The year Bart Millard entered college, his father, Arthur Millard, passed away from cancer. It was 1991, and Millard had been watching his dad die for nearly five years. While alive, Bart’s father had often consoled his son with the thought that he (Arthur) would soon be in a better place.
Not fully able to comprehend what that meant, the teenaged Millard spent years after his father’s death trying to reconcile that idea with his grief. He would often lay in bed wondering where his father was and what he was doing. He would imagine what it would be like when he would join his dad in heaven. Eventually, his musings began to manifest themselves in a phrase he repeated to himself like a mantra: “I can only imagine.”
For years, those four words wound themselves through Millard’s head. He found himself writing the words on random pieces of paper over and over again. They served as a sort of “security blanket” of comfort for Millard. Knowing that his earthly father was with his Heavenly Father gave him hope. But knowing that heaven would be a place far more wonderful than anything he could imagine gave him reassurance. And his focus slowly transitioned from grief at his father’s death to awe at the greatness of God. Finally, that phrase took shape, becoming part of a song.
“I can only imagine what it will be like when I walk by Your side,” Bart wrote. “? Surrounded by Your glory, what will my heart feel? Will I dance for You Jesus, or in awe of You be still?”
A song brings hope
Fast-forward 10 years from the death of Millard’s father to 2001, when “I Can Only Imagine” was released on Almost There, the first nationally distributed album by MercyMe, the worship band for which Millard is lead singer. Almost immediately shooting to the top of Christian radio charts everywhere, “I Can Only Imagine” drew a standard response from whomever heard it: watery eyes, weeping or, at the very least, a sense of hope.
Millard, along with band mates Mike Scheuchzer (guitar), Robby Shaffer (drums), Nathan Cochran (bass) and Jim Bryson (keyboard/piano), began to hear from people all over the world who had been touched by the song. Many of them had dealt with the death of a loved one. Many others had endured tragic circumstances. Most were inspired, by the now epic words, “I Can Only Imagine,” to consider both the life leading up to the first heavenly encounter with God, and the beautiful experiences thereafter.
Though amazed at the response, members of MercyMe were soon to find out the story would not stop there.
God uses the ungodly
Two years after releasing Almost There, MercyMe had already recorded a second record (Spoken For) and had the album’s title track released as a single to Christian radio. Yet, “I Can Only Imagine” continued to be popular on Christian stations.
And then one morning, everything changed. A woman called secular radio station Wild 100 FM in Dallas, Texas (where members of MercyMe live), and asked to hear “I Can Only Imagine.”
The station’s morning show hosts, ostentatiously homosexual “Big Gay Steven” and his crazy co-host, Fitz, were notorious for playing any requested song to get a laugh. While they had never heard of “I Can Only Imagine,” nor MercyMe, they found a Christian co-worker who happened to have a copy of the CD in his car. Listening to the track, Fitz and Big Gay Steven chalked it up as not bad (despite the blatant message of hope in Christ and an eternity in heaven). They decided to play it on the air as a joke.
What happened next was no joke. Flooded with calls and e-mails asking about the song, Wild 100 FM’s morning show team agreed to play the song again the next morning. They did so to the same response. When listeners continued to call and request “I Can Only Imagine,” making it the No. 1 requested song every morning for months, the station added the track to its play list. Many other secular stations followed suit, including the most prominent secular Top 40 station in the nation, Z100 FM in New York City. The song also soon broke into the secular adult contemporary Top 20 charts and began to climb. MercyMe was baffled.
“We’re still scratching our heads,” Scheuchzer says.
John Tesh, a Christian artist who hosts a radio show on 162 secular stations, says, “The reaction that we got was huge… People would call in and say, ‘Hey, I just heard this song… I was having a horrible day, but now that’s done because I realize that somebody is watching over me.'”
A modern day miracle
Ironically, MercyMe never had any intention of “crossing over” into the mainstream music industry. When they initially couldn’t find the right tune to pair with the lyrics, “I Can Only Imagine” almost didn’t make it onto their album. Paired with the fact that the song was written in response to a subject as deeply personal as death, and seeks not to answer questions, but speculate as to what it will be like after life, the popularity of “I Can Only Imagine” is a modern-day miracle.
But often emphasized, and simply put by the band members, “God did it.”
Reaching deep inside
Not sure how to account for the general response to the song from Christians and nonbelievers alike, Millard believes that “it’s the same God moving in the same way.”
“People in the church probably have a little more knowledge about why the song does what it does to them,” Millard explains, “but people in mainstream respond the same way as far as the song tugging at something deep inside them. They’re not really sure what it is, but when they hear the song, it brings them a peace and makes them long for something bigger.”
It’s that “longing for something bigger” that has Millard and the rest of MercyMe anticipating what God has in store for them. Because though they do consider their music a ministry, they believe it must start individually with strong relationships with Christ.
“It really starts with our own personal walks,” Cochran explains. “We’ve always said that MercyMe is an overflow of five individual guys’ lives. That’s the way it has to be.”
Leaving the results to God
Although each of the band members have experienced an odd combination of joy, astonishment and terror at the idea that they are now ministering to a much wider audience, they have also come to the profound realization that God is honoring the group’s faithfulness. They see the “I Can Only Imagine” phenomenon as an extraordinary example of obeying God and getting the desired — albeit unexpected — results.
Now MercyMe is back in the studio working on their third label-produced album. And despite their current popularity in mainstream music, they have no plans to alter their focus simply to continue growing that success.
“There haven’t been any plans to change anything we do,” Scheuchzer says. “What we do is what God has directed us to do. It’s not something where we watered down a relationship song to try to cross over. It just kind of happened. Why would we change anything if this is where God brought us by doing what we do?”
Millard, now a father himself, is adamant that the band members remain focused on their personal relationships with Christ and their families. Believing there to be no better way to witness than to live a godly lifestyle by openly obeying and worshipping God, he cites the example of prison guards coming to know Christ simply from watching Paul and Silas worshipping behind bars.
“There’s only one way, one truth, one hope,” Millard says. “That’s what I embrace. We found a way to step into their (nonbelievers’) world and not shove it (the gospel) down their throats. Hopefully they can see a group of guys that love Christ and because of that, we are better people. Hopefully people will say, ‘Whatever it is that you have works.’ And maybe they can be changed through that.”
Copyright © 2004 Christian Music Planet, used with permission.
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