The Surprising Way “I Can Only Imagine” Became a #1 Hit on Mainstream Radio

Bart Millard of MercyMe in Concert

Mainstream radio isn’t exactly where you’d go to find songs about Jesus these days.

Consider the chorus to Camilia Cabello’s “Havana,” the #1 hit on Billboard’s Hot 100 Chart at the time of this writing.

Havana, ooh na-na (ay, ay)
Half of my heart is in Havana, ooh-na-na (ay, ay)
He took me back to East Atlanta, na-na-na (uh huh)
Oh, but my heart is in Havana (ay)
My heart is in Havana (ay)
Havana, ooh na-na

Now, compare that to the chorus from MercyMe‘s “I Can Only Imagine:”

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
Or to my knees will I fall?
Will I sing hallelujah
Will I be able to speak at all?
I can only imagine.

This simple comparison does raise an admittedly less-simple question: How does a Christian song like Imagine climb to the top spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 Single Sales chart?

More than that, how does it stay there for ten weeks? How can the same audience who rocks out to Havana metaphorically flip the dial and belt out a line about dancing for Jesus?

Bart Millard—the leader of MercyMe and writer behind the song—was just as surprised: “If there were a ‘Top Five’ of songs never meant to cross over, I would have thought this was one of them.”

How “I Can Only Imagine” Broke Into Mainstream Radio

After winning song of the year at the 2002 GMA Dove Awards, Imagine had pretty much run its course on Christian radio. That all changed, however, when a morning radio show called “The Fitz Radio Program” decided to give the song a spin in early 2003.

Now, neither Fitz nor its host station—100.3 Wild-FM—were particularly attuned to the faith-based audience. In fact, the show featured all the crudity you’d expect from a program fashioned after the image and likeness of Howard Stern.

Nevertheless, a regular Fitz listener took it upon himself to repeatedly call in and demand to hear Imagine. Whether it was a joke or the listener was sincere, this crew of rush-hour shock jocks wasn’t about to honor this guy’s request.

The Providence of God

The show’s producer, on the other hand, thought it was a great idea. Of course, this young man just happened to be a seminary student who’d only taken on the producer slot because he felt God wanted him to serve as a light in that dark place…

That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call God’s Providence.

Eventually, this modern-day version of Esther prevailed upon his hosts to put Imagine on the air. Almost immediately, it became the station’s top requested song—a spot it would hold for the next six months.

It was only a matter of time before stations across the country caught wind of Imagine’s success and jumped on the bandwagon. With a little promotional help from Curb Records, the song continued to storm mainstream charts for much of 2003.

Why “I Can Only Imagine” Became a Runaway Hit

All that explains the how of Imagine’s rise to mainstream success, but none of it explains the why: Why this song? Why was a mainstream audience so excited to hear a song about Jesus? Why did they not just change the station?

According to some, 2003 was ripe for “positive” songs like Imagine. America was still reeling after 9/11, and there was void to be filled in our national psyche.

That may be right, but a brief look at the top three songs of 2003 makes me wonder:

1. “In da club” by 50 Cent
2. “Ignition” by R Kelly
3. “Get Busy” by Sean Paul

These aren’t exactly what you’d expect for a listener in search of a little positivity. So, what was going on? How do we explain this song’s success? Perhaps we should ask the songwriter.

What does Bart Millard have to say?

As the Executive Producer of the film, City on a Hill had the opportunity to work with Bart Millard to design a suite of resources intended to help believers delve deeper into their redemptive journey.

I Can Only Imagine Series DVD Featuring Bart Millard by City On a Hill

I Can Only Imagine Series featuring Bart Millard.

The I Can Only Imagine Series is part of that suite and features Bart’s personal story in his own words. In episode 4 of the video series, Bart shares the profound impact Imagine’s crossover success had on people’s lives.

One of the stories he tells features a woman who’d decided to commit suicide by running her car off a bridge. As she prepared to press her foot to the pedal and prepared to meet her maker, Imagine began to play on the radio.

With Bart’s voice ringing in the background, she just couldn’t bring herself to do it.

A Message Of Hope

There were no sighs of relief here, just a long string of expletives and a fit of rage. Incensed that Wild-FM would interfere so catastrophically with her plans, this woman picked up her phone to give someone at the station a piece of her mind.

Try as she might, she just couldn’t get through. Apparently, the lines were jammed with countless others calling in to talk about how much they loved the song. So, she got back in the car, this time not to hurt herself, but whoever she could get her hands on at the station.

As she drove, the woman happened to see a billboard for a local Christian station. If she couldn’t find an ear to bend at Wild-FM, then at least she could unload her frustration on somebody in Christian music. So, she picked up her phone and dialed the number on the billboard.

When someone picked up on the other side, she was amazed to find herself listening more than she spoke. What she heard wasn’t at all what she was expecting. It was the Gospel, pure and simple—a message of hope for this woman who had none.

That’s when she gave her life to Jesus. By the time she reached Wild-FM, there was nothing left to say. She just got out of her car and hugged the first person she could find.

In more ways, than she could ever imagine, MercyMe’s song saved her life.

Can You Imagine?

You just can’t make this stuff up. Even better, this is only one of the many stories Bart could tell about the hope and healing God has wrought through the words of this song.

I’m neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but maybe that’s why Imagine became a mainstream hit.

And why not? Why couldn’t God take the hastily-written words of a contemporary Christian song and use them to minister to the hearts of millions? Aren’t we talking about the same God who assembled a ragtag bunch of 12 scruffy men to tell the story of a little-known Jewish rabbi in some worthless corner of the Roman Empire?

Those men had a story to tell—a “new song” to sing to the ends of the earth about a God who came to make his home with us so that we could one day make our home with Him. That’s the story Imagine is telling. That’s the song people need to hear, whether they realize it or not.

And, that’s why a mainstream audience can set aside its skepticism just long enough to sing, “I can only imagine when all I would do is forever worship you.”


I Can Only Imagine Series DVD BannerWant to hear more of Bart Millard’s incredible testimony after watching I Can Only Imagine? This 4-Episode Video Series features Bart Millard, lead singer of MercyMe. Bart shares his true testimony of redemption and hope, along with the lessons God has instilled in him. Contains select scenes from the I Can Only Imagine movie.

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