MercyMe: The Dove You See, talking to the "I Can Only Imagine" band

Monday 1st July 2002

The recent Dove Award for Song Of The Year is just the latest accolade for "I Can Only Imagine" originally recorded by MERCYME. Mike Rimmer met up with the band's Bart Millard.

Mercy Me
Mercy Me

It was back in 1994 that trio MercyMe first got together, initially as a concert band, but over the course of six independently released CDs, they discovered God's call for them as a worship band. Bart Millard, the band's front man, explains how the band members - Bart (lead vocals), Mike Scheuchzer (guitar), Jim Bryson (keys), Nathan Cochran (bass) and Robbie Shaffer (drums) acquired their unusual name: "I grew up in Dallas and when I graduated my father passed away with cancer and I ended up moving to Orlando, Florida to work in a church. I was an intern under the youth minister. I didn't do much except staple papers and stuff like that. It wasn't a very important job but every time my grandmother would call me in Florida, I was always home! It was like I never went to work and one day she said, 'What exactly do you do all day?'. Out of sarcasm I said I was trying to come up with a band name and that I had a lot of time slated off in case one hit me! She said, 'Well mercy me why don't you get a real job?'." Bart laughs apologetically as he tells the story, "It has no huge spiritual depth to it, it's just what my grandmother said!"

There's no fear that Grandma could ever expect Bart & Co to get proper jobs now! The success in America of a song called "I Can Only Imagine" has projected the band into prominence. It's not an understatement to say that the song has become one of the most popular in Christian music for years. Critics, radio programmers and fans alike have taken to the song and the recent Dove Awards ceremony in Nashville saw the song win in three different categories including the prestigious Song Of The Year. It also meant that the band's main writer Bart Millard was also named Songwriter Of The Year.

In a hotel suite in Nashville, a publicity company has a number of artists stationed in different rooms meeting the media. In a reception room, different staff are busy organizing things as artists arrive and depart and journalists like myself come through the suite. I am waiting to speak to Superchic[k] and they're running late. Bart Millard is taking a breather sitting on a settee and still everyone wants to talk to him about THAT song. Unlike the pretty boy front men of many Christian pop and rock acts, Bart is carved from different material, he's chunky and alternative looking in an industry that likes its worship leaders to look a little more "normal". However he is untouched by all the fuss around him. Even when an annoying DJ from a local American station decides to pounce on him and ask him cheesy questions during his rest time, Bart is gracious in dealing with the intrusion. He must be getting used to the attention by now.

The song has actually caused the band problems simply because it won't go away and let them release another single from the 'Almost There' album. Radio stations are still playing it and months after release, it's still on the charts. The song was initially recorded on one of the band's independent projects three years ago. Perhaps it's the fact that it was born out of Bart's personal experience simply adds to the poignancy of "I Can Only Imagine".

Bart Millard's father sadly died a decade ago while he was a freshman in college. He shares, "My father was about 300lbs and when he passed away, he was about 118lbs, he withered away in front of us. When I was young, my father was a very hard-hearted man. He was very tough. If you were one of his boys and you got hurt, you didn't cry, you didn't show any kind of fear because you're a tough individual. He got sick in my freshman year in high school and I say that's the second greatest thing that ever happened to him, second to coming to know Christ because when he got sick, his heart broke. He became passionately in love with Christ."

He continues, "I went from living in fear because I was afraid I would become like him one day, to those five years I had with him after he became sick, of wanting to be the same person when I grew up. I knew he was such a proud man and that he was so weak before he passed away, he could hardly take care of himself. I knew the day had come where he was totally healthy again, totally free, he was where he belonged. So everyday I would always write the phrase down 'I can only imagine' for almost 10 years. In my devotions or in my quiet times I would always write 'I can only imagine'. There was a lot of times when I would think 'What is he finally seeing?' and when I was finally called to be a worship leader, it took on such a big meaning. I stood before these people to lead them in worship and I'd start thinking whether despite some of the greatest times of worship here, maybe we are just scraping the Heavenlies compared to what we're going to see, when we finally, physically, lay our eyes on Christ. I just started asking the questions, 'God, when I'm around you, am I going to dance? Am I going to sing? Am I going to be still? Am I going to fall to my knees?' I really don't know. I have an idea because of what the churches around me have done and how people react here but I've always wondered what is it exactly going to be? So that's where the song came from. It doesn't have any answers, it's just saying 'God, how will I react when I see you?' but the cool thing about it is that if you know Christ, you can step back and say, Thank God I'll be there' and that's really all that matters."

The song has powerfully resonated with a lot of people and Bart reflects on that: "I can't really explain it other than it just shows that so many people have the same questions. I think a lot of times [when] we write songs, we're always supposed to have the answers. It may be that there's a very human side to this song because the truth is, the song is over and we still don't really know how we're going to react. I think it's a series of questions that lie heavy on a lot of people's hearts. It's funny because we've had a lot of people say that this song has been played at a lot of funerals and at the same time, several different weddings. I think that's really cool because we keep talking about, 'Well, we've lost a loved one and they don't have to imagine anymore,' which is a given, that's a pretty easy one. I've had people that have gotten married who've said, 'We can ask the same questions when it comes to worship here on earth,' because some of us, we go to church all our lives and we still don't get worship! We've been around God for a long time but we've yet to experience him. So I've had people come to me and say, These same questions could be asked in my church. That, 'When we finally get in your glory, when we finally call on your name, when we finally acknowledge that we're in your presence, could we quite possibly react differently to the way we have all these years in the church?' It's really cool because people come at weddings and stuff like that and say, 'We really want our lives to revolve around this and stay focused on Christ. To remind ourselves that we're in constant fellowship with him.'"

The first time I heard the song was at a record company sales conference in April 2001. Before I ever heard MercyMe's version, I heard the cover version recorded by Amy Grant for her next pop album. I confess the song moved me greatly and I looked forward to hearing the original. Interestingly enough at the time it felt as though Amy covering the song would give MercyMe some good profile as they launched their debut worldwide release. However, in the interim, Amy shelved her pop album and re-recorded the song for her album of hymns and worship songs, legacy'. Now it seems that the success of MercyMe's version will actually help Amy!

Millard confesses that when he first heard that Grant wanted to record the song, he wasn't convinced it was a good idea. In certain segments of the Church there had been a strong reaction to some of Grant's lifestyle choices - most notably her divorce from Gary Chapman and marriage to Vince Gill, himself a recent divorcee. Bart shares, "When Amy Grant first called, my initial reaction was to say no. I think it was the very religious side of me saying, 'You know what, she's gone through a lot in her life right now and I don't know if I want to be involved in that. I don't know exactly what I feel about it.' So I proudly said 'No' and thought I had all the right answers. I went and told my pastor the situation and he said, 'Well okay, if you think 'No' is the right answer but let me know how it goes, when you stand before God and you explain to him, how you stopped somebody else from proclaiming the Gospel!' I immediately thought I ought to reconsider. So I prayed about it and I realized, we focus so much on the messenger and not the message. Where does it stop? Do we have a hard time because Amy sings secular music or do we have a hard time because she's trying to sing Christian music? The more I thought about it, the more I prayed about it, the more I found myself in the Word. I realized, I should just rejoice in the fact that she wants to proclaim something of the good news. So it was really an easy decision to make after I'd thought about it. I hope she does incredibly well with it. I hope that people who may never darken the door of a church will hear her version of the song and their lives possibly be changed."

In all of the discussions about the song and the possibility of Grant recording it, Millard shares that there was one phone call that made him nervous. "Her management company kept calling wanting a decision on the song. To gain more time, to stall a little bit, I finally said that I needed to talk to Amy assuming that it would never happen and they said, 'Okay, she'll call you tomorrow!' So I got a little nervous. I didn't know what I was going to say to Amy Grant because I grew up listening to all her music. So she finally called and said, 'Hey, this is Amy!' and I was like, 'Hey, how are you doin'? I don't know what to say to you!' We talked for a while and I told her I just really wanted to know where her heart was? She explained that the first time she heard it, the song ministered to her in a way she hadn't felt for a long time. She said 'My desire is to have this song on the record. If people will buy this record for whatever reason, then maybe, just maybe, they'll hear this song and be changed.' We small talked for a while after that and then agreed!"

One of the most striking features of Bart Millard and his band mates are their humility. Even the album title is an understatement. Bart explains, "It has a lot of different meanings, one is that we've had seven years of success as an independent and there's this idea for musicians that the epitome of what we do is to sign to a record deal and make it big or whatever. So the little bit of sarcasm with the whole phrase 'almost there' is for people who assume this is our next step. At the same time, I grew up in a church that whenever you did something bad, they tried to scare you by kind of saying 'You would better get yourself straightened out otherwise God is going to get you' or something like that. It was more like he was the bogeyman or something like that, instead of a Holy God. The more I grew up, when I went through different circumstances in my life, I just started seeing God in a different light. I don't see him as someone who said, 'You messed up again, you're so far from me because you messed up.' I saw Christ as someone with his arms spread wide saying, 'You're almost there, keep going, keep going,' and so it has a double meaning." CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Mike Rimmer
Mike RimmerMike Rimmer is a broadcaster and journalist based in Birmingham.


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