There's no doubt that Mercy Me is among the most popular ensembles in Christian music today, routinely churning out faith-based hits.
But it's the story behind the band's 1999 song, "I Can Only Imagine" that, to this day, has some of Mercy Me's very own members still scratching their heads.
The tune ended up going megaviral back in 2003, becoming a fixture on many mainstream stations' playlists — a story that is truly remarkable considering the overtly Christian lyrics.
During a recent visit to TheBlaze's New York City newsroom, the band — comprised of Bart Millard, Nathan Cochran, Barry Graul, Robby Shaffer and Michael John Scheuchzer — discussed their new holiday album, "It's Christmas," and explained how "I Can Only Imagine" ended up becoming a Billboard Hot 100 hit years after its release, inspiring millions of Americans through mainstream radio.
Listen to Mercy Me discuss the stunning story at the 31:00 mark below:
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It was something that Mercy Me never set out to do with the song. After all, the lyrics focus on encountering Jesus Christ in heaven.
"Surrounded by your glory, what will my heart feel, will I dance for your Jesus, or in awe of you be still," the lyrics read. "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."
The song's organic spread from Christian radio to secular a few years after its 1999 release all started after a dare that was made to play the tune during a shock jock morning show back in January 2003, the band explained.
Fitz, Tony and Big Gay Steven, the then-hosts of Wild 101 FM's "The Fitz Show" decided to play the song as somewhat of a joke. And when they did, something unexpected happened: the phone lines lit up with requests for "I Can Only Imagine" to be played again.
The song had already run its course in Christian radio and the band had moved on, but suddenly Mercy Me was in a fascinating position, as a Christian song that was intended for praise and worship had made its way onto the secular airwaves — and people were loving it.
Soon, interest in the song snowballed and the band's record label began sending copies of it to top 40 stations across the country, challenging program managers to play it. When they did, their phones blew up as well, with the masses wanting to hear more of the Christian song.
"Word just started getting out. Our label didn’t know what to do with it. How do you even promote this?" Millard told The Church Boys. "They agreed to send a copy to the stations and say, 'Play it once and if you don’t get a reaction just throw it out.'"
He said that those who played it quickly saw the song top their charts, with Mercy Me members explaining that DJs were contacting them and saying that this was the first time in their careers that people were actually calling to thank them for playing something inspirational.
"'I Can Only Imagine' had the largest response ever in a record that I have tested," Steve Matthews, director of programming at WZNY in Augusta, Georgia, told UPI at the time. "I played the song one time and my phones were solid for the next 20 minutes. The calls were not asking me who the artist was, but to thank me for playing the song."
He continued, "I received calls from surrounding markets begging me to call other markets to tell them to play it."
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