Dana Dirksen of Songs for Saplings: An Interview (and Giveaway!)
Interview and Images* by Théa RosenburgAt two years old, my youngest daughter is adept at shouting, “No!” She objects to pajamas and objects to her socks, so it isn't surprising that her favorite song is one that allows her to shout “No!” with gusto.
She doesn’t realize, though, that through that song, she’s learning doctrine: when she shouts “No!” with the chorus of kids on Songs for Saplings’ “Will God Ever Die?”, she’s learning the answer to a catechism question. As a toddler, she's taking in a deep, biblical truth. Her delight in singing as she learns is the delight that Dana Dirksen hoped to spark in small listeners when she began teaching children Scripture and theology through song.
Through their ministry Songs for Saplings, Dirksen and her family have adapted the Westminster Shorter Catechism and put it to music—lively, creative music that even parents don’t mind listening to over and over again. They have travelled the world translating those albums so that countries with limited access to children’s resources can teach Scripture to children in the languages of their hearts. Dirksen took the time to share with us the history of Songs for Saplings, as well as the work the Lord is doing through Songs for Saplings today. She has also graciously offered to bless five of our readers with a complete set of their Questions With Answers series, and to bless one reader with a hand-bound family journal and complete set of CDs. All readers are welcome to download Volume 1-3 of Questions With Answers for free: enter the code “DEEPLYROOTED” at checkout (offer expires 3/8/16). To enter the giveaway, please see details the bottom of this post.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I was born up in Portland, Oregon, and grew up in the woods with a motorcycle and a dog. I was brought up in a Christian home, and music has always been part of my life. I remember writing my first song when I was four (I am still constantly coming up with new melodies), and then singing in choirs and small groups as I grew up. I went away to college in 1990 to study music theory at Point Loma College. There I met my husband, and we moved to Alexandria, Virginia and started our family. We moved back to Portland in 1997, and now have six kids (four boys and two girls) with one married so far, and the rest hard at work with school.
When did you know that music was something you could use to glorify God?
My grandfather was a pastor of a small Bible church. He started taking me with him to sing in nursing homes when I was in junior high. I remember how the people there felt so loved and cared for when we came, and “anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble” (1 John 2:10 NIV). This is where the light came on for me.
How did Songs for Saplings start?
My babies attended a classical Christian school called Cedar Tree in Vancouver, Washington in 2003. I volunteered in the preschool there, and the kids we took care of were called the “Cedar Tree Saplings.” I began by putting the ABCs they were learning to music, choosing one verse for each letter of the alphabet. I gave these songs to the teachers there on a cassette tape with the words “Songs for the Saplings” on it. The name (and the idea) stuck, and people seemed to like them. Now we’ve done eight albums in English and another fourteen in other languages since then.
How have you and your husband found ways to incorporate your whole family in Songs for Saplings?
As we were recording the six-volume Questions with Answers series, my babies were growing up around us. I used to take them and cousins and family friends and even kids from the neighborhood into the studio and we recorded them with their sweet kid voices on the albums from 2004 until 2012 when the last album was recorded in English. We’ve also toured as a family together in the US and done some concerts in Europe as well. We’re not a “professional” touring family by any means, but we had a lot of adventures.
What did Songs for Saplings look like when your kids were younger? What does it look like now that they're older?
I struggled to teach my kids theological concepts when they were younger. Telling them Bible stories and memorizing Bible verses were part of school and church, but, being a songwriter, it all started to click for me as I was putting these deep theological nuggets to fun tunes, and I could hear my babies singing theology, truth, and Scripture back to me. It lit up my heart.
Now that they are older, we can sit around the table talking about the grand sweep of the Bible, and we can ask, “How were you justified?” Ten years later my (big) babies can still sing the answer back to me. I hope I’ve given them a framework that they can bring to mind for the rest of their lives as they think about God, what he’s done for us through the work of Christ, and his active work on our hearts through the Holy Ghost.
What was your vision for Songs for Saplings when it first started? How has the Lord shaped that over time?
When I started I just wanted to be a part of getting scriptures into kids’ heads. I still remember the songs I sang when I was young, and I wanted to be part of shaping what that was for my kids. Over time I’ve realized that I was built to do this thing, and I’ve been shown by missionaries around the world that they don’t have resources like this in other languages. We’re committed now to translating and releasing the Question with Answers series into as many languages as God gives us partners and funds to do—that’s his responsibility. My responsibility is to stay available.
Was translating Questions With Answers part of the original vision of Songs for Saplings?
I couldn’t even have imagined it. We’re now working in French, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, Italian, Swedish, Polish, Ukrainian, and Chichewa (from Malawi). Next year we plan to start Mandarin and Arabic. I’m a small town girl—this is all a bit much.
You have recently started offering a family journal to accompany the Questions With Answers series. Can you tell us a bit about that?
The family journal is really a journal/workbook that’s designed to be an heirloom. It’s got all the questions and answers and Scripture verses as they are sung on the album in a format that lets you sit down with your littles and teach them the deep things of God day by day. Then you can use the music to reinforce those discussions while you’re driving around in what we call your “minivan ministry center.” Also, remember all those cute things your kids (or grandkids) have said over the years? This is a place to write those down.
My dream would be that 20 years from now you will pull out the family journal and be able to show your kids the foundations of their faith they were learning when they were little, what their ideas were at the time, and you’ll just have a huge snuggle-fest.
How can we get involved in the Lord's work through Songs for Saplings?
1) Pray for us. We are always commenting about how life is the hardest and relationships in our family are the hardest when we’re serving the most. Half of that is just that the travel is hard, but we also don’t have any illusions that Satan doesn’t want us to succeed in what we’re doing.
2) Spread the word. Give away the music to people who don’t know about it, and also please tell your church children’s ministry leaders and your pastors that we make the music available for free to churches and tell them (forcefully) to use it.
3) If you can, please get in touch with us (songsforsaplings.com) and support our work financially. We’ve had half a dozen families who have faithfully supported us over the years, but the vast majority of the work was done with money out of our own pocket. That means we can do maybe 2–3 translation albums a year (they cost between $10,000 and $20,000 each to make). We want to do ten a year, but we need more support partners if we are going to do that. We’ve got six albums to do in a dozen languages, and we’re not getting any younger.
What are you working on now?
Translations, translations, translations. And doing a lot of cooking with Pinterest.
Is there anything else you'd like to share with our readers?
We’re always so encouraged when we hear your stories about how your kids are learning the deep things of God from our music. Go to our website, our Facebook page or find us on Twitter and tell us your stories—they keep us going.
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