A Contemporary Christian Music
Sometimes shortened to Imagine, “I Can Only Imagine” is contemporary Christian music by Christian rock band MercyMe.
Lead Vocalist Bart Millard penned the song. The death of his father inspired him to write the song. He expressed in the song what it would be like in heaven and standing before God.
First issued as a single on MercyMe‘s album The Worship Project in 1999, Almost There was released on an independent record label. In 2001, it was re-recorded and included on the band’s major label debut album Almost There as their lead single.
From then on, “I Can Only Imagine” gained significance on Christian radio formats crossing over to mainstream radio formats such as adult contemporary. In late 2003 to early 2004, it entered the charts and ranked no. 40.
Moreover, it charted on several formats. It peaked no. 5 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary. Also, it reached no. 71 on Billboard Hot 100. In 2002, the song won the Dove Awards for Pop/Contemporary Recorded Song of the Year and Song of the Year.
At the same time, Millard earned the Dove Award for Songwriter of the Year. With 2.5 million copies sold for the single, RIAA certified “I Can Only Imagine” platinum. Hence, it is the best-selling Christian single of all time. To date, no other Christian song has gone far to this milestone.
The Story, Millard’s Inspiration
Bart Millard, the band’s lead vocalist and songwriter, revealed that he finished writing the song in 10 minutes. It was one of the three songs he wrote where he felt like he was “a spectator watching the song being written.”
In an interview in 2012, Millard stated,
“When my father died of cancer in 1991, he left me with the assurance that he was headed to a better place. For several years following his death, I would find myself writing the phrase ‘I can only imagine’ on anything I could find. That simple phrase would give me a peace thinking about what my dad was finally experiencing.”
He then continued and said,
“Years later, in 1999, MercyMe was writing songs for an independent project. I remember coming home from a show and being wide awake on our bus at 2 o’clock in the morning. I was trying to write lyrics in an old notebook of mine, when all of a sudden, I stumbled across that phrase. About ten minutes later, the song was written. Some people say it’s amazing that it was written in ten minutes, when really it had been on my heart for almost ten years.”
Watch and listen to the original music video upon the song’s release in 1999.
On February 2, 2018, MercyMe published a new version of the song. It has an upbeat and more dynamic rhythm than the original.
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Bart Millard, I Can Only Imagine, MercyMe