“I Can Only Imagine” was the biggest Christian hit single of all time. It’s now a movie. And you might just take an unsaved friend to see it.
Thousands of years ago, the Psalmist wrote, “The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them.”
Today, we can laugh along with Him. In the nation’s theaters, a low-budget film with a strong Christian theme is handily outperforming a heavily promoted, big-budget, Academy Award-winning film celebrating a homoerotic relationship between an underage teenager and an adult.
It did so even though the gay-themed film, “Call Me By Your Name,” is being shown in 50 percent more theaters.
This is good news on several fronts—most importantly, that when films like “I Can Only Imagine” are made, they reach people who never set foot in church.
“I Can Only Imagine” is the story of Bart Millard, lead vocalist of the Christian band, MercyMe. In 2001, Bart’s “I Can Only Imagine,” became the biggest contemporary Christian hit single ever, crossing over to achieve success in mainstream markets, as well.
In the film, Bart, played by J. Michael Finley, tells singer Amy Grant that it took him only a few minutes to write the song, which imagines what it would be like to stand in Heaven before Almighty God. But Grant corrects him. “It didn’t take you ten minutes to write this. It took a lifetime.”
And Grant is right. Bart’s song was inspired by his relationship with his father, played by Dennis Quaid. Bart describes his father as a monster who badly abused him. As a child, Bart rediscovers his faith—and his love of music—at a praise camp. That music becomes Bart’s only escape from the misery of his home life, and when he turns 18 he hits the road with a band. Along the way they pick up a manager, Scott Brickell, played by country music star Trace Atkins.
But when the musical powers that be tell Bart he just isn’t good enough, he becomes enraged, in part because those words—“you aren’t good enough”—echo the insults of his father.
Brickell urges Bart to go home and face his demons. He does go home—only to find, to his amazement, that his father has accepted Christ. As the real-life Bart recently told me on my other radio show, his father “went from being a monster to being desperately and passionately in love with Jesus.”
While it’s hard for Bart to forgive his dad for all those beatings, their relationship is healed before his father’s death of pancreatic cancer—a father who now urges Bart to chase his dreams.
Bart returns to his band and writes “I Can Only Imagine,” the beginning of great success for MercyMe.
Now, you need to know that this is not some fluffy Christian film; it reveals the darkness of human sin. After all, if the darkness is not really dark, what are we being saved from? It’s rated PG and contains one intensely violent confrontation between father and son.
You and I ought to take advantage of films like “I Can Only Imagine”—not only because they’re excellent, but also because, according to the Barna Group, fewer Americans are attending church, and “Millennials in particular are coming of age at a time of great skepticism and cynicism towards institutions—particularly the church.”
If we want to influence them for Christ, we may need to find creative ways of reaching them, on top of inviting them to our churches.
So I suggest you grab an unsaved friend and go see “I Can Only Imagine,” and then talk about it over a pizza. You might even give your friend a copy of Bart’s book, or one of his mega-selling CDs.
Your friend may learn something he never understood before: That a gracious and loving God can heal even our greatest wounds—and help us forgive the ones who inflicted them.
Eric Metaxas is the host of the “Eric Metaxas Show,” a co-host of “BreakPoint” radio and a New York Times #1 best-selling author. His most recent book is “Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World.”
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by BreakPoint.