How I Can Only Imagine Smuggled the Gospel into China

Michael Foust | Contributor | Tuesday, April 2, 2019
How <em>I Can Only Imagine</em> Smuggled the Gospel into China

How I Can Only Imagine Smuggled the Gospel into China

The faith-based hit film I Can Only Imagine grossed more than $83 million in the United States, but its impact around the world may have been even greater.

Director Jon Erwin says more than 100 countries – including China – have paid to distribute and in some cases translate the films made by him and his filmmaking brother, Andrew.

“When a movie is a hit in America… it goes on global autopilot,” Jon Erwin told an audience at the National Religious Broadcasters convention March 27. “So all these countries around the world begin to pay you for the right to translate and distribute your movie. So it's the gospel on for-profit autopilot.”

Even China, which has shut down churches, torn down crosses, and threatened to eliminate Christianity, wanted to show I Can Only Imagine – simply because it was a hit. 

“I find it very interesting that in the same year that China actually restricted... Christianity, they paid for I Can Only Imagine,” Jon Erwin said. “They paid for the right to translate it and distribute it to their people. That's happened in over 100 countries around the world with our films. 

“What happens is, when you watch a movie in America, and you buy your ticket, and that movie becomes a hit, you're pretty much guaranteed 10 people around the world are going to see it on your behalf because of these incredible things called output deals. And, in fact, there's a lot of places around the world where you can do more in a movie theater than you can openly on the streets. It's incredible how far the message gets.”

Erwin was at NRB to announce four new movies as part of a new faith-based studio, Kingdom.

He called entertainment America’s “second largest export,” behind agriculture.

Based on a true story, I Can Only Imagine tells how the father of MercyMe’s Bart Millard came to Christ late in life. Dennis Quaid plays the father. 

Erwin relayed an anecdote of the movie having an impact in Australia. A Christian woman named Sharon, he said, watched it with her son in the theater. She was crying after the film.

“And a stranger behind her said, 'Do you know Jesus?' And she said, 'Do you?' And the stranger said, 'No, but I need this in my life. ... What happened to [actor] Dennis Quaid, I need to happen to me. And I need someone to explain it to me.' And they had this conversation right in the theater,” Erwin said. 

“What we found is that a movie is an incredible tool of emotional instigation, that if you can tell the right story in the right way, it really does have the power to change people’s lives.”


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Michael Foust is a freelance writer. Visit his blog,

Photo courtesy: Roadside Attractions

How I Can Only Imagine Smuggled the Gospel into China