I Can Only Imagine

Album: Almost There (2001)
Charted: 71


  • MercyMe is a contemporary Christian group, and this song was written by their lead singer Bart Millard. In this song, Millard imagines what it will be like meeting Jesus for the first time.

    When we spoke with Millard in 2012, he told us that he wrote the song in about 10 minutes, and that it was one of just three songs he wrote where he felt like he was "a spectator watching the song being written" (the others were "Word of God Speak" and "The Hurt & The Healer"). Regarding the song's meaning, 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. 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."
  • Almost There was the band's first album, and this was released as the first single. It was huge hit on the Christian charts, going to #1 and getting airplay on both Christian and secular radio stations.
  • Amy Grant was offered this song, but when MercyMe's version was successful, she held off on releasing her version, which was slightly re-written and titled "Imagine." Grant combined her version with "Sing the Wondrous Love of Jesus" for her 2002 album Legacy...Hymns and Faith.
  • In our interview with Bart Millard, he said that this song changed the songwriting dynamic of MercyMe, as he was the only credited writer on the track and didn't like the attention that brought him. Said Millard: "When 'I Can Only Imagine' blew up, I ended up being isolated as far as everybody wanting to talk to me, because I wrote "Imagine" versus merging me to the band. I was in a band for a reason: to have the camaraderie, to go through this together. So it got really tough. I don't know if it got tough for them, but it got tough for me. You know, hey, you've got to do these interviews, the band's going to go over here. I'm like, Man, we did it, we stay together.

    So I made sure it never happened again by changing the way we write songs. Instead of me bringing an idea to the table and them adding music to it - almost like, Okay, the melody's there, let me assign the chords that go with it, which really isn't writing music that much - we will go in the studio and create the music first together, and then it's kind of a weird thing. I think it's awesome; it's a bigger challenge for me. But you get in the studio, you start, Well, man, I think the verse should be something like this, it should go this long. You kind of go by feel. Okay, feels like we should go to the chorus, what should the chorus be? We'll hash something out."
  • Other artists to record this include Jeff Carson, Kathryn Scott, Wynonna Judd and Emerson Drive. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Donovan Berry - El Dorado, AR
  • This won the award for Song of the Year at the 2002 Dove Awards.
  • The story behind the song was adapted into a 2018 feature film starring J. Michael Finley and Dennis Quaid.
  • MercyMe recorded a special version of the song for the I Can Only Imagine movie. Bart Millard said regarding "I Can Only Imagine (The Movie Session)":

    "The song has meant a lot to me over the years and it really came out of a difficult season. It brought me a lost of hope but there has always been something very melancholy about the song in the way that it was recorded before.

    Getting to do it over this time around, I really felt like it would be awesome to shape it in a more celebratory tone, where it conveys us rejoicing in the fact that we don't have to imagine much longer. It has this cinematic and whimsical feel about it and it really fits with how I see the song today differently from when I first wrote it."

Comments: 12

  • Mimi from WashingtonI hear a voice in the background too. But I can't make out what it says.
  • Heidi Rictor from Californiawho else hears, "I'll be back" whispered in the background towards the end of the song?
  • Anonymouswho else hears, "I'll be back" whispered in the background towards the end of the song?
  • Kat from Holland UsaThis gives me so much Peace, Comfort
    When I Lost my Mother auto accident.
    She was the greatest example of Grace,Love, Do for others
    God 1st, Others 2nd, &Self Last
  • Sierra from KansasWonderful song! Has really stuck out to me.
  • Kaylee from AmericaI don't cry a lot because of my depression, but this song got me on the edge of crying. This song is truly amazing,and so is the movie. My school is doing something we like to call "fine arts." I am planning on doing a solo of this in front of about 200 players. I will have a piano player doing the back round music,but it's still nerve racking. But I know that God will be by my side encouraging me. I hope you all have an amazing and wonderful day. God bless you all. ^_^
  • Scott from Jackson, AkI can't wiat to meet Jesus. We all need to spread God's word to all people who don't know him.
  • Emily from Around Chicago, IlExactly, Rhianna. That's it. Besides, isn't that what purgatory is for? It says in the Bible that there is a state of purification before we go into heaven. Maybe that also includes being prepared to meet God and Jesus. Me being only 13, that sounds like a lot, but you hit the nail on the head. I just had to say something.
  • John from Pelion, ScIt was this song that helped me get through when of all of my Grandparents died within a five year period.
  • Kamla from Buffalo, NyIt always amazed me that this song was such a popular secular song. In a world where we are constantly taking Him out of everything, we get teary eyed over a song that has the words "I can only imagine when all I will do is forever, forever worship You." Ridiculous.
  • Rhianna from Badonkadonkville, OhDeffinately. It's impossible to know what its going to be like. But i don't think that it'll be as awkward as many people think. I think once we see Him, we'll automatically know what to do upon being in his presence.
  • Scott from Kings Park, NyGreat lyrics, and music. Makes you wonder what it would be like meeting Jesus
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