexed with questions. Some even wrestle with self-doubt. A note of encouragement or a few spoken words of affirmation certainly can help boost a newly called minister in the right direction.

3. Create available opportunities for them to serve and “try on” their call to ministry. My pastor invited me to preach my first sermon two weeks following my call experience. Then, with the endorsement of my church family, he recommended me as a counselor at a Christian camp for the summer. Maybe your church can offer specific ministry assignments or an internship for those who are exploring ministry, or a residency program for those who are preparing for their first call. There is no substitute for “on the field” experience in ministry.

4. Provide scholarship assistance and encourage their education and training. This may mean providing support for those who follow a traditional route to ministerial training by completing a bachelor’s degree followed by a residential experience at a seminary or divinity school. Or, as more and more churches call staff members who are “in process” with their education, this may mean making a way for a minister to serve in the local church while completing his or her theological training in some combination of a virtual classroom, a seminary extension center, and a residential campus experience.

5. Give them a few tools for ministry. Shortly after I announced my call to ministry, individuals in my home congregation showered me with books. One couple gave me a Strong’s Concordance, one family gave me a Bible Atlas, and another individual gave me an extremely dated book entitled The Young Minister. Nowadays, it might be helpful to give a minister an Amazon gift card where they can purchase books in hard print or digital format. A Bible software package or theological journal subscription is another helpful resource. If your church provides a group software subscription for your staff, consider providing the login to your ministerial students.

6. Celebrate progressive steps on their ministerial journey. Not long after I announced my call to ministry, my church hosted a service celebrating my call to ministry by presenting to me a “Certificate of License and Affirmation” and a new Thompson Chain Reference Bible (one of the most popular and expensive editions in 1977). Later, when I was called to be pastor, my first church held a service of ordination. And all the churches I served celebrated and affirmed the completion of each stage of my theological training. Every celebration marked a progressive step in my ministerial journey.

7. Network with them throughout their ministry. This could include endorsing the ministers by recommending them to places of service, communicating with the ministers throughout their careers, and inviting them back home periodically to preach or teach. Not every experience in ministry is pleasant and not every venture bears obvious fruit. Sometimes conflict arises within congregations or ministers make costly mistakes. A proactive and redemptive “home church” may be called on to assist and support a minister called from within their church family if that minister happens to have a bad call experience. I know of home churches that have provided such ministers a temporary place to recover, refresh, and retool in order to prepare for their next chapter in ministry.

One of the reasons I was fairly well prepared and equipped to enter pastoral ministry is because I was surrounded by a community of encouragement both in my home church and beyond. One of the characteristics of a healthy church is that they nurture a culture of call, and then they support and encourage those who hear and respond to the call.

(Barry Howard serves as a Clergy Coach and Congregational Consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches. He currently resides in Pensacola, Florida. His writings also appear on his blog, Barrys Notes, and you can follow him on Twitter @BarrysNotes.)

A Good Way to Celebrate Religious Liberty: Exercise Your Freedom to Worship



Fire up the grill. Crank up the ice cream churn. Prepare for the fireworks show. Hum along to a little John Phillips Sousa.  It’s Fourth of July week!

Independence Day is a time to give thanks for our unrivaled freedom, and a great time to reflect on and celebrate our religious liberty. Religious liberty refers to the right to worship freely without fear of persecution. Yet religious liberty also protects citizens from compulsory religious participation. In other words, our government is to neither compel nor dissuade our participation in worship.

Noting the catastrophes that had occurred historically when the government becomes the guardian of the church, our nation’s founders strategically planned their new government with a wall of separation between church and state. When tempted to tear down that wall we should not forget the words of Isaac Backus, a noted Baptist minister who served during the era of the American revolution: “When Church and State are separate, the effects are happy, and they do not at all interfere with each other; but where they have been confounded together, no tongue nor pen can fully describe the mischiefs that have ensued.”

While many of us plan to celebrate our nation’s independence with picnics, barbeques, and ballgames, I hope we will also seize the opportunity to celebrate religious freedom by exercising our freedom to worship. Since religious liberty is a core distinctive among Baptists and a core motive in our country’s founding, gathering with a faith community to participate in worship is a particularly appropriate way to celebrate.

Our Baptists ancestors were among the many who contended for religious liberty for all faiths. The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States confirms that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

As citizens of these United States, we enjoy more comprehensive freedom than any other nation on earth, but let us never forget that with great freedom comes great responsibility.

In light of our religious liberty, let us pray fervently for those who live in regions of the world that are subject to harsh religious persecution. As we freely choose where and when to worship, let us remember our brothers and sisters who will gather anxiously but faithfully in underground churches, taking risks unfamiliar to most of us, in order to worship God and gather with their fellow believers.

In my years of experience as a pastor, I have noted that joining regularly with other believers to worship nurtures spiritual growth, fosters moral character and encourages humanitarian service. Hebrews 10:25 reminds us, “Some people have gotten out of the habit of meeting for worship, but we must not do that. We should keep on encouraging each other, especially since you know that the day of the Lord’s coming is getting closer” (CEV).

To neglect the opportunity to gather for worship and Bible study is to trivialize the tremendous price paid for our freedom to assemble without fear of reprisal or repercussion. Perhaps the most detrimental symptom of historical amnesia is the tendency to take freedom for granted.

You and I can best celebrate and preserve our liberty by exercising the privileges that accompany our extraordinary freedom. This month is a prime opportunity to celebrate. Whether you spend the time at home or on the road, make plans for a fun and festive day with family and friends celebrating our nation’s independence. Take time to give thanks for our great heritage and to pray for our nation’s leaders.

Most importantly, celebrate religious liberty by exercising your freedom to worship. And respect the freedom of others to choose when, how or if they worship. For if one group among us loses their religious freedom, religious liberty will be in jeopardy for us all.

(Barry Howard serves as leadership coach and congregational consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches.  He and his wife Amanda live in Pensacola, Florida.