A Methodist mascot named Chippy the Chimp has church kids going ape in Cedar Falls, Iowa, where the puppet is so popular he puts out videos and hosts his own Christmas service.
Officially an "associate pastor" at the First United Methodist Church, Chippy has been helping deliver sermons to the kids since 1998. While not everyone was thrilled at first about having a chimp behind the pulpit, many have come to love him.
"We have a picture of Chippy on our refrigerator," said Nancy Fransdal, who regularly attends services with her husband and two children. "He always has a really clever way of making a clear point."
Pastor Steve Hansen, the man behind the monkey, seemed amazed by the primate's popularity.
"It's interesting how many people will stop and ask me how Chippy's doing," said Hansen, who "discovered" Chippy on a trip to Waikiki Beach in Hawaii. Hansen found he had a budding star after Chippy's debut at the children's services of his church.
The monkey's video, Chippy Clips, contains short morality lessons about bullies, stealing and violence. Chippy can be somewhat dense, but his misunderstandings about the Bible and its lessons afford Hansen the opportunity to set the record straight and explain confusing concepts to the kids.
"The weird thing is I can understand chimpanzee, but I can't speak it," said Hansen, who "interprets" Chippy's musings since the puppet only makes a squeaking noise when he speaks.
"What people like about it is the humor," Hansen added. "[Chippy's] like the little kid you're nervous about because you know he's going to ask some off-the-wall question or steal the show."
Granted, the chipper chimp took some getting used to.
"We oldsters have a hard time adjusting ourselves to some of the contemporary movement," said Milo Morris, an 81-year-old retired pastor. Some people "just didn't know about this idea of using a life-sized chimpanzee puppet," he conceded.
"Pastor Hansen not only has the gifts and graces of being an outstanding pastor," said Morris. "He's the most multi-talented man I have worked with."
Morris said even Chippy's harshest critics have changed their opinion. But what place does a chimpanzee puppet have in church?
"There's a whole tradition of medieval morality plays that carried out messages of the gospel," said Father James L. Heft, chancellor and professor of faith and culture at the University of Dayton. "People dressed up as figures that embodied the devil or virtue or vice and they were very effective — probably more effective than a traditional sermon."
Heft added that in today's world of short attention spans, entertaining a congregation helps keep the seats filled. "There are a number of priests and ministers and rabbis who are trying different ways to communicate in a culture that's more and more visual than print oriented," he said.
But Heft cautioned that an over-reliance on props like Chippy might dilute some of the Bible's more subtle messages. "For Jews and Christians, The Word is important, so they can't turn everything over to visuals," he said.
However, by striking the right balance between entertainment and education, Chippy and Hansen keep the church packed with their act. Of course, some are still concerned that Chippy might become a bit too popular.
"There are some people who still don't like the church being referred to as the monkey church," Hansen added with a laugh.