NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–It took more than 10 years to compose but today MercyMe’s “I Can Only Imagine,” has evolved into one of Christian music’s most passionate worship songs.
“I Can Only Imagine” was written by MercyMe’s Bart Millard, a husband, father, and staff evangelist of Highland Terrace Baptist Church in Greenville, Texas.
“I have to be honest and say that I never really knew the impact that the song would have,” Millard told Baptist Press. “It’s pretty awesome.”
Millard said he wakes up every morning wondering amazed at how God has taken this former high school football player and turned him into a writer of worship songs.
“I always said it would be cool to write songs that would outlive us,” Millard said. “And I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I’ve thought it would be such an honor to be a modern-day psalmist — to write songs the church will sing long after we are gone. I’m just floored by the response from people.”
Millard, 29, said the story behind I Can Only Imagine is a miracle. It’s the story of a son trying to understand his father’s death.
When Millard was a freshman in high school, he learned that his father had cancer. He died in 1991.
“There’s this cliché out there about when Christians die if they had the chance to either go back or stay in heaven they would stay in heaven,” Millard recalled. “The song came out of why dad would stay in heaven instead of coming back to be with us.”
“I wasn’t being superspiritual,” he said. “I was just asking the question ‘God what is it that will make it so wonderful he wouldn’t want to come back to me and everything else. It was kind of a selfish question.”
After his father’s death, Millard found himself writing down the phrase “I can only imagine.”
“I would write it on scraps of paper, notebooks, whatever I could find,” he said. “I knew there was a song there, but it just didn’t come together.”
Fast forward to 1999 when Millard was writing for MercyMe and the words to “I Can Only Imagine” flowed from his pen.
“It was a God thing,” Millard said. “The song was written in five minutes. I still have the original pages and there’s not even one mistake on it.”
“The song is about hope,” he said. ‘When we wrote it, we knew it was something special. We had no idea the impact it would make in people’s lives.”
“I had these questions in my heart and the questions about my dad’s death went from anger to peace. We really do have questions about what heaven will be like. When I stand in God’s presence how will I react? Are we going to raise our hands? Are we going to sit still? Are we going to fall flat on our faces?”
Since the song’s debut, MercyMe has received hundreds of emails from fans writing about how “I Can Only Imagine” has impacted their lives.
“Whether you are a Christian or not, we all wonder what’s next,” he said. “You know, I’m really surprised at how this is an evangelistic tool, too. People who don’t darken the door of a church will come up to us and say, ‘Man, something broke inside me and I don’t know what it was.'”
“Then, we explain the gospel of Jesus with them,” he continued. “It’s been wonderful to see people accept Christ through the music.”
But for Millard, the miracle of “I Can Only Imagine,” was still untapped until his wife reminded him of a story about his dad.
“When I was a kid I always wanted to get into music ministry,” he said. “To be in a band was a longshot and to even make a living at it was unheard of. I thought I would be a youth pastor or a music minister.”
Millard’s dad, Arthur, used to encourage his son and in the final days of his life, he told his son to follow his dreams.
“We had worked out my dad’s finances for when he was gone,” he said. “His retirement allowed me and my brother to receive income for 10 years from when he passed away. One of the last things he told me was that he was trying to take care of me.”
Even after those 10 years, his dad promised to take care of his sons.
Ironically, the song “I Can Only Imagine” went number one the week that Millard’s inheritance ended.
“My son was born on Jan. 4 and the song went number one two days later,” he remembered. “I was doing a radio interview with Jon Rivers and my wife reminded me about what my dad said. I lost it. I was on the air and I was just bawling. It was really wild. You know, I really will be taken care of for the rest of my life. Praise God for it.”