MercyMe’s Return to Self
Awhile back MercyMe sat down with us to share about adapting to the changes that have come from a successful career in music. We think what the guys had to share is important for today.
THE DAY THE MUSIC CHANGED
It was a showcase for new artists at the GMA 2001 conference in Nashville during the ASCAP writer’s awards. In the middle of the evening’s shows, a rag-tag group of guys got on stage wearing their flannel shirts and their so-very-not-rock-star attitudes.
The lead singer stood with an acoustic guitar in the center of the stage, and the audience, not sure what to expect, politely listened. Then from the what seemed like his very soul, with no Nashvillian frills added
to his simple presentation, he got to that chorus, “Surrounded by Your glory / What will my heart
feel / Will I dance for You Jesus / Or in awe of You be still.”
In the minds and hearts of a room full of industry professionals, there was no doubt—this song was going to change the direction of Christian music (which, at the time had been leaning heavily on highly polished pop acts).
MercyMe presented a moment of honesty and humility that pierced through the entire week of music business, and it sounded good, too. From that moment, “I Can Only Imagine” began a life of its own. Landing at the top of Billboards charts for over 10 weeks and experiencing mainstream airplay that was nearly unimaginable, “I Can Only Imagine” crashed through all the boundaries once thought impervious to a Christian band.
That kind of thing can change anyone’s perspective, and after more than a decade, the guys from MercyMe have had to reevaluate many things.
“In ’94 we started pretty much as a Christian rock band, but we were also worship leaders and did church camps and things like that for six or seven years. Then we wrote a song called ‘I Can Only Imagine’ and everything changed,” says MercyMe’s lead singer, Bart Millard. “It changed in more ways than just that we were busier and more successful. What people wanted from MercyMe was for us to follow up ballad for ballad, and the next thing I know it’s ‘I Can Only Imagine,’ ‘Spoken For,’ ‘Word of God Speak,’ ‘Here With Me’ and ‘Homesick.’ And as much as we love those songs, there was a part of us that was kind of pushed to the side just so we could keep this ma- chine moving. We were selling a lot of records, but if we didn’t find a way to bring this other part [of us] back, we were going to find ourselves starving for something.”
REMEMBER THE FIRE
The thing that the guys would have been starving for was a piece of themselves, the original passion and musical fire that went into their first album, which is also what music listeners are apt to gravitate toward.
“After that we wanted the chance to literally come up for air,” Millard continues. “That’s why the new record is called Coming Up to Breathe; it’s the chance to, lyrically and musically, let our hair down and do something that’s a little edgy. It’s more of a rock album than we’ve ever done before.”
GIVE ’EM WHAT THEY WANT
Once a band is successful, change is not easy or obvious. People come to expect a certain thing. And not just industry executives, listeners, too. It is easy for a band to lose itself in an environment like that. But MercyMe is affecting a change. Along with allow- ing themselves to chase the music that is an inspiration to them, MercyMe’s journey has involved a new under- standing of their role as leaders in worship. And the difference is manifest in their careers as Christian artists and in their roles as worshipers in their home churches.
First and foremost, we are still to this day worship leaders,” Millard explains. “We may not be like Chris Tomlin and primarily write corporate worship songs, but my definition of worship is doing anything you can to advance the kingdom of God and to usher a body of people to the throne room of Christ. Whether we’re on a mainstream radio station or in a church or wherever, we do everything we can to make Christ the center of attention—the bottom line. So from that standpoint we will always be worship leaders.”
WORSHIP OFF THE CLOCK
Of course, they may not be worship leaders in the traditional sense of the word, but every Christian artist in communion with their worshiping community has to make the choice as to how they are going to use their talents for God at home. That will look different for each person. But as Millard shares, the need to be plugged into a community and serving there is more important than taking on the assumed role. “It’s an interesting thing because when I go home, I’m involved with my church as a father and a husband. I’m there with my family; I’m not as active in the worship part of it as I have been in the past. I’m very active, but probably not in the ways that you would expect. I think it’s really healthy for us, there are other things that God’s gifted me to do and ways to serve in the body.”
That might happen in delivering meals to families who can’t get out for themselves or in simply finding ways to serve others in their community. The issue for MercyMe is not a question of whether or not to engage, it’s about being willing to get in there and take part. It would be easy to simply say that their worship job is done when the tour ends. But it is clear that no matter what the world may define as a success or failure, they are committed to being people who worship and who encourage others to make the effort to join in worship themselves. And you can hear that in their music. Always challenging listeners to re-evaluate their understanding of God and pushing for growth in a relationship with the Father. One thing that is going to stay constant with MercyMe is their willingness to go deep and grow.
“In every sense of the word, it would be really easy for us to say we are happy with what we are, let’s stop trying,” Says Millard. “Because we could produce the same stuff and pump it out. We could decide to stop trying to stretch ourselves or stop going deep. But for us to ever think that we could stop being creative and stop searching and stop reaching and stop stretching would be damaging for the body of Christ. God has so much more to show us, and the second that we think we’ve seen it all or we’ve had enough is prob- ably when we are in the most trouble. So it’s, obviously, crucial for our spiritual walk, but it’s also crucial for our craft. It’s crucial we continue to stretch ourselves.
“Someone asked me today what do you hope you’re doing in five years, and I said I hope I’m given the chance to stretch myself musically and spiritually, and that in five years we are still impacting the body of Christ.”
That is the kind of goal that any worship leader could cling to and know that their success, in the eyes of the One who matters, is absolutely assured.
- Find a way to worship that is outside the realm of your job as a worship leader and do it this week.
- Get with your worship team and brainstorm new creative ways to explore your repertoire of worship songs and to stretch yourselves.
- Write a song as a worship team; have everyone participate in the creation.
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