Greenville, Texas Location: 51.7 miles northeast of Dallas Population: 24,400
Number of town members who were raised here, moved away and returned to make it their home: Well, we know of at least one.
“It’s a great place to live because there are so many people in the community who invested their lives into mine at an early age,” explains Greenville resident Bart Millard, whose chief occupation is to write lyrics and perform lead vocals for the six-man ensemble known as MercyMe. “They’re enjoying the ride the way we are and feel as if they have a part ownership in the band.” Ah, yes, and what a ride it continues to be. By now, you know the MercyMe songs. Perhaps even on a good “Worship Karaoke” night you could probably belt them out by heart: “Word Of God Speak,” “Spoken For.”
But even if you can’t find Greenville — a community small enough for OnStar to consult its Rand McNally atlas — you’ll generally have no problems locating the tune that put the band on the map and all over Christian and mainstream radio — “I Can Only Imagine.”
A tragedy brings song of hope
By now, the saga of the song has been well documented. Millard wrote “I Can Only Imagine” in memory of his father, who died of cancer 10 years before the song’s national release on the 2001 project, Almost There. It took little more than the twinkling of an eye for “I Can Only Imagine” to become an instant staple of Christian radio and praise and worship services. But just as the song could only attempt to grasp the magnitude of Heaven, the band had no idea what God had in store for the ministry of MercyMe.
“We’ve heard stories of people who’ve never darkened the door of a church hearing the song on their car radio and calling a church the next day and getting saved,” says MercyMe lead guitarist Michael Scheuchzer. “We’ve all lost somebody, we all miss them, we wonder where they’ve gone … and this song is all about hope, even for someone who doesn’t necessarily believe in Jesus.”
For Millard, the question of why the song connects is rooted in simple honesty. “All I know is that a good songwriter writes about what consumes their heart,” he says. “Mine just so happens to be consumed with Christ. It’s the only thing that has truly changed my life.”
Life shapes the musician
The aforementioned Greenville, Texas, which sits at approximately 33 degrees north (latitude) and 96 degrees west (longitude), also had a lot to do with shaping Millard’s life. It was the backdrop of the singer’s formative years, musically and spiritually.
“I’ve always loved music. I sang ‘I Am a Promise’ in church when I was 5 years old,” he says. “And then I went through the whole adolescent stage where I wouldn’t sing at all because my voice didn’t change like all the other guys. It wasn’t cool to be in the girls’ section of the choir.”
Eventually, the teenage musical prodigal returned to his first love and found a much-needed respite in the form of a local church youth group. It was there that Millard, whose early sonic influences included ELO, Dire Straits and U2, discovered the genre that would one day give him a voice of influence beyond his wildest dreams: contemporary Christian music.
“The first Christian cassette I ever bought was More Power to Ya by Petra,” Millard says. “My dad didn’t know what it was, so he tore it up. I went out and bought it again the next day. I listened to that record over and over and over.”
A shelter in the storm
A steady diet of Steven Curtis Chapman, Russ Taff and Michael W. Smith soon followed. Those artists’ lyrical influences, along with his youth group, provided a safe harbor in the midst of a very dysfunctional childhood.
“I have some pretty hard memories of growing up and being abused as a child,” Millard says. “But when my father got sick with cancer and his heart changed for Christ, I went from living in fear that I’d become like him to wanting to be like him when I grew up. From my freshman year in high school to my freshman year in college, my relationship with my dad became something that I’ll cherish forever.”
MercyMe is born
After his father passed away, Millard broke with his past to begin a new future, moving to Florida and eventually becoming involved with Scheuchzer in a praise band. While assisting Tulsa-based All-Star Ministries in youth camps, Millard met Jim Bryson (keyboards), with the conversation leading toward forming a band. Millard and Scheuchzer moved to Tulsa and joined Bryson to form the core of what would eventually become the band name unwittingly supplied by an elderly next-of-kin.
“Bart was an intern for our youth group and there’s really not a lot to do in that job,” Scheuchzer explains. “He was home a great deal and his grandmother would ask him, ‘Why are you always home?'” To which he would sarcastically respond with, “I’ve slated this year off to come up with a band name.” Her reply was, “Well mercy me, Bart, why don’t you go get a real job?”
Stepping out on the road
Good news. Millard found a job.
Plus, he still carves out a lot of time at home to spend with wife Shannon and 2-year-old son Samuel. Still, when the tour de jour is ready to roll out of the parking lot, Millard is committed to having the house of MercyMe in order.
“We’ve built two buses that each have three bedrooms so that each of the band members can have time away with their families,” Millard says. “We’re trying to do our best to make the right things a priority, like our families and our relationships with God, so that we can minister effectively.”
Along for the ride on the 2004 “Imagine” tour is Amy Grant, who, along with Bebo Norman, will open the show for MercyMe. It’s likely been fourscore and seven years since Grant was an opening act, but spending time with Millard, Scheuchzer, Bryson, Nathan Cochran (bass), Robby Shaffer (drums) and newcomer Barry Graul (guitarist) on last year’s tour with Michael W. Smith solidified her decision.
“I was so impressed with their musicianship and their songwriting,” Grant says. “But what stuck out to me about them is their lack of presumption … they are very honest and direct. Bart doesn’t take himself too seriously, but he has a lot of wisdom and deep faith.”
New project rooted in faith
A deep faith is reflected in the new MercyMe project, Undone, to be released in April. According to Millard, the project is a logical musical stretch and spiritual stepping stone for the fans of the band.
“The original idea for the title was basically how God stepped in and everything that we had planned became undone,” he explains. “But there are multiple meanings that are reflected in the various songs. I’m a work in progress. I’m free. I’m in shambles because God stepped in.”
The final piece that completes Undone is called “Homesick,” certain to rekindle thoughts of “Imagine.” The song was written during a recent period of time when eight significant people in Millard’s life, including his 20-year-old brother-in-law, unexpectedly passed away at a young age.
“After I first wrote the chorus, I couldn’t write anymore, because it had been so long since I’d felt that kind of pain from when my father passed away … I never wanted to risk faking that feeling,” Millard says.
“I wrote it, and then left it alone, but eventually it became the last song added to the record … God just wouldn’t release me from this season.”
And the season of ministry continues for Millard and MercyMe. Band members are reaping an abundant harvest and are committed to putting that harvest back into the lives of the seekers and those who have found a new life in Christ.
“It has just been such a great joy to bless people and to watch smaller ministries grow. That’s what it’s all about,” Millard says. “That’s where our heart has been, and God has really allowed us to do it. It’s been so much fun and such a huge blessing. Man, what a journey it has been so far.”
Copyright © 2004 Christian Music Planet, used with permission.
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