Praising the Lord with puppet power




One summer, Cindy Young and a handful of volunteers at Community UMC, Fort Pierce, tried to come up with something new for the dozens of children who came to Sunday Bible school.

"We opened a closet and found materials and music and puppets," Young says. "We loved the puppets and said we've got to use them. We knew some skits. And then, after using them one summer, we had so much fun we didn't want to quit." 

Group shot of Venice-Nokomis UMC puppet team
Members of the award-winning EPIC puppet team lead worship services at Venice-Nokomis UMC, as well as perform at special events. Photo from Venice-Nokomis UMC.

Young found out later that the puppets had been for a ministry that lasted only a short while. But the new "Hands of the Lord Puppeteers" took hold and has remained active for more than 18 years.

Community UMC is among Methodist churches embracing performance art, and puppet ministries in particular, as a way to praise the Lord, teach Bible lessons and reach out to the community.

Young found her inspiration in the chance discovery of puppets stashed away in a closet. Other churches find the power of puppet ministry in different ways.

At Wesley UMC, Melbourne, a church member tacked up a blanket on a Sunday school classroom door and performed a one-man puppet show.

"He sang a song or two," says Jack Dawkins. "They loved it."

Thus, the puppet ministry took off, teaching and entertaining for the past 20 years or more. The ministry hasn't been as active in the past three years as it once was. But Dawkins sees opportunities in the merger of Wesley and Fellowship UMC.

A group of Fellowship teenagers who had a small puppet ministry at their church are bringing new energy to the program, Dawkins says. The renewed WUMPS Puppets had its first performance recently at Wesley UMC, entertaining children with the story of Jesus' birth for a "parents' day out" festival. 

Group shot of Community UMC

The Hands of the Lord puppet team has been performing Bible-based skits for 18 years. Photo from Community UMC, Fort Pierce.

"We're trying to get a young group of people coming to church, which they are," Dawkins says.

For the congregation at Venice-Nokomis UMC, there was an "ah-ha" moment at a district-sponsored event to explore creative worship ministries nearly two decades ago. Church members watched a puppet ministry perform.

"We just sat there with our mouths open," says Robin Deegan, director of children and youth ministries. "We went home and said we need to do this."

Volunteers held fundraisers to buy puppets, a stage, costumes, sounds and light. A church classroom became the stage for E.P.I.C. (Evangelizing Puppeteers in Christ) Puppet Team. Deegan says church members were asked for donations and in return "adopted" the puppets. Over the years, the church puppeteers have won gold, silver and bronze medals at regional festivals.

The team began with students in sixth through 12th grades and later added adults.

Three Sundays a month, a puppet ministry performs at Venice-Nokomis' Children's Church services, which include an altar table, candles, songs, an offering and recited Bible verses.

"It is not just puppets entertaining children," Deegan says. "It's a worship service."

From Advent through to Christmas, the ministry sang songs and skits that told the progressive story of the birth of Christ.

"They hear the message," Deegan says. "The kids get a lot." 

A variety of puppets on black-shrouded stage
A recently revived puppet ministry from the merged congregations of Wesley and Fellowship United Methodist churches performs the story of Jesus' birth at a parents' day out festival. Photo from Jack Dawkins.

A lot of the props are handmade. The team sketches words onto thick poster boards, such as "praise" or "Hallelujah." Or members use the boards to create funny little cars, mountains and waves, all enhanced with fluorescent colors and glitter.

The ensemble performs religious songs and sometimes popular songs that have been tailored to a spiritual theme. And some teens borrow the puppets to perform at their schools. Deegan says a couple of students did so well they were asked to perform at school district events.

Their skills become part of their resumes for college.

"It's a wonderful thing for the teenagers," she says. "We quit calling them puppets. We call it creative arts."

It can also be hard work. "It's not what you think," Deegan says. "We tell our kids all the time they need to work out."

Deegan keeps an eye out for the young puppeteer whose arm wilts under the weight of a rod that controls the puppet's movements. It takes a few skills and lots of practice.

"The whole secret is moving the mouth with the songs," says Dawkins, at Wesley UMC. "If it's not with the music, it's not nearly as effective. It's like anything else: It's mainly practice."

In its early days. Wesley UMC bought dozens of puppets and up to 60 puppet costumes, plus lighting, sound equipment and a portable stage. Sometimes there were two shows a week at church, day care centers, nursing homes, Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops and hospitals.

They used to raise money with a dinner theater performance with the puppets.

"We had a gym full of people," Dawkins recalls.

The ministry did some skits but mostly sang songs.

"The people just absolutely loved the puppets when we did them," Dawkins says. "We tried to keep songs upbeat, but that depended on who our audience was. Almost always they had some sort of religious theme, if not all of them."

In recent years, the puppets have entertained on Sunday afternoons for an hour during the church's "country-western" ministry. Live musicians perform and the church has a fellowship meeting.

"We wear our cowboy hats," Dawkins says. "We sing a couple songs. We do a skit."

Community UMC has scaled back from its early days when Young recalls cross-country trips with more than 20 children to churches in Canada, Vermont and Ohio. "We'd stop at churches, do a show and drive to the next church," she says.

About 15 church members, ages 8 to mid-70s, do about two performances a month now at church or other local venues. A few times a year they sell Cuban sandwiches after church services to raise funds. For the children, it is a way to participate in church activities.

"Most of the children don't have a way to get to church unless we pick them up. We feed them lunch," Young says. Two Sunday afternoons a month, there are puppetry practices and lessons on Bible verses.

Deegan, at Venice-Nokomis, loves the way puppets connect with an audience but also the lessons in faith for puppeteers.

"(God's love) is what it's all about," Deegan says. "We always pray before doing anything. That glory goes to God. You're not the preacher, the usher. What you are doing is your service to God and the church."

-- Kathy Steele is a freelance writer based in Tampa. 




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