Church #42. Meet Pastor John Van Haneghan. He is the solo pastor at Fairbanks Lutheran Church in Fairbanks, Alaska. With an averaging worship attendance of 100 people on a given Sunday, this church’s mission is “We welcome. We worship. We serve. ”
With his first call in upstate New York, Van Haneghan started his puppet ministry. It began instantly with his first sermon! He introduced Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street to the Ezekiel’s story on Dry Bones. The point was what Oscar thought was junk actually turned out to be good stuff. Often, Van Haneghan uses puppets in the children’s sermon to introduce the theme of his sermon. He says, “Adults and kids alike learn about God’s story through puppets and humor, and it sets up what I am going to talk about in my message.” Van Haneghan goes on to say that puppets have a certain way to capture the attention of people, both young at heart and younger in age.
“People love it! I have now used puppet ministry for 34 years from New York to New Jersey, from Canada to Alaska!” says Van Haneghan. One of his favorite stories over the years comes from a church in Canada. Van Haneghan used a skunk puppet to tell the Bible story from the pulpit. After the service, he left the skunk puppet in the pulpit. A woman who had not been in the service shrieked when she saw a skunk. She ran to Van Haneghan to ask if the skunk she saw in the pulpit was real or not! Van Haneghan just chuckled as he told this story.
His collection has grown from his first few Sesame Street puppets to 135 in total. Most of his puppets, 95% in fact, have been donated from the congregations he has served, family members, and dear friends. He has an animal village, an insect village, a Pastor John and Ms. Pam puppets, and one of his favorites, Purple Boy.
These puppets have expanded Van Haneghan’s ministry from what started out as a children’s sermon activity now to early childhood learning centers and some elementary schools. In these contexts, he consults with the teachers on what they want the puppets talk about. Purple Boy has become integral in this process. He is a purple person with sticky hair, who lives in an animal village, and often gets picked on. Together, Van Haneghan and Purple Boy, tackle topics such as “Be Kind!” or “Sharing!” or “Being Clean!” Van Haneghan loves God’s story, his puppets, and the places they have gone together.
Why is this puppet ministry important? It is important because what Jesus says in Matthew 18:1-4:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
Jesus calls people to be child-like, and puppet ministry helps people do just that. It’s not about watering down the message just because puppets are used. It’s about the presentation and puppets are one way to help people enter God’s story.