Chris Renzema is a dynamic singer/songwriter who possesses a love for storytelling, poignant lyricism, and an ability to transform an evening concert into a conversation. His faith and love for music are inseparably interwoven resulting in personal writing that plays out like heartfelt, jagged prayers.
Chris was plastering drywall in an apartment when the church hymn “Be Thou My Vision” came into his mind. He started singing the song in his head, but the exact lyrics didn’t immediately register. So he began with the first line, then let his own words stumble their way out, forming a new verse and, ultimately, a new song.
God, be my vision, be my Holy truth.
Yeah, I’ll be the branches if You’ll be the root…
I don’t care for riches, nor man’s empty praise,
Cause You’re all I want, for all of my days…
And that’s a bit reflective of Renzema’s artistry. Grounded in Scripture, revolving around the Story of all stories…but he’s willing to let it pour out of him authentically. No frilly attempts to be something it’s not; no getting caught up in trying to appear pristine and losing the heart in the process. With on the brow, dirt underneath fingernails, Renzema lets Truth finds its way through the drywall scraps and turn into music.
He’s never gone about it otherwise. Growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Chris learned to play and sing in churches, while ingesting a steady diet of early 70’s folk. He gravitated towards a blend of Americana and rock, with splashes of soft punk. Healthy doses of Bob Dylan, Wilco, and John Mark McMillan all had a common denominator that influenced Renzema’s natural appreciation of and approach to music: authenticity. As he grew as a worship leader, he found the most connection to his faith from songs that weren’t afraid to profess questions.
He didn’t begin writing his own songs because he had rockstar dreams in mind, but because it became a safe haven of expression. “More than anything, it was very therapeutic. I started writing songs, and they were terrible and really short and I never finished any of them…But I think it’s how I journaled through high school. I didn’t really take stock of my thoughts or feelings, but I would channel them and process things through music, which I wasn’t doing otherwise. I didn’t have a thought about being a musician; I didn’t even think I could sing,” says Renzema.
After high school he participated in ministry opportunities, which led to mission work in Guatemala City. It also fueled the inspiration and creation of his first record. Returning home, he and a friend scraped together money from part-time jobs and recorded the EP Age To Age in a record-pace 19 hours. “It was a total passion project. We had no thought of ‘We’re gonna make it big’ with this EP. But I finally had these finished songs, rather than just a little chorus or riff, which felt crazy. And it sparked something inside me.”
Rezema moved to Nashville, which turned out to be a challenging time of transition and doubt. “My first year in Nashville was so hard. I was at a point of thinking I was going to leave.” But instead, Chris did what he’d done since he first picked up a guitar: he made music through the thick of the confusion, the hurt, and the fear. He poured those feelings into his self-produced record I’ll Be The Branches. The result is a special kind of honest, rugged worship, full of cries saying “Hey, I’m at the end of my rope.” and “I want to follow you Lord, but I don’t know how.”
“That album ironically ran the range of me relying on the Lord while also trying to do it all on my own strength—and getting obliterated. It’s about really seeing that the Lord is our anchor,” Renzema tells. “The title comes from the ‘God Be’ lyric ‘I’ll be the branches if you’ll be the root,’ which is the John 15 passage—we can’t do anything if we’re not connected to the vine. And I learned that the hard way. My prayer would be that the songs point to that. I think you can hear it—songs about dependence and desire, about the faithfulness of God when we’re not willing to be dependent on Him. That’s the testimony of this album.”
Adjectives like “heartfelt” and “genuine” get thrown around a lot as feel-good descriptors, misplaced synonyms for “nice.” But with one listen, whether at a worship service, in a club, or through headphones, listeners can hear Renzema express a real-deal heart that has fought to find peace. It’s there in songs like “How To Be Yours,” a declaration to God “facing the fact that I mess up and so often don’t make the right choice…if You love me, I don’t think I really qualify for it,” he describes. “It’s really as honest as I can be saying ‘I don’t hold this well very often.’”
The song’s bridge is a switch of perspective, God’s response to that insecurity: “I’m not going anywhere…I’m not walking out on you.”
“I was just driving and all of a sudden, boom, that whole bridge just came to my mind,” Renzema remembers. “It felt like that was a moment God was just telling me the truth. I don’t think I could have sat down and belabored over those lyrics; it’s what hit me unedited.”
We don’t often let ourselves go unedited these days. We’re a world becoming increasingly attached to Instagram filters, only comfortable with projecting a face-value appearance of perfection. It can be dangerous to our understanding of self worth; it can be dangerous to our sense of worship. Because true connection, with ourselves, with others, with the Lord, starts with honesty; and honestly, we’re all a bit rough around the edges. We’re all more broken than we’d prefer, yet more loved than we’ll ever know. Joining in that song, we can release the deep breath we’ve been holding. It’s what led Renzema to music in the first place, and it’s the story he tells with each word, strum, and heartbeat.