After Season of Hurt, MercyMe Finds Healing
“God, we don’t need to have contact with You. We don’t need our paths just to cross. We need a full-blown collision. Just create this incredibly beautiful mess to where we have no choice but to walk away from it changed because everything around us has You all over it.”
MercyMe’s lead singer Bart Millard has never prayed a more earnest prayer than he did at the funeral of his cousin last August. Killed in the line of duty, the firefighter was more like a brother than a cousin to Millard. “One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do was stand behind a pulpit at the funeral and explain to 3,000 firefighters how God is somehow in control,” Millard shares. It was at this moment that he prayed in desperation for God’s healing to collide with his hurt. A new perspective, and the theme behind a new album, was born.
“God never really said He’d pull us out of stuff, but that He would go through it with us," Millard muses. "My prayer has stopped being that and more of ‘God, just don’t let this moment go in vain. Whatever I’m going through, let it change me, and let it glorify You.’ It would almost hurt more if nothing came out of this.”
As MercyMe headed into the studio to begin work on their seventh studio release, Millard was still dealing with the aftermath of the sudden loss, and the band was coming up against one setback after another. The record almost didn’t happen.
“We’ve never felt more attacked while making a record than we felt on this one,” says Millard. “We hit every speed bump you could imagine that would delay the album or just crazy stuff over and over again – whether from a business side or personal side – and it was just non-stop to where we almost gave up and said, ‘You know what? It’s not going to happen.’ We were going to the label and saying, ‘We’re going to start over, and it’s going to come out in the fall.’”
Fortunately, the team around them encouraged the band to push through, and The Hurt & The Healer (Fair Trade Services) surfaces this month as the band’s most personal record to date. Produced by Brown Bannister (Steven Curtis Chapman, Amy Grant) and Dan Muckala (Brandon Heath, The Afters), the album turned out to be one of their most rock-heavy releases – ironic since the content tackles such heavy themes. The songs were written from a place of questioning, a place of pain.
“The album is literally [me] wrestling with where I was,” Millard admits. “I was the guy buried in my guilt and shame.” When the wrestling match was over, Millard emerged with a newfound perspective and an urgent message for his fans.
“The album was definitely therapeutic. I’ve built a career on being unworthy and talking about how we’re nothing without Christ, which is true; but even though our intentions may be good, I sometimes wonder if Christ isn’t sitting there going, ‘No, you used to not be worthy – you’re worthy now. You’re righteous. You’re holy as I am holy. It’s OK to remember what you were, but let’s move on. Your identity is not your guilt or shame; your identity is in Christ.”
It’s a message Millard and his bandmates are eager to share through The Hurt & The Healer, and every night from the stage. “I’m done telling people to stop sinning,” affirms Millard. “I’m going to devote all my time and effort to showing them their identity in Christ. It’s just a more important subject.”
One of the new songs Millard is most excited to share is “You Are I Am,” a powerful, up-tempo track that calls on New Testament imagery to remind listeners that the same God who conquered giants, shut the mouths of lions and called out kings, is still the God working in the midst of our lives today. “It’s this spirit that’s been throughout the Word and this epic stuff that chooses to live inside of me, and it’s pretty overwhelming to think about,” says Millard. “The same spirit that raised Christ from the dead lives inside of [us], and [we’re] already equipped with everything we need.”
Millard confesses it’s taken the process of making this new album and the hard lessons in this season of loss for him to learn he doesn’t have to live in a state of shame forever. “The blessing and curse of a songwriter is that our therapy is about four minutes long, and it has to rhyme,” he laughs. “The last song on the album is called ‘The First Time.’ There are parts that actually feel like this is the first time I’ve realized what I’ve had all this time. It was a cool and sometimes difficult process to go through.”
Following this season of intense physical and emotional stress, the band is headed into a month off. With some blood pressure problems and the non-stop emotional rollercoaster he’s been on since the death of his cousin, Millard asked the label for 30 days off to take a break. The label obliged, despite the fact the band will be simultaneously releasing their new record.
Although the subject matter on The Hurt & The Healer may be deep, Millard & co. are having more fun than ever before, relishing being in a place of artistic freedom and flexibility in their current veteran status. Look no further than their immensely popular Cover Tune Grab Bag videos on YouTube which have amassed a cult following.
What started as a 2 a.m. goof-off session captured on film resulted in a series of covers requested by fans. The latest editions include a host of characters. Last year’s “Ob-la-Di, Ob-la-Da” featured all the artists on MercyMe’s Rock & Worship Roadshow Tour in a hallway backstage in Fresno. To date, that video alone has already garnered over one million views. The latest Cover Tune entry was filmed in that same hallway with the Roadshow singing none other than Justin Bieber’s “Baby.” Millard says doing a corporate “grab bag” in that Fresno hallway is now a tradition.
Speaking of tradition, the popular band is quick to not lose sight of where they came from and the song that started it all. When asked if there will ever be another “I Can Only Imagine,” Millard pauses. “I think it’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime song. The stuff that it’s done is beyond me. It’s like the song that won’t go away, so I can’t fathom writing another song that has that kind of impact,” he says. “When it came out, the label was like, ‘We need to do that again.’ And looking back, it’s like ‘Really?’ A lot of bands spend their whole career trying to create a career song, and for whatever reason, we had one out of the gate. Sometimes, it’s difficult to follow up, but it’s been nothing but a blessing for us. We still close the show with it.”
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