More than 20 years after its original release, "I Can Only Imagine" by MercyMe continues to be one of the best-selling Christian songs of all time. The tune finds lead singer Bart Millard imagining what it will be like to go to Heaven. The song lyrics are packed with visuals about walking next to Jesus Christ and God, standing in the sun, and feeling a sense of unexplainable joy.
"Surrounded by your glory / What will my heart feel / Will I dance for you Jesus / Or in awe of You be still / Will I stand in your presence / To my knees will I fall / Will I sing hallelujah / Will I be able to speak at all / I can only imagine / I can only imagine," sings Millard in the chorus.
The song was first released from the Oklahoma-based band's independent album, The Worship Project, in October 1999. This album led to a record deal with INO Records, and "I Can Only Imagine" was included on the band's official debut album, Almost There, released in 2001. The band released "I Can Only Imagine" as their second official single in October 2001 and it became a hit at Christian radio, spending two weeks at No. 1 on the Christian chart.
"I Can Only Imagine" soon crossed over to mainstream radio, landing at No. 5 on the Adult Contemporary chart, No. 27 on the Adult Top 40 and No. 71 on the Hot 100. The song also made appearances on the Mainstream Top 40 and the Hot Country songs charts. It also won the group multiple Dove Awards and ASCAP Christian Music Awards, and as of 2018, has sold more than 2.5 million copies.
Since its release, the song has had a far reach and influence on people of all faiths, and that big song started with one simple phrase -- I Can Only Imagine -- which lead singer Bart Millard scribbled in his notebook. That phrase was something Millard's grandmother said at the funeral of Millard's father, Arthur.
Bart Millard had a complicated relationship with his father. His parents were divorced when he was 3 years old, after which Millard went to live with his father, who was abusive to him through much of his childhood. The singer/songwriter told People he was "living in fear" as a child.
"If he got embarrassed or cut off in traffic or whatever, he would take a swing at me," Millard told the publication. "I was like his punching bag."
However, after Millard's father was diagnosed with cancer when the singer was a teenager, their relationship began to change. Millard says his father found God and the two became closer through his illness. By the time he passed away, Millard called his father "the Godliest man I'd ever known," which, in turn, helped Millard find God as well.
Then, at his father's funeral, his grandmother said to him, "'I can only imagine what your dad's seeing now," referencing his father's new life in Heaven. That phrase, I Can Only Imagine, stuck with Millard, and he says he wrote it on everything he could find as an "O.C.D." habit. Eventually, Millard turned that phrase into the song we know today.
The song and Millard's story with his father found another home in 2018 with the release of the feature film, I Can Only Imagine. Starring J. Michael Finley as Bart Millard and Dennis Quaid as Arthur Millard, the movie tells the redemptive story of Millard's relationship with his father and the powerful song that came out of it. The movie went on to become a success at the box office, garnering $86 million with a budget of $7 million. The band released a new version of "I Can Only Imagine," titled "I Can Only Imagine (The Movie Session)," for their 2018 album, I Can Only Imagine: The Very Best of MercyMe. The song continues to be one of the best worship songs released in recent history, alongside tunes from Lauren Daigle, Hillsong, and other Christian artists.