NASHVILLE, Tenn. — This year marks one decade since Bart Millard of the Christian music group MercyMe penned the words to the song “I Can Only Imagine,” which would become a chart-topper and cause a vast array of people to think about heaven.
To celebrate the milestone, MercyMe has released “10,” a CD/DVD set featuring 12 No. 1 singles as well as videos. The DVD includes Millard telling the story behind the song that changed his life.
“My father passed away with cancer in 1991 when I was 18,” Millard said. “Growing up in church, people always said, ‘You know, if he could choose, he’d rather be in heaven than be here on earth.’
“As a Christian I believed that, but as an 18-year-old it was hard to swallow,” he said. “A lot of the questions out of the chorus kind of came from me saying, ‘God, what’s so great about You that my dad would rather be there than here?’”
For years Millard found himself writing the phrase “I can only imagine” on anything he could get his hands on, such as notebooks or scrap papers. In 1999, the group was working on an independent record and needed one more song to complete the recording. Millard told them he’d try to come up with something.
“I started opening the journal I was writing in and every page had this phrase on it, literally every page,” he said. “I was like, ‘Maybe I need to finish this,’ so I started writing it down and put it to music.”
The remaining song on the album needed to be a fast one, he said, but the lyrics he had written begged for a slower tune. The group decided not to include it and was walking out of the studio when one of the guys played a few chords of it on the piano.
“I was like, ‘Play it again.’ All the sudden we rolled everything back in the studio and did it real quick,” Millard said. “… It didn’t really go with the rest of the record. We didn’t play it for months. For months we never played it. We played the rest of the record.
“Somebody finally said, ‘Hey, why don’t you play this song during the show tonight?’ So we tried it once, and people kind of flipped out over it,” he said.
The song soon became a hit on Christian radio, topping the charts by 2001 and winning three Dove awards in 2002.
“All the sudden, a Top 40 station in Dallas, a shock-jock kind of format, said, ‘We’ll do anything on the air,’ and somebody called in and said, ‘Play Imagine.’ They said, ‘We’ll do it. We’ll give it a shot.’ They played it once and got a ton of phone calls, played it again, and after like the second or third time it became number one at the station in like three months,” Millard said.
Other stations followed suit, and eventually the song showed up on the Top 40, AC and country charts.
“It’s like the song that won’t go away,” Millard said on the DVD.
The song has significant meaning for Millard because he had a special relationship with his father, he said. His parents divorced when he was 3 years old, and he and his brother lived with his father for most of their childhood and adolescent years. His father didn’t have much money, but he was faithful in raising his sons.
Before he died, Millard’s father told Bart that he had set up a system where the two boys would receive a certain amount of money each month to take care of them. The money would last for 10 years, long enough for the two to establish careers.
The father added, “But don’t worry. When 10 years is up, I’ll still be there to take care of you somehow,” Millard recounted.
In January 2001, Millard was doing a radio interview when something profound hit him.
“My son was born on the 4th of January, and it was about the same time that Imagine was kind of peaking in the Christian market,” Millard said. “I was big into the charts, but when Sam (his son) was born, I totally forgot all about it. I was all about Sam. I was doing an interview with this guy, and he told me, ‘Imagine went No. 1 today.’ I was like, ‘I had no idea. I’ve just kind of been out of it.’“
Then Millard started crying because he realized the day that the last check from his father’s inheritance came was the day that Imagine officially became a hit. From there, the song’s success would pay the bills.
“If my dad is aware of what’s going on, then he’s getting a huge laugh out of this because it’s amazing how everybody knows the song and somehow they know the story behind the song,” Millard said. “That’s extremely rewarding because of everything my dad did for me and everything he went through to kind of give me the green light to do what I’m doing. It’s just really cool to know that he’s not forgotten and none of this was done in vain.”
Not only has the song served as a means by which Millard’s father took care of him after death, it has provided comfort to thousands of people who have lost loved ones and to those who wonder what heaven might be like.
“One of the decidedly distinctive characteristics of this song is that it allows people to stop, dream and imagine an eternity that is so often crowded out by common elements that distract us all,” Stephen Johnson, dean of the school of church music at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, told Baptist Press.
“It points us to the beauty of heaven, the endless energy of continual praise and the ability that we will all have to sing, dance and shout,” Johnson said. “It points us to the holiness of Jesus and in that moment when we are seeing Him face to face we will need to stop, be still, fall to our knees and, in silence, worship.”
Johnson noted that a quick search of the song’s title on iTunes pulls up 150 results, including various genres.
“It is in a country version, a rock version, a disco-esque version, it has an unplugged version, a plugged-in version, a piano solo version and even a bluegrass version,” Johnson said. “The impact of this song on the Kingdom of Christ is strong, and I am sure that when we are in heaven Bart Millard will encounter the now countless testimonies of hearts turned to Jesus over this song.”
Mike Harland, director of LifeWay Worship at LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, said the song has struck a chord with all types of people because it addresses an issue that is common to the human experience.
“Everybody has lost someone in our lives. If you live long enough, you’re going to have someone leave this earth, and the song resonates with every individual because it speaks to something that all of us experience,” Harland told BP.
“As Christians, we certainly believe in heaven, we believe what God’s Word says about heaven, and this song has given us a way to think about it and to express all the joy and the sorrow associated with losing a loved one and the anticipation of the day when we’ll be with them and worshiping together,” Harland said.
I Can Only Imagine, he said, is a prime example of a song that resonated with a small group and made its way into the larger church body.
“When Bart Millard and MercyMe first started singing it, they were singing it basically in youth gatherings around the Dallas area, and because of the strength of the song it began to find its way into churches and then across the world,” Harland said.
“The impact, I would say, is more and more songs like that — instead of a publisher like LifeWay giving the church a song and saying, ‘Sing this’ — songs started bubbling up from individuals that made their way to the church and then found their way to the publisher,” he said. “That song is a perfect example of how the heart of the individual brought the song to the world, not the other way around.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.)