I can only imagine

By Alex MacDougall

Worship Leader’s Alex MacDougall recently visited with Bart Millard, founding member of MercyMe, and author of the song, “I Can Only Imagine”. The song has travelled world-wide, reaching both the church and mainstream culture in its impact. “I Can Only Imagine” is sung in every context, from worship services to funerals, and has been recorded in almost every musical genre, from Gospel music to pop music; from Tamela Mann to Demi Lovato. Set to release as a major motion picture in theaters this March, “I Can Only Imagine” will continue its embeddedness in hearts.

WL: MercyMe was initially an indie band, having not signed with a label for at least 7 years following its first recordings. Your spirit of entrepreneurship and following of your calling should be a model to younger Christian music artists and songwriters. Do you have any advice for hopeful songwriters and worship leaders?
Bart: Stay in your lane and take advantage of what God has placed in front of you. Don’t be looking at it like a stepping stone like something bigger is coming. He has you right where you are for a reason. Take advantage of it.

WL: In the upcoming movie, “I Can Only Imagine”, as well as in your book by the same title, some of the incredibly tough experiences occurring internally within your home are presented. All this appears to be a backdrop for what God has done in your life, and for your writing of the song, “I Can Only Imagine”. Can you elaborate on this?
Bart: My dad was abusive most of my life. He was diagnosed with cancer when I was in high school and that’s when he came to know Jesus and changed his life forever. He went from being a monster to being one of my heroes, spiritually, and my best friend. It changed the trajectory of my life and set me on this, what I’ve always called, the war path for the gospel because if the gospel can change my dad, the gospel can change anybody. It was definitely a backdrop for God to move in a big and mighty way not only in my life but in the songs I’m trying to write.

WL: The Scripture says, “Do you see someone skilled in their work? They will serve before kings…” (Prov. 22:29, NIV). The impact of your song, “I Can Only Imagine”, and Mercy Me’s presentation of it, has certainly brought you before high profile individuals, and is now felt worldwide. Can you talk about the far-reaching impact of this song in others’ lives?
Bart: It’s amazing the people that we have met over the years, and the paths that have crossed with ours. For instance, we are heading to DC soon to screen the movie for the members of Congress, the Senate, and the Vice President. It’s been amazing the people we’ve met over the years that I would never have guessed in a million years that would know who we were and would tell us that the song played a role in their life. It’s something you never get tired of.

I can only imagine movie posterWL: Can you identify a particular song and how it has impacted you personally?
Bart: The first time I ever heard “Mr. Blue Sky” by Electric Light Orchestra, I fell in love with it and knew it was the kind of music I wanted to make for the rest of my life. At that point I had never had a song that moved me to where it was like, “What is happening to me?”. I loved it so much I knew that it would be a part of me for the rest of my life.

WL: You and Mercy Me have a long history in recording new songs, as well as traditional hymns. You give great honor to the hymns. How have you arrived at that “balance” in your presentations?
Bart: I think the only way you get better at what you are doing is to recognize the music that shaped who you are, and got you to this point.
Hymns were a huge part of my life growing up and I have such fond memories of hymns being sung at my church even though as a kid I probably thought they were boring and couldn’t stand them, but looking back and being older and hopefully a little wiser, I can appreciate what hymns stand for. They will always be a part of my life.

WL: You’ve done a lot of things in your life – you’ve been a youth pastor, worked in a sewer plant, and been a successful artist. What is it like to now have such a huge spotlight on your life in the form of a book and a movie, when the genesis of it all came from very humble background?
Bart: It’s a little random and surreal to say the least. We have been kind of in a little bit of a spotlight since we have been in MercyMe for a few years and its definitely helped us deal with what we are going through now with the movie. It’s a spotlight which so far we are able to step out of and have a private life at home and stay humble with dear friends.

It’s when you try to constantly live in the spotlight where things might become an issue. There’s nothing more awkward than standing in front of thousands of people and singing for them. It’s an awkward act all together and I think it may always be uncomfortable.

I’m not complaining by any means, I am grateful that we can still make music and people still listen. But I think it is always going to be surreal for me.

WL: Is there anything that you would like to leave Worship Leader Magazine readers with?
Bart: Hope you get a chance to enjoy the movie and here’s to another 20-something years glorifying God through music.