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“Jesus Wants My Heart”: An Interview with Daniel Renstrom

Daniel Renstrom is the worship leader at First Baptist Church of Durham, North Carolina. He is also a writer of theologically robust songs for congregational singing. His newest project is focused on resourcing families for theological formation, and fun. He sent our family a couple of copies of his new record, “Jesus Wants My Heart”. I immediately appreciated the joy and freshness of this record. My children have been singing these songs continually, and for that I am thankful.

Daniel was kind enough to answer a few questions about his new record. In the interview you will hear his heart for the beauty of sound doctrine, and see how it has shaped the songs on this record.

Tell us a little bit about this record and why you decided to make it.

Well, I have known for years that one of the most helpful ways for me to learn something is through music.  So about 3 years ago I started writing songs to teach my daughters (Bennett, Eden and Mercy, who are now 6, 5 and 3 years old) about the Bible and theology.  It also started as a practice for me of explaining complex things in simple terms.  I wanted there to be layers to the songs, so that my girls could learn the songs easily, but I could continue to ask questions that mined out deep ideas in the lyrics.

I was amazed at how difficult this type of writing was.  It’s much easier just to write a big theological term than it is to explain it in a way that children can understand.  One example of this is the bridge for the song “Jesus Wants My Heart.”  I think those few lines took me 2 full years to write…mostly because I really had to get my head around how the rhyme and meter could work for the concept of grace-based righteousness, opposed to work-based righteousness.  So the bridge says, “The very best days of following rules will never, ever earn His love.  And all we do is abide in You, ’cause all you want is our heart.”  That idea is the smack dab middle of the Gospel… the hard part was taking an idea that can be very doctrinal and making it simply worded.

Some of the songs you have recorded are scripture, others are truths in response to scripture. How did balance this out for the project?

I knew that I wanted to have some sweeping meta-ideas in these songs.  For instance, we wanted songs about substitutionary atonement, prayer, the Trinity, the faithfulness of God…to name a few.  So as I tried to figure out songs for kids on each of these topics, I sometimes used straight scripture and other times tried to explain Scripture. The balance between the two wasn’t planned out, but just decided on a song-by-song basis.

The record feels so fresh and joyful throughout. Was this an intentional decision for the project from production to melodies?

This is one area that we did pay very close attention to.  James Childs (my producer and great friend) and I wanted to make sure that these songs were fun for kids and parents to listen to.  We also wanted the melodies to be very singable.   This was a pretty huge task, but I knew that if we accomplished it, both parents and children would both enjoy singing the songs together and then discussing them together.  We used “happy reference songs” throughout the process…Paul Simon, Coldplay…songs that had a lot of catchiness to them.  In my humble opinion, James did a great job of nailing our goal.  One thing that was so helpful in this process was playing the songs for my girls on my acoustic guitar before bedtime.  I could tell pretty quickly if the song was going to be a flop or not.  If they sang along almost immediately I knew that it had a good future.  If they didn’t, I usually moved on.

How have you seen music shape your own children?

That’s a great question. My girls are constantly singing. I think singing gives us an opportunity to express what’s happening in our hearts.  Danielle and I love hearing the songs that our girls make up. (A few weeks ago, Danielle overheard Eden sing the words “declared righteous” to the tune of “Call Me Maybe”!)  Sometimes their made-up songs are about being happy, or going swimming.  Sometimes we hear them explaining trust and faith in God through their songs.  They are almost always singing a song that we have sung in church or played in the car for them.  We know that even though they don’t understand everything they sing about, we are building foundations for a deep understand of God.  Bennett, our oldest daughter, is now starting to ask, “Daddy, what does that mean?” We know that music is expanding her mind and interests in a very unique way.

You are the worship pastor at FBC Durham. How does the culture of your church inform how you have written these songs? 

I’m actually pretty new at FBC Durham, and am excited to see how the Lord uses this body in upcoming projects.  I was at Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh for about 10 years before coming to FBCD, and that is where most of these songs were written.  I wrote a good number of them to correspond with a curriculum that Providence was writing for our children’s ministry. Providence also has many families, some are Danielle and my closest friends, living overseas in places that are hostile to the gospel.  One of the things we hoped God would do with this project is encourage these friends who serve the Lord in foreign cultures.  Danielle and I know how difficult it is to do family devotions with young children, how difficult it is to introduce deep theological truths to our children in entertainment-driven cultures, and how difficult it is to go through the daily demands of life with intentionality. These songs were written in part to encourage parents to continue fighting for Christ-exalting, Gospel-thankful, families at Providence, FBCD, and where ever the Lord takes our music.

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