When Dennis first mentioned the concept for this series “Songs That Changed Worship,” I first thought of “In Christ Alone.” Obviously, the Getty / Townend classic is quickly becoming the modern-day equivalent to “Amazing Grace” or “How Great Thou Art.” But as you know, John Cashion wrote about that song yesterday. Therefore, as I scoured through the last decade of worship songs I was reminded of the impact of Bart Millard’s (MercyMe) hit, “I Can Only Imagine.” I believe this is the most widely known Christian song of the last several decades (considering it’s prominence on both Christian and secular radio).
I first heard “I Can Only Imagine” in 1999 on MercyMe’s independent album “The Worship Project.” A friend of mine let me borrow the CD and I knew the song was special the very first time I listened to it. (By the way, I still have the CD – not sure which friend it was). Long story short, I started leading this song at our BSU services and I think we ended up singing it about every meeting for a year or two (prior to the mainline release of the song in 2001. ) By the time it was on Christian radio, we had nearly worn the song out.
So what is it about the song that connects with so many people? I think it is because it speaks to something that everyone thinks about. What happens after I die? What is it gonna be like to see Jesus? Will I stand in his presence or fall to my feet in worship? Will I sing for Him or not even be able to speak at all? “I Can Only Imagine” is a song that contains biblical thoughts on heaven and is a song that inspires passionate worship of Jesus. The song also taps into an area of modern worship music that is otherwise pretty weak. While southern gospel music is primarily known for “heaven” songs, very few contemporary songs even address the issue. There was / is a real need for biblical heaven songs for the church to sing.
I believe “I Can Only Imagine” is a song that changed worship because it faithfully addressed the topic of heaven in a way that connected with modern-day people. Most of the time when a “Christian” song crosses over to secular radio it is because the song is watered down. “I Can Only Imagine” is one of those rare songs that really says something of value, yet still strikes a chord with a wide range of people.