FamilyLife Today® Podcast

I Can Only Imagine

with Andy Erwin, Kevin Downes | March 16, 2018
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Hear the story behind the hit song "I Can Only Imagine." Director Andy Erwin and Producer Kevin Downes tell the God stories behind the making of the movie.

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  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

Hear the story behind the hit song “I Can Only Imagine.” Director Andy Erwin and Producer Kevin Downes tell the God stories behind the making of the movie.

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I Can Only Imagine

With Andy Erwin, Kevin Downes
March 16, 2018
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Bob: It is one thing for a movie to be entertaining, but it’s something else when that movie stirs something deep inside of you. That’s what’s happening for a lot of people around the movie that premiers in theaters this weekend called I Can Only Imagine. Here’s the producer of that movie, Kevin Downes.

Kevin: We have so many people that come up to us—and their story is so unique—but what’s special about it is—when they watch the film, they say: “You know what? That’s my story.” Everybody’s gravitating towards what I Can Only Imagine means to them. Our prayer is that there’s healing that is going on—that there are fathers that are out there that are waiting for their son / maybe waiting for a phone call from their sons so that they can actually make amends and seek forgiveness for the past.

Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, March 16th. Our host is Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.



A lot of people know the song, I Can Only Imagine; but only a few know the powerful story behind that song. We’ll hear more about it today. Stay with us.

And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Friday edition. We are in a special situation today—we have a live studio audience. They have just been with us, and we have screened the movie that is coming out in theaters this weekend, I Can Only Imagine. What did you guys think? [Loud cheering] Alright; I think they thought that was pretty good. [Laughter]


Dennis: I think they liked it a little bit.

Bob: We have with us a couple of the guys responsible for the film. Do you want to introduce them?

Dennis: A couple of the guys—we have the co-director / [co-directing] along with his brother—Andy Erwin / your brother is Jon. Glad you guys were successful again. I can’t believe this.



Andy: I love whenever you guys invite us here.

Dennis: And Kevin Downes, who is the producer of this. Thank you for the job you did on this. I have to tell you guys—I think this is going to be every bit as big a hit as War Room was—I really do. [Applause]

Andy: Thank you!

Dennis: I’m just really excited, and the reason is—you and I, Andy, were talking about this a bit earlier—you’re tapping into something that is intensely biblical and close to our heavenly Father’s heart. The Old Testament ends with two verses that proclaim the Messiah coming; and when He comes, “He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their sons and their sons to the fathers, lest He come and smite the land with a curse.” You’re seeing this all around the country as you’ve premiered this and seen people’s responses to this; right?

Andy: Absolutely, Dennis.



I think—somebody shared that verse with me as we were wrapping the film / shooting it. The neat thing to see is—when something like this happens—and I’m sure that Steve and Alex can say the same thing about War Room—is when there’s a greater message to it, that you see God orchestrating it. It really kind of comes together at the last minute—you see that it was on God’s heart long before it was on yours, as a storyteller. He brought the pieces together to tell that story.

As we stepped in to tell this story about Bart, we were so attracted to it; because it was the story of the greatest Christian song of all time. But as we got into it, the father/son story was so powerful—and the story of restoration and forgiveness. Dennis Quaid plays the father in this film—to see how men respond to this movie has been earth-shattering. It’s been just a real treat.

Dennis: Many of our listeners are not fans of music, like Bob is. He could recite exactly how well this song has done.



Kevin, share with our listeners exactly how popular I Can Only Imagine has been and what it’s done over the years.

Kevin: Well, I mean, you know, I believe it’s one of the most-played bestselling contemporary Christian songs of all time. That doesn’t surprise me; when you look at a song that has been relevant for—what?—17 years? We have so many people that come up to us—and their story is so unique—but what’s special about it is—when they watch the film, they say: “You know what? That’s my story.” Everybody’s gravitating towards what I Can Only Imagine means to them. Our prayer is that there’s healing that is going on—that there are fathers that are out there that are waiting for their son / maybe waiting for a phone call from their sons so that they can actually make amends and seek forgiveness for the past.

One story that happened in the Midwest—we shared the film with some leadership at a church—



—and afterwards, this young man, who had been going to church for about three months, came up. He was about 24 years old, hadn’t seen his dad in 10 years. He said: “When the credits started rolling, I pulled my phone out. We’re connected on Facebook®, but I’d never talked to him. I said, ‘Hey, can we meet tomorrow for lunch?’” And then the follow-up to that is that they met; and now, at that lunch, his dad sought forgiveness from his son.

Dennis: Wow.

Kevin: And they now have a relationship together. [Applause] Yes. And in about a month or so since that happened, the mom and the son have been to church every Sunday; and there’s been healing and restoration in that family.

Dennis: You’re really talking about bringing fathers and sons back together. It’s tied to the Fifth Commandment in the Old Testament—it’s the first commandment with a promise: “Honor your mother and your father.”



You know, I think there are a lot of fathers who feel dishonored by their sons—maybe they earned some of it—but the son has not truly gone back home and honored them. I think this movie is going to spark a revival in young men / maybe some older men to go back home to their fathers and do the very thing you talked about—ask for forgiveness—or also go back home and honor their fathers for what they did right.

Bob: A lot of people, who are going to go watch this movie this weekend, are going to see Dennis Quaid—who they have seen in lots of movies / who is a recognizable, quality actor—and they’re going to go: “What’s going on there? What’s going on spiritually with him? How did he get involved with this story?” Just talk a little bit about his interest in this movie and what it was like having him in that role.

Kevin: Yes; let me share the interest real quick, and then Andy will share something really cool. It was only by God that Dennis Quaid is in this movie, and I’m going to explain it here in a second.



The way that we set up the filming of the movie was that the role of Bart’s dad was all in the last two weeks of the film, but we had a break for Christmas and New Year’s—and that was to get a star—somebody that, hopefully, God would lead us to that would play that role. The very last possible day—before we had to just move on from somebody else—something happened, where I had sort of given up. I’m like: “You know what? This isn’t going to happen. I don’t think this is going to work out.”

Jon was asking me: “What’s going on with Dennis?” and “Has there been any communication?” I said, “I don’t think it’s going to work out.” All of a sudden, I felt God nudging me: “Walk to your car.” We were shooting in a small town in Oklahoma, and my car is about four blocks away. I walk to my car / got in my car—had no idea why—whipped out my computer, wrote an email to his agent that kind of put a deadline of four hours later. Smash cut—four hours later, as the sun is setting—I get a phone call from one of our assistants, who was communicating with Dennis; and it is Dennis Quaid on the other line.



First thing he says to me—I had never talked to him before—first thing he says to me is, “Am I too late?” I said: “Dennis, you’re never too late. It’s really great to meet you.” In

30 seconds, the deal was done; and he was on his way out to Oklahoma City. He jumped in with both—I mean, just all in. It was cool to watch him perform in the film. And then a really neat story, once he saw the film for the first time—I’ll let Andy share.

Andy: Yes; along with that—while that was going on with Dennis—we really wanted somebody that was, you know, a really quality actor that would kind of embody the role but also really embrace this character’s redemption. There are a lot of actors that won’t do that. I had heard good things about Dennis because of him playing in Soul Surfer and other movies like that—that he was very open to that—but I was really starting to hit that panic moment.

One of the people I called in the midst of that was Stephen Kendrick. Stephen and Alex have been mentors to Jon and myself for years.



I just said: “Stephen, I feel like, ‘What am I doing?’ I’m doing this movie—we’re already filming—we don’t have a star.” He said: “Andy, if God’s in it, embrace closed doors. He won’t let you miss the right open one.”

I said, “Okay; alright, Lord, this is Your problem.” Within hours of us hitting that deadline of the panic moment, God brought us Dennis Quaid. When he came in, he portrayed the role beautifully. You know, Dennis was raised in the church—he was raised in Houston, Texas. He and his brother went to a Baptist church there in Houston.

I went to go show it to him at his house for the first time—and showed him an early cut of the movie—and it was him and his nine-year-old kids / he has two nine-year-old twins. After it was over, I turned around and said, “Dennis, what do you think?” I turn around, and Dennis was—I’m talking ugly crying / I’m talking sobbing—[Laughter]—you know, snotty nose / just a mess. [Laughter] He was like, “That was powerful!” I couldn’t say a whole lot; he hugged me three times—we said our goodbyes and I left.

He called Bart that night, and they talked for five hours.



He said, “After Andy left, my kids started asking me about God and about heaven. We had conversations like we’d never had before.” He said, “This movie is about how God does His miracles, the hard way sometimes.” He says, “I’m all in.” It was really neat to see how that—[Applause]

Dennis: Andy, we haven’t talked about the theme of abuse that’s in this movie. I’ve seen it twice now. I was sitting on the front row, weeping—just for the boys and the girls—little girls and little boys, who have been abused by their daddies. You’ve not just stopped with this theme in the movie—you’ve gone on to do something else, I noticed, in the credits at the end. Tell our listeners a little bit about the ministry that’s being done to those who’ve suffered from abuse.

Andy: You know, we feel like our movies—we feel like there’s a double bottom line. Yes; we want to make an entertaining movie that’s worth your price of admission—



—but the opportunity of the hearts that are moved—we feel like we have an obligation to point them in the right direction.

Kevin: Our vision is—we want to bring the church to the theater. If there’s a kid or an adult, who finds themselves in that theater not affiliated with the church—and all of a sudden this movie is the message that they needed to hear—we want to provide the answer of, “Now what do I do?”

Dennis: Kevin, I just want you to know—I think today presents an incredible opportunity for the church to reclaim the high moral and spiritual ground in our culture on a number of issues; but pragmatically to step into this one, where children are being hurt. I think—you’re giving the church, I think, a genuine place to make a difference and to speak to the culture—to say: “We care. Our gospel is about getting people into heaven; but it’s about the love of Christ being displayed for broken people, who’ve suffered incredible harm and evil.”



I just want to thank you guys for not just creating a great, entertaining movie, but at the end, giving the church a chance to step up and make a big difference. Thanks. [Applause]

Kevin: At the end of the day, we’re one body—and we are the hands and the feet. We wanted to make something that was so easy for us to just pick up and go: “You know what? I can do that,” and actually be one body, together, and be the hands and feet of Christ.

Bob: Andy, there had to be a conversation, at some point, about, “Do we cast Bart as Bart in this movie?”—[Laughter]—right?

Andy: Yes; absolutely. You know, we talked about that. We had to make a conscious decision, “Do we use the real people?” because we also—in the story, we highlight Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, and several other well-known people, especially within our core audience—that they know them / that they’re household names. We said: “Do we use the real people and just kind of turn back the hands of time a little bit?” or “Do we go out and find these fresh faces?”



Once we committed / once we found—we did an open casting call across the whole country, because we wanted somebody to do their own singing. Bart has an incredible range. We found this kid, John Michael Finley—he submitted out of New York City—never been in a movie, but he was in a Broadway play called Les Misérables—he played the understudy for Jean Valjean. I took Bart with me to go see the play. When it got to the song, Bring Him Home, I looked at Bart and I was like, “Is this the guy?” He was like, “This is the guy.”


We pulled him in—we started asking him about his story. His dad is an associate pastor at a church in Missouri. He grew up going to camps, hearing MercyMe sing; so it was a world that he knew really well. He stepped in, and he steals the show.

Once we did that, we went out and found actors that really fit the people they were playing.

Kevin: But let me just—Andy makes it sound so easy—like this just happened. Have you ever been put in a situation where fear drives your decision-making, but you really know it shouldn’t?—



—and you’re like, “God, please let me leap / step out in an act of faith, because I know You’re going to provide the right person.”

We were presented with that many times, because—think about it—you’re going to find a young actor that kind of resembles Bart—that can sing, that can act, and gets the heart of what we’re actually trying to do. Because it’s one thing to act it; it’s another thing to believe it and to portray it out on stage—and that’s not an easy thing to find. But God just said, [Makes a popping sound] “Here you go, right here,”—we are blessed and gifted to have that young man in our cast.

Bob: I saw some clips from the movie, early on. I said, “Amy Grant did a great job.” [Laughter] Seriously! And then they go, “That’s an actress.” I said, “No; that’s Amy…”

Andy: For anybody in the room that has not figured it out, that was not actually Amy Grant. When she came in—you know, we all know Amy really well. I did a music video for Amy, back in the day; so Jon and I consider her a dear friend.



Anybody that knows Amy knows that she’s one of the most generous people on the planet. So any actress that came in—I said, “You know, we know Amy well, and, you know…” So anybody who came in: “That’s not Amy,” “That’s not Amy.” This girl walked in and had perfected Amy so much that I got spooked. We looked at each other like—

Kevin: “That’s Amy Grant.”

Andy: “What was that?” So—

Dennis: I just want to confess—you had me, because I thought it was Amy Grant. [Laughter]

I don’t know how much you want to give away; but did that really happen?—what happened at the end of the movie?

Kevin: Yes; it did.

Dennis: Seriously!

Kevin: It did. You know, that was what sold us on the movie; because we had already been talking to Bart about his story—about his story with his dad. We were doing a radio show, one day down in Tampa, a morning show promoting Woodlawn. Off the air, the host asked us, “What are you looking at next?” We said, “Bart Millard’s story—MercyMe and I Can Only Imagine.” He said: “Oh my goodness. I was at the Ryman that night when Amy pulled up Bart on the stage.” And I said—

Andy: We were like, “Excuse me?”

Kevin: Yes!

Bob: You hadn’t heard the story.



Andy: No! We called Bart—we were like, “Did this happen?” He was like: “Oh yes! I forgot to tell you guys that.” [Laughter]

Kevin: And this is the movie!

Andy: I’m like—I guess that’s the first day that my real life exceeded my imagination—that was a good day. [Laughter] I was like: “Bart! How is this not in the script?!”

Kevin: All of a sudden, at that moment, the movie took shape. I remember a call with these guys, and you know—like when seven-year-olds are so giddy on Christmas Day—that was the conversation that happened, because we knew that the movie had just been found. They did such a great job—you guys really did such a great job.

Bob: Kevin, we’ve talked with our audience about this before, but we need to say it again: “This weekend is critical for, not just the success of this film, but for faith-based films having a place at the local cinemas.”

Kevin: Yes; yes—amen is right. Look, this weekend is when we can make a difference—not just in our communities, changing lives / the stories that you’re going to hear—



—you’re all going to hear them if you bring people or go with people to the film / you’re going to see lives being changed in front of you—but it’s also the weekend that the media watches, and the media takes notice. We want to be on the headlines and surprise everybody, Monday morning, that I Can Only Imagine: “What is this movie?” so that journalists have to actually go and investigate what we’re all about, and what this movie is all about, and it brings more awareness to what our film is all about.

Bob: And it could be that next weekend it’s in more theaters than this weekend; because if it succeeds on opening weekend, then theater owners say: “Oh, we didn’t expect that. We’ll give you more theaters.”

Kevin: Yes; yes. They will, all of a sudden, start requesting it: “We want this, this, this, and this,” and we’re prepared for that. God said, “Prepare for rain,”—right?—and so we’re prepared for the harvest. On Monday morning, if the word is good, you’re going to see big things happen following that.

Dennis: And I was imagining—[Applause]




Yes; and as I was watching the movie, just experiencing it, I was thinking about Monday and beyond and the movie doing well; and I thought, “I can imagine an Oscar nomination?” [Laughter]


Kevin: Dennis will take you anywhere you want to go to! [Laughter]

Dennis: Why not have the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ show up at an event? [Applause] I’m serious! I am really sick and tired of the messages that have been portrayed as being the core of our nation, and this has been the core of our freedom as a country.

I want you to turn this personally, at this point, to the crowd that’s here live—here on the Love Like You Mean It® cruise—who just watched the movie. There’s a man / a woman, who’s watched this movie, who’s suffered from abuse.



What would you gentlemen say to that young lady / that young man? What would be your counsel to them, going forward, leaving here after being touched profoundly and emotionally by this movie?

Kevin: First of all, I would say: “Today is a new day.” Just like Bart said, at the end of the movie, live—actually, on C-Span, at the prayer breakfast: “If the gospel can change that dude, the gospel can change anyone.”

That’s the exciting thing about it is—when Christ died on the cross—that means that yesterday is gone; it’s absolutely gone. That alone is enough to be so excited—when two people are coming from a hurt past, when all of a sudden, they have a bond that they connect; and it focuses on the cross. [Applause]



Andy: To add to that—you know, as we’ve done this movie, Bart’s one of my best friends—and kind of getting a little bit of a glimpse into his pain, as he’s been vulnerable—you have a deep degree of empathy from us towards you if you’ve gone through that. I think, if you really want to understand God’s compassion and heart for your pain, listen to songs that Bart’s written in the past three or four years, like They’re a Younger Me. That was specifically geared towards his eight-year-old self—of what he would go back and tell him about God’s unconditional love for him as he was going through that pain. God loves you, and He is faithful to meet you right where you’re at.

The second thing—I would turn it around—is for those of you that may have been on the other side—the Arthur-side of that equation—that thought to yourself: “I couldn’t—it’s too late for me. I’ve screwed up too much, and there’s no hope for that restoration.” This is a man that, at the twilight of his life, as he was dying of cancer, God did a work in his heart, and completely redeemed and restored a broken relationship with his son.



And as a result, I think millions and millions of people are going to hear about the gospel of Jesus Christ. Arthur’s already in heaven, getting rewards for that. I think that God’s grace is big enough for your worst mistake, and no relationship is too far gone to redeem. [Applause]

Bob: Great movie. [Applause]

Andy: Thank you.

Dennis: And I would just say to this audience—if you’re in that group of people, who’ve experienced this, two things: number one, you’re called, as a follower of Christ, to forgive as you’ve been forgiven. There’s a profound moment in the movie where Bart was reminded of something he’d written to himself, as a boy, at a youth camp, calling to forgive. I think we need to go back to the gospel in our own lives and practice it.

And then the second thing that I think is equally important is—if you’ve been abused, use that pain.



There was a line in there by—

Andy: —Trace.

Dennis: —by Trace. It was, “Use the pain that has impacted you to sing the song from your soul.”

Andy: Yes.

Dennis: And if we’ve been forgiven, we can tell the story of what God has done in our lives and in our parents’ lives to pass it on to other people. We live in a broken culture; and there’s not going to be less abuse, there’s going to be more. We need to be messengers, I believe, as both men and women, of that message of healing to the nation.

Bob: And we hope all of you here will go again, this weekend, to see I Can Only Imagine—bring your friends. I hope our listeners will do the same thing—it’s going to be in a theater near you. You can get information about the movie, online. If you want to see the trailer, go to; the information is available there. We expect we’ll see you guys at the Oscars, because—[Laughter]—


Dennis: There you go!

Kevin: If I get a vote from you guys, I’ll take it!



Bob: —we expect to see you there; because we think our movie, Like Arrows, will probably be up for best picture against yours. So yes; bring it on. [Laughter]


Dennis: They’re not applauding yet, because they haven’t seen it.

Bob: That’s right. Yes; that’s right. We’ll show you guys Like Arrows, here, a little bit later on.

But thanks for being with us, thanks for letting us see the movie.

Andy: Thank you guys, very much. [Applause]



Bob: Well again, if you’d like to see the trailer for the movie, I Can Only Imagine, you can go to our website,, and check it out there.

Also, keep in mind—next weekend we have Weekend to Remember® getaways happening in Akron, Ohio; in Lincoln, Nebraska; and I’m going to be in Chicago, Illinois, out in the Oakbrook suburbs. If you would like to join us for a getaway weekend—we don’t have any going on this weekend, but next weekend we’re in three cities. If you’d like to find out when a getaway is coming to a city near you, go to our website,, and then plan to join us for a Weekend to Remember.

I hope you have a great weekend this weekend. I hope you and your family are able to worship together in your local church.



And I hope you can join us back on Monday, when we’re going to look ahead to Easter and talk about what you can be doing, as a mom or a dad, to start planning ahead to make the celebration of the Resurrection something unusually special for your family. Barbara Rainey will be here with us on Monday. I hope you can be here as well.

I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with some help from Mark Ramey. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. Have a great weekend. We’ll see you back Monday for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

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