After 20 years, MercyMe renewed spiritually, creatively

Courtesy photo Christian rock band MercyMe performs its faith-based music Friday night at the Clay Center.
Courtesy photo
After 20 years together, Christian rock band MercyMe is going strong, but for a while, it wasn’t.

Milestones come at different times for every band. MercyMe is celebrating one now.

Founded in 1994, the Christian rock band that became an “overnight success” in 2001 with its song “I Can Only Imagine” has been around for 20 years, but that’s not the milestone its members are focusing on.

They almost didn’t make it.

Bart Millard, who performs with MercyMe Friday night at the Clay Center, said after its last record, 2012’s “The Hurt & The Healer,” the band came within a hair of breaking up.

“I think that was the lowest point of our career,” he said. “The lowest point spiritually and emotionally.”

The pace, Millard said, was killing them, and none of them felt like they could slow down — to even think they could was disobedient to God.

“I grew up in a legalistic church,” the singer explained. “You were to give 110 percent. You had to do everything you can, never rest, never stop serving, never take a break.”

Millard said a story from the Old Testament about how there were no chairs ever placed in the Holy of the Holies, the inner sanctum of the Hebrew Tabernacle, stayed with him.

“Priests weren’t allowed to sit down because it could never look like they weren’t busy, he said. “I bought that hook, line and sinker.”

So, Millard said the group’s five members just didn’t slow down. They stayed busy with MercyMe and their mission, but their personal lives withered from lack of attention.

“I was an absentee dad, an absentee husband and nothing was making sense,” he said. “It got to be that ‘doing it for the Kingdom’ almost became a bad thing to say around my family because it always took me away from them.”

So, he told his bandmates he thought he was done.

“And they told me they kind of felt the same way,” Millard said.

It almost went that way, too, but then they decided to see if they could fix what wasn’t working. They cut their tour schedule in half and got out of debt. They moved to Nashville, which was more convenient for musical collaboration and recording. 

Millard said they went back to the drawing board with how they do things. They stopped thinking in terms of what they thought might be popular or picked up by radio.

“Success became like a machine,” he said. “You don’t want to be the one to bring it to a halt. You start thinking, ‘Well, if they liked this song, maybe we should try to do that again.’

“We shut the machine down.”

So, he said, they locked themselves away and started making music with no preset intentions or specific guidelines for how it had to sound.

“It was the most fun we’d ever had.”

They even got their families involved some. Three of Millard’s children appear in the chorus for “Flawless.”

“It was just chaos,” he said. “We recorded them about 30 times, and dude, it’s phenomenal. It’s one of my favorite moments, and I’m just a proud dad.”

The work became the band’s latest album, “Welcome to the New,” released April 8.

Millard said the new record is a milestone. It’s how they’ve found themselves in a new place spiritually.

“It’s an understanding that all this time we’ve been trying to please God, he’s been screaming the he is pleased and has been ever since the day we called his name. He’s never stopped.”

Changing their focus from trying to find favor with God to just accepting the grace that’s already there has made all the difference.

So, MercyMe feels renewed. They’ve reached 20 years, but they feel like they’re brand new.

Reach Bill Lynch at or 304-348-5195.

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