WESTMINSTER — Wearing shades and a bandanna, a mopkin named Bill looks every bit the cool dude, sitting behind a miniature piano and belting tunes intohis microphone.
The music is a tape, and Robert Kurland, 13, is doing all Bill's work, as he controls the puppet from behind the scenes.
His arms get a little tired, he said, but he enjoys the work. Hisonly complaint is that Bill sheds.
As Bill dances around his piano, several happy puppet faces hang over the top of a 30-foot white stage or peek out from its red-curtained windows. The perky puppets, representing all ages and ethnic backgrounds, belong to the Lord's Bible Crew.
A live crew, members of King's Kids, crowds together backstage, activating the puppets and singing along with the tapes. About 30 children belong to the group.
The beat is as contemporary as any Top 40 hit. The lyrical message won't be taken from the charts, though. Songs like "The Promised Land Shuffle" and "Amen, Praise the Lord" are as timeless as their source, the words of Scripture.
Withinseconds, the audience is singing along, clapping hands and stomping feet. Susan L. Hively, who introduced the King's Kids to the puppets about a year ago, said the audience always gets into the spirit of the show.
"We never get nervous during the performances," said Stephanie Udzinski, 14, who works Lucy, the show's master of ceremonies. "They bring us closer to people."
Stephanie made her confirmation last year and has stayed with King's Kids, helping the new members learn the right moves.
"Once a King's Kid, always a King's Kid," she said.
Terri Bandorick, 13, says the shows are fun and likes watching the reaction of younger children.
"The puppet ministry also keeps us involved in church and has brought our class closer together," she said.
Kristen Hively, 11, is just starting to perform with them. At a show at Ascension Episcopal Thursday, she did the hand work for Baby Holly, while another puppeteer moved the baby's mouth.
"Wehave puppets everywhere at home," said Kristen. "They are on our chairs and in our closets."
For about a year, the children, members of the confirmation class at Grace Lutheran Church, have met on Sundays and rehearsed the show. After presenting their puppet ministry to their own congregation, they began taking it on the road, performing for area churches and organizations.
"Through the use of puppets, the young people can witness for the Lord and say things they might never be able to express in person at their age," said Hively. "They develop a boldness for telling others about their Lord. This will carrythem into adulthood, when puppets are no longer necessary."
Hively said she got the inspiration for the project while listening to Kids Praise tapes. She and her husband, Jim, youth advisers at Grace, got the go-ahead for a puppet ministry from pastor Fred Eckhardt.
"King's Kids gives the children their own special ministry in our congregation and the community," said Hively. "We even taped Reverend Eckhardt's voice for our pastor puppet, and we dressed some in choir robes."
They often repeat the musical messages, but Hively said the children haven't tired of the tunes so far.
"We want to reach the children at an early age," she said. "The message moves from their heads down into their hearts."
The Hivelys purchased many of the puppets, and their voices provide most of the taped dialogue that accompanies the music. The free programs can be tailored to any denomination.
"People have been giving generously to us," Hively said. "We use the money to buy more music and puppets."
The group recently traveled to New York, where they performed for Bethlehem Lutheran Church. That congregation was so enthusiastic that King's Kids are sending itsome puppets to start its own ministry.
"We have had so many invitations and we are trying to do them all," she said. "Everybody is still full of excitement."
Hively said that if the program continuesto grow, she envisions traveling troupes taking the show to many more areas.
"These teens are evangelists in the true sense of the word," she said. "They have a bold message and are winning other people to Christ with it."