(405) 425-5070
Puppets from the Tuscumbia Church of Christ in northwest Alabama perform a "Rick & Bubba Show"-themed skit during the Lads to Leaders convention in Nashville, Tenn. Read a related feature.
People
Video screenshot

Teens mix radio show’s good ole boy humor with Bible’s bold message of faith

Lads to Leaders puppet skit draws Alabama broadcast duo's attention.

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Make listeners snicker?

That’s what Rick Burgess and Bill “Bubba” Bussey do on their nationally syndicated radio comedy show.

Evoke that same laughter as bulbous, fabric-headed Bible teachers in a puppet skit by Christian teens?

Now, that’s a new one.

“I didn’t see this coming,” Rick quipped on a recent episode of the “Rick & Bubba Show,” produced at WZZK-FM in Birmingham, Ala., and aired on more than 60 radio stations, mostly in the Southeast.

Rick Burgess reads an email on the air that he received from 16-year-old Sawyer Blankenship of the Tuscumbia Church of Christ in northwest Alabama. The show's discussion of the Lads to Leaders puppet skit starts about the 2-hour, 43-minute mark on this video.

Rick Burgess reads an email on the air that he received from 16-year-old Sawyer Blankenship of the Tuscumbia Church of Christ in northwest Alabama. The show’s discussion of the Lads to Leaders puppet skit starts about the 2-hour, 43-minute mark on this video.

Enter six young men from the Tuscumbia Church of Christ in northwest Alabama.

The high school puppeteers mixed the radio show’s good ole boy humor with Romans 1:16’s bold testimony (“I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ”) to deliver an award-winning performance at the annual Lads to Leaders convention in Nashville.


Related: The bright present — and future — of the church


A spinning Wheel of Meat and a U.S. flag decorated the set — just like normal — as Rick, Bubba and popular cast members Calvin “Speedy” Wilburn and “The Real” Greg Burgess appeared (the puppet versions of them anyway).

“What a busy show we have today for all of our listeners out there,” the bearded Rick puppet told the crowd. “We’ve got some special guests today on the ‘Rick & Bubba Show,’ and we want all of the audience members to know that if you’ve got any questions for our guests, feel free to call in at any time at 866-WE-BE-BIG.”

Developing Christian leaders

Welcome to the creativity of the annual Christian leadership training event, which drew more than 10,000 young people, parents, coaches and judges to the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center this past Friday through Sunday. 

Music City hosts the largest of about a dozen Lads to Leaders and Leadership Training for Christ conventions across the nation that rally members of Churches of Christ — young and old alike — each Easter weekend.

Sawyer Blankenship, 16, provided the voice for the Rick puppet.

“I’ve been doing Lads since I could walk, I guess, probably since I was 4 years old,” Sawyer said. “I’ve been doing it for a long time.”

Besides the puppet team, he competed this year in songleading, speech, photography, podcasting and the Bible Bowl.


Related: A maroon hood to go with his red coat


Asked what keeps him returning year after year, Sawyer replied, “It’s a great environment, and it’s taught me how to be a leader in the church.”

It’s fun, too, as Rick and Bubba (the puppet versions) can attest.

“I’ve been listening to the ‘Rick & Bubba Show’ for a long time,” Sawyer said. “My dad got me started on it. They cut up a lot from 5 to 10 every morning.”

From left, puppet team members Bogdan Ryaboshapk, Eli Warren, Porter Johnson, Braden Hall, Caleb Lenz and Sawyer Blankenship pose for a photo at the Lads to Leaders convention in Nashville, Tenn.

From left, puppet team members Bogdan Ryaboshapka, Eli Warren, Porter Johnson, Braden Hall, Caleb Lenz and Sawyer Blankenship pose for a photo at the Lads to Leaders convention in Nashville, Tenn.

Special guests, straight from the Bible

While the radio show entertains listeners for five hours each day, the puppet version lasted just 10 minutes.

It featured two biblical guests — Paul and Daniel — and came complete with a State Farm Insurance commercial and jingle.

Like Sawyer, 17-year-old Caleb Lenz, voice of the Bubba puppet, has participated in Lads to Leaders most of his life. In addition to the puppet skit, he signed up for songleading and Scripture reading this year.


Related: Saving souls in Sin City


“I absolutely enjoy it — just being here with people I know and competing in the name of the Lord,” Caleb said. “For me, competing is the way to get better at something. So it’s challenging me to be a better leader.”

He grew up listening to the “Rick & Bubba Show” on the drive to school with his father.

“I always had that song in my head,” he said of the theme music.

Clint Blankenship, Sawyer’s dad, and Johnny Hall, father of Braden Hall, 17, coached the puppet team. 

“It was kind of my idea to do ‘Rick & Bubba,’” Clint said. “I’ve listened to the show for a long time. I love the show. I think they’re real funny, so I thought, ‘Let’s have some fun.’”

Braden served as the voice of Paul. Porter Johnson, 15, played Speedy. And Eli Warren, 16, did double duty as Garry “The Bulldozer Man” Vines and Jake from State Farm.

Speedy introduced special guest Paul as “a recovering Christian hater who now lets them live and serves their God. He preaches all over the Roman Empire spreading the message of hope that Jesus came to the Earth to die for everyone.”

“I’ve listened to the show for a long time. I love the show. I think they’re real funny, so I thought, ‘Let’s have some fun.’”

A puppeteer from Ukraine

The sixth member of the puppet team — Bogdan Ryaboshapka, 18 — is a relative newcomer to Lads to Leaders.

“It’s amazing stuff.”

The Ukrainian refugee’s family relocated to Alabama after the Russian invasion in 2022. 

Jeff Abrams, Tuscumbia’s pulpit minister, is active in mission work in Ukraine. About 20 refugees — including Bogdan’s family — attend the church.

Bogdan traveled to the Lads to Leaders convention for the second time, doing a Bible speech in addition to performing with the puppet team.

“It’s amazing stuff,” he said of the event, voicing awe at the sheer size of the Nashville crowd.

Tuscumbia Church of Christ members pose for a group photo during the Lads to Leaders convention in Nashville, Tenn.

Tuscumbia Church of Christ members pose for a group photo during the Lads to Leaders convention in Nashville, Tenn.

In all, the Tuscumbia church sent about 200 members — half its total of 400 — to the Nashville convention, about 140 miles away. 

While the radio show skit — one of eight puppet teams from the church — earned a third-place honor, leaders emphasized that the competition is secondary.

“It’s something we like to push. It develops the kids,” Johnny Hall said. “We involve them year-round in leading singing and doing speeches at church. They lead in class on Sunday and Wednesday nights.”

Jake from State Farm Insurance, left, appears during a commercial break in the "Rick & Bubba Show" puppet skit.

Jake from State Farm Insurance, left, appears during a commercial break in the “Rick & Bubba Show” puppet skit.

‘Were those lions not hungry?’

In the puppet skit, Bogdan handled dual roles as the biblical Daniel and the radio Greg, Rick’s brother.

“It’s better to be here than in that lion’s den where you came from,” the puppet Rick said as he welcomed Daniel to the pretend show.

“Yes,” Daniel replied, “but I was not worried when I was in the den.” 

“How come?” Rick asked with a heavy Alabama twang. “Were those lions not hungry?”

“Yes, they were,” Daniel said with his strong Ukrainian accent. “But I knew my God would protect me. He always has, and he always will.”

The other teens have welcomed Bogdan as one of their own, said Hannah Bradford, a church member who teaches high school chorus and drama and wrote the puppet script.


Related: Leadership events draw thousands


Bodgan “has had to learn English and really perfect his diction so that he could be able to do this,” she said. “And there are still probably some things that he can’t understand. But this group of boys has really taken him in.”

Asked if he listens to the “Rick & Bubba Show,” Bogdan deadpanned, “No.”

As his friends laughed with delight, he added, “I don’t even know who they are.”

The "Rick & Bubba Show" puppet team from the Tuscumbia Church of Christ in northwest Alabama stands on stage during a Lads to Leaders award assembly in Nashville, Tenn.

The “Rick & Bubba Show” puppet team from the Tuscumbia Church of Christ in northwest Alabama stands on stage during a Lads to Leaders award assembly in Nashville, Tenn.

From radio stars to puppets

But a lot of people — particularly in Alabama and neighboring states — are familiar with the “Rick & Bubba Show.”

Its YouTube channel boasts 111,000 subscribers. 

Which is why the Tuscumbia teens and Lads to Leaders organizers were so excited when news of the puppet skit made it on the “Rick & Bubba Show” — the real one.

“My phone started blowing up, and I had 37 text messages. I thought someone had died.”

“My phone started blowing up, and I had 37 text messages,” said Rhonda Zorn Fernandez, a Lads to Leaders board member and daughter of the late Jack Zorn, the organization’s founder. “I thought someone had died.”

Here’s how the unexpected publicity transpired: Sawyer emailed to ask for permission to use the show’s sound effects at Lads to Leaders.

Next thing Sawyer knew, he was sitting in his high school’s parking lot listening to Rick read his note on the air.

Then the cast spent several minutes talking about the request — and the idea of “Rick & Bubba Show”-themed puppets sharing the Gospel.

Brothers Rick and Greg recalled playing with puppets as children.

“We had Grover from ‘Sesame Street,’” Greg said. “We had Ernie.”

“We didn’t have Bert,” Rick remembered. “We had Cookie Monster. … I did do some pretty good puppet shows.”

As word spread that the “Rick & Bubba Show” had mentioned Lads to Leaders, Bradford, a mother of two, couldn’t help but smile. (The show’s two main stars both profess a strong Christian faith.)

Trying to explain Lads to Leaders to people unfamiliar with it — and how young people use puppets to try to spread a biblical message — can be a challenge, Bradford said.

Lads to Leaders presents awards for various events — from songleading to Bible speeches to puppet skits — during its annual conventions across the nation.

Lads to Leaders presents awards for various events — from songleading to Bible speeches to puppet skits — during its annual conventions across the nation.

“People don’t understand it, and ‘Rick & Bubba’ kind of did the same thing,” she said. “When they talked about it, it was like, ‘Let me get this straight: ‘Somebody’s doing ‘Rick & Bubba’ with Jesus applications,’ and they all started laughing about it.”

The Tuscumbia teens enjoyed every minute of it.

“We were parked right next to each other,” Caleb said of Sawyer, “and he told me to turn my radio on. Yeah, it was really cool.”

BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. He traveled to Nashville to report this story. Reach him at [email protected].

Filed under: National News Partners People Top Stories

Don’t miss out on more stories like this.

Subscribe today to receive more inspiring articles like this one delivered straight to your inbox twice a month.

Did you enjoy this article?

Your donation helps us not only keep our quality of journalism high, but helps us continue to reach more people in the Churches of Christ community.

$
Personal Info

Dedicate this Donation

In Honor/Memory of Details

Card Notification Details

Credit Card Info
This is a secure SSL encrypted payment.
Billing Details

Donation Total: $3 One Time