The Life Story Behind Bart Millard’s “I Can Only Imagine”
Imagine a young Bart Millard seated in a Nashville recording studio, grasping for words.
He’s struggling to tell the story behind a song that would eventually top both Christian and mainstream charts, net over 2 million digital downloads, and go platinum…TWICE.
The box office hit, I Can Only Imagine, tells that incredible story, and it begins right here—a conversation taking place between Bart and a woman whose face we can’t see. (We don’t want to spoil it for you so be sure to see the film to find out who she is.)
The woman wants nothing more than to know how I Can Only Imagine happened. What was Bart’s songwriting process? Where did he find inspiration? How much time had he spent crafting these lyrics?
“10 minutes.” That’s how long Bart says it took him to write I Can Only Imagine. But, his dialogue partner isn’t having it. “Bart,” she says, “you’ve been writing this song your entire life.”
She was exactly right.
What Is Bart Millard’s Story?
Bart Millard was born on December 1st, 1972 in Greenville, TX. To the casual observer, his childhood looked perfectly normal. On the inside, however, Bart’s formative years were marked by abandonment and physical abuse.
Bart was primarily raised by his father, Arthur. Once a rising star for the SMU Mustangs, Arthur left his glory on the gridiron to return home to Greenville. There, he married Bart’s mother, Adele, and took a job with the department of transportation.
Several years later, the Millard family was turned upside down when Arthur was accidentally run down by a semi-truck while on the job. Miraculously, he didn’t break a single bone in his body. His brain, on the other hand, was irrevocably damaged, leaving him in a coma for eight weeks.
When Arthur went home, Adele soon discovered how drastically he had changed. Her husband would frequently break out in fits of rage, set off by the most insignificant things.
Though he never laid a finger on his wife, Arthur would intentionally break everything that ever meant anything to her. Eventually, Adele buckled under the weight of his verbal, emotional, and psychological abuse. As far as she could see, she had no choice.
So, she left.
The Monster Only Bart Knew
We may not share the particulars of Bart’s journey, but in a broken world, each of us knows the sense of despair he faced—the fear that some relationship is so far gone that not even God could set things right again.
When Bart’s mom left, he was only in the third grade. Outside the home, no one saw the man Arthur had become. All they saw was a flighty mother who had turned her back on her family. There was no question whether Bart should stay home with his father.
Unfortunately, what we see on the surface doesn’t always tell the whole story.
Sadly, this is when the abuse began. Bart became the focal point of his father’s uncontrolled anger. Spankings gave way to full-on beatings, as Arthur found a sinister form of catharsis in laying hands on his young boy.
Every time, Arthur’s rage would soon give way to despair as he’d call his son into the room and apologize profusely for what he had done. Still, Bart’s dad had become an irredeemable monster. His only hope was to grow up, get out, and move on.
Or, so he thought.
When God Redeems the Irredeemable
Pancreatic cancer—two words no boy wants to hear applied to his dad, regardless of how strained their relationship might be. Nevertheless, these were the words Arthur shared with Bart in 1986.
Only a freshman in high school, there was no way Bart could prepare himself for what was to come. Much less could he anticipate the radical transformation he was about to witness in his father.
Staring down the face of terminal cancer, Arthur began to change radically. He started going to church. He read his Bible regularly and talked about all that it meant. Through the walls, Bart would hear him pray late into the night for him and his brother.
Arthur’s prayers were not for show. The kindness and love of God appeared and transformed Arthur from the inside out. Bart couldn’t believe it. The doctors couldn’t explain it. But, the monster had gone, and all that was left was a person who Bart himself describes as “the godliest man he never knew.”
The Scribbled Words of “I Can Only Imagine”
He proceeded to scribble ‘I can only imagine’ on anything he could find.
In his recent memoir, Bart vividly portrays the five years between his father’s diagnosis and his death in 1991. During that time, the two grew closer than Bart had ever imagined possible. This unforeseen bond made Arthur’s passing that much more devastating.
Bart recalls standing by the gravesite with his grandmother, who turned to him and gently whispered, “I can only imagine what Bub’s seeing right now.” That idea lodged itself in Bart’s mind. To envision his father in the presence of Jesus became his chief source of hope. He proceeded to scribble ‘I can only imagine’ on anything he could find.
Fast forward to 1999, when MercyMe was struggling to write one more song to complete their fifth album, The Worship Project.
It was late one night; Bart found himself alone on the tour bus, rifling through his journal looking for a clean sheet to write on. But, he couldn’t find one. Every single page had the words “I Can Only Imagine” scribbled across it. Before long, he got the hint and put his pen to paper.
Not even ten minutes later, he was finished, but God was only getting started.
An Audience of Two
The Worship Project failed to attract much attention, but that wasn’t the end of the story. The band decided to include the song as the lead single for the album, Almost There in 2001, a move that eventually led them to the top of the charts—Christian and mainstream.
How’d that happen?
In part, Imagine owes its towering success to one magical evening at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, TN. That night, one of Bart’s childhood heroes—Amy Grant—invited him out on stage to perform Imagine with her in front of a sell-out crowd.
In one of its final scenes, the movie shares the incredible power of this moment for Bart. There, we see Bart standing on the stage belting out the final chorus to Imagine. Suddenly, everyone fades away, and he imagines himself singing for an audience of only two: his Heavenly Father and his earthly dad.
In his memoir, Bart describes this moment as a kind of “holy convergence.” Everything Arthur stayed up late praying for had come true, and Bart could vividly imagine him looking on with joy as his little boy lifted his voice in praise.
Well Done Good and Faithful, Servant
Our life journey may look much different from Bart’s but since we live in a broken world, we can understand the despair he faced. That’s why this song and the story behind it resonate so deeply with our universal desire for restoration.
As Christians, we believe that intense longing is embedded in our very DNA as God’s creatures. And, we learn from Scripture that every broken relationship stems from that fateful day when the very first son experienced alienation from his Father. It is so important to talk about the topic of Jesus.
For those of us who follow Jesus, we look forward to a moment like the one Imagine portrays so well, when everything will fade away, and we can step into our Father’s presence to hear the words: “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt 25:23).
So, Dare to Imagine.
Dare to imagine that the story God intends to write for your future transcends both your past and your present. You’ve been afflicted and perplexed, persecuted and struck down, but your end is not yet. There is hope for you. And, perhaps more importantly, there is hope for the ones you’ve considered “too far gone.”
Do you need help on that journey?
- Read more about Bart’s story of redemption and the topic of forgiveness.
- Go deeper in our 28-day exploration through the Gospels to discover Jesus’ encounters with broken people.
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