Five Tips for Using Puppets in Children’s Worship
In the summer of 2017 I was invited to serve as the pastor of the week at Covenant Point Bible Camp, a ministry of the Evangelical Covenant Church in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The children for this particular week were rising second-graders through fifth-graders. I had a great idea about what I was going to talk about and how to engage the kids. But I quickly forgot what that idea was when the Holy Spirit offered a different plan: “There is a puppet. His name is Eddie. Preach with him.” So I started looking for Eddie.
I’d heard that my church had some puppets in storage from a long-ago puppet ministry. I found these puppets in the basement. Halfway down inside the plastic bin, I found Eddie. He had messy brown hair and bushy eyebrows. He was unkempt, blue, and wore only pants. Still, it was like finding a long-lost friend. I bought him a blue sweatshirt and little cowboy boots at the Salvation Army.
But then came the problem: I am not a ventriloquist. In order to have a realistic conversation with my new blue friend, I’d need another actual friend to voice Eddie for me. So I asked my husband. Unlike his wife, Justin never aspired to be a puppeteer when he was in elementary school. But out of his love for me and for Jesus he obliged.
That week up at camp, Eddie helped me preach. Every day in the speakers’ cabin, I’d type little skits in which Eddie would say his part and I’d say mine. I often followed the “Four Pages of a Sermon” preaching method. The skits began with the trouble in the world or the trouble in the text before finding resolution.
Since that summer, Eddie has resurfaced at Sunday Kids’ Camp, my congregation’s children’s worship program. The kids love Eddie! When the puppet stage is set up in the worship area, they look forward to seeing their blue friend. Recently we took a three-week break from Eddie to hear stories from Abraham, convincingly portrayed by a real, union-card-carrying actor. I thought it was great. But some of the kids missed Eddie. “Ask your mom when Eddie is coming back,” one of my daughter’s friends said to her, “and then tell me so I’ll be sure to be here.”
Now, I really want children to attend children’s worship because they love Jesus. But some are still learning about Jesus. So if a blue puppet with messy hair who voices their questions and concerns is what helps them love gathering with God’s people at church before they grow to love Jesus, then that is alright by me!
Here are some tips about using a puppet in children’s messages or in children’s worship.
Commit to a Character
One reason Eddie has been so successful with the children is that Eddie is a strong character. He’s enthusiastic, but he struggles with insecurity because he feels a little different from the other kids (remember: he’s blue). Sometimes he’s a cut-up, but he means well. He has a baby sister named Eden, a dog named Freddie, a cat named Teddie, and a goldfish named Fidget Spinner. Eddie has even experienced a difficulty familiar to many children as he recently moved—from Bluesburg, Wisconsin, to Blue Ridge, Illinois.
Because we have created a world for Eddie along with certain personality traits, the children find Eddie more believable, and I am better equipped to write consistent material for him.
Let the Puppet Voice the Children’s Thoughts
No child wants to hear an adult speak like a child. That can be condescending. But Eddie can voice children’s questions and thoughts. When Eddie was with me at camp, he articulated the cognitive dissonance we sometimes experience living in the already/not yet of God’s kingdom.
EDDIE: Last night my counselor told us about Jesus and how he died and rose again, and I thought WHAT? This is CRAZY! Why did he DO THAT? He did it FOR ME?
Joy: Well, for all of us, Eddie. Jesus died and rose from the dead, and this was how he defeated sin, death, and all evil powers.
EDDIE: So sin lost?
Joy: Yes. And so did death.
EDDIE: But people still die! I heard it on the news. And people still do bad things. How could Jesus have won if those things have happened?
Another time, as the children prepared to go upstairs to participate in the Lord’s Supper with their families, Eddie and I explored the meaning of communion. Eddie voiced the misunderstandings some children have about the meaning and purpose of the sacrament.
Joy: Hi, Eddie. Today’s a little different, isn’t it? Sunday Kids’ Camp has a different schedule. It’s because of communion.
EDDIE: Hey, isn’t that the day you grownups get the snack? It’s not fair. I want a snack, too!
Joy: Oh, Eddie, you can have a cookie. You’ll need to ask your parents, but anyone is welcome to have those cookies in the garden court.
EDDIE: Cookie, schmookie. I’m talking about bread and grape juice! Maybe my parents will let me have some this time. Last time they said I wasn’t ready.
Joy: Eddie, do you know what that bread and grape juice is for?
EDDIE: A snack, the reward for listening to that loooooong sermon.
Joy: No, Eddie. It’s not a snack. Actually, this tradition started out as a meal. People would sit around a table with their friends and break bread together, remembering a very important story about Jesus.
EDDIE: Really? It’s a story? I love a story! Will you tell it to me? A story is almost better than a snack.
As Justo Gonzalez reminded me in an essay I read today, Scripture has humor in it! We needn’t be afraid of laughing. In fact, this is one way Abraham encountered God’s promises to him (Genesis 17:17).
As may be observed from the script segments above, Eddie’s personality lends itself to humor. Most often, the humor is intended. Sometimes, such as when Eddie fell down while the children and I were trying to memorize the Bible passage with him, the humor was unintended. “Oh, no! Eddie fell!” Graham said, laughing and worried simultaneously. But the right kind of laughter is good. When worship is only solemn, serious, and reverent, I believe we miss part of both the character of God and the sort of joyful community God has called us to be.
Thank the Puppeteer
Being a puppeteer even for just ten or fifteen minutes is a lot of work. You have to multitask: moving your hand, speaking, and making sure it’s timed properly so that the mouth is open when it should be open and closed when it should be closed. You may have to crouch in an awkward position. Your arm may get tired. You may get exhausted from opening and closing your hand at the right moment.
And maybe you never really wanted to be a puppeteer to begin with. Often the children don’t even know who the puppeteer is—Graham thinks my husband’s name is Eddie! Being a puppeteer is hard. If you’re not the puppeteer, thank yours. If you are the puppeteer, I thank you.
Remember That the Story Won’t Be about You
Telling a story with a puppet is a great metaphor for the work of the gospel. Even if you write the script or sermon, even if you have a few jokes, no one cares about you when there’s a puppet. Puppets trump pastors every time. But that is exactly how it should be. One day, unless Jesus comes back first, Eddie will be old and forgotten, perhaps back in the basement or, worse, in a landfill somewhere in Indiana. But the stories we told together will continue in these children’s imaginations as they recollect learning about the meaning of communion and the story of Zacchaeus, or as they remember hearing Eddie try and fail to memorize Revelation 21: “And I saw a blue heaven and a blue earth . . . NEW heaven, NEW earth!” They’ll remember the passage along with him, their little blue friend who helped them understand eschatological hope a bit better.