Chapter 20: Reaching the Young

Dallas Holm and his group Praise based themselves in a small, rural community in east Texas. About an hour drive east of Dallas on Interstate 20, Lindale is nestled on gently rolling, wooded hills. The scenery is nothing like what most people think Texas should be; sagebrush, cactus, and desert are hundreds of miles away from Lindale.

   The small community is somewhat overshadowed by nearby Tyler, a town well-known for its beautiful Tyler roses. However, Lindale became a flowering center of another sort during the seventies and eighties. In the wooded environs surrounding it, a surprising number of contemporary Christian ministries sprouted and grew to world-reaching proportions.

   Among the first contemporary Christian music makers to settle there were Jimmy and Carol Owens, who moved from the California hills in the midseventies. They were composers of the landmark church musicals Come Together, If My People and The Witness.

   David Wilkerson, famed evangelist and author of The Cross and the Switchblade, also settled near Lindale to base his worldwide outreach there. Dallas Holm & Praise toured with and assisted Wilkerson in his crusades.

   Keith Green moved his Last Days Ministries to Lindale from California, followed later by the 2nd Chapter of Acts singing group. Youth with a Mission also settled in the Lindale area. Nearby in Tyler lived Jerry Williams and Ed Kerr, the duo making up Harvest.

   Though people had come from various parts of the country to settle in the Lindale area, the main trail seemed to lead from California, including the exodus of Agape Force Ministries, the group which had several years prior worked closely with singer Barry McGuire in his infant Christian years. Agape Force, led by Tony

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Salerno, set up a training school for missionary work to be carried on especially in the streets of American capitals and college towns. The Agape Force Ranch, adjacent to the Wilkerson land, became a staging area for young street-workers.

   The laid-back, sleepy east Texas countryside, complete with grazing cattle and placid ponds, provided a retreatlike atmosphere for the various groups to prepare themselves for the work to be done, much of it through music. But though the environs appeared tranquil, within the buildings on the grounds of these ministries the activity was never-ceasing. Music was being composed, books were being written, sermons were being prepared. Highly respected Christian teachers and thinkers such as Winkie Pratney and Leonard Ravenhill contributed their teachings, to be added to the work of Wilkerson, Salerno, and Green. And young people were being armed to minister whenever and wherever the Lord called.

   Music was a major part of all the ministries based in Lindale. Within the Agape Force alone, there were several music outreaches, including Christian pop group silverwind, praise group Candle, countrified trio Streetlight, and the carnival-type group known as Gingerbrook Fare, complete with clowns.

   There was a great desire early on at the Agape Force to see young people reached not only with the story of salvation through Jesus, but also with the nurture that comes from learning God's precepts from his Word. While in California the Force sensed tragedy among children.

   ''As we worked with the young people on the street,'' explained Salerno in 1978, ''we would see, passing by us, teenagers and children that were unsupervised, uncared for, able to do anything they wanted, and involved in horrible sin. It was quite shocking to us at first.''

   Salerno and the Agape Force workers saw that reaching teens wasn't enough. They had to work with younger children as well the teenagers and adults of the future.

   ''Children that we saw,'' Salerno added, ''were growing up in their important and tender years without any knowledge of God at all, except in their own consciences. But there was nothing to reinforce their consciences! They weren't going to church; they weren't hearing about God in school, unless it was something negative. We felt we had to get the message to them.''

   Salerno's observations were astute indeed. In the years to follow, the problem with unloved and undirected children would become a national blight brought to prominent attention. The Agape Force found that music and drama were the best ways to teach the children God's Word.

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   The Agape Force's first full-fledged children's musical, Agapeland, had been introduced in 1974. Many of the character concepts in that musical had come from the Force's work in the streets, in the ghettos, door to door. When their Agapeland record was complete, the sales of the album took the same route. Nearly eighty thousand copies were sold door to door by Agape Force members, remarkable movement for any gospel album at that time. The Force found that parents who might not be receptive to being preached to at the door were quite receptive to purchasing an album for their children, even if it was a Christian children's album.

   Agapeland, however, took so much time to prepare and perform as a musical that Salerno ultimately decided to continue producing the musicals on record, but to leave the actual stage production of them to schools and churches. The Agape Force worked out an arrangement with the then-new Sparrow Records to distribute the albums for retail sales internationally (except the original Agapeland LP, distributed by Word). The Force team members would continue to sell records door to door.

   To come would be a string of musicals based on the original Agapeland theme. Each was written and recorded to encourage better application of Christian principles in children's lives. Also, associated production aids and related curricula were devised and distributed from the Lindale headquarters.

   In 1981 The Music Machine, one of the early Agapeland series, which taught about the fruit of the spirit, became only the second album on a gospel label to reached certified gold status, signifying the sale of five hundred thousand copies. That half million only accounted for store sales, and not the ones sold door to door. In 1985 the album was predicted to reach platinum status, signifying the sale of one million copies.

   Out of another musical, Bullfrogs and Butterflies, came the most popular of the Agapeland songs. The title song, performed by Barry McGuire, became a classic. The album was expected to reach gold status in late 1984 or early 1985.

   The albums created by the Agape Force can be considered a most important part of the history of contemporary Christian music. They were a highly conscientious effort to present the gospel of Christ to children in a quality way. By utilizing all forms of contemporary music in the presentations, they successfully reached a generation which had been all but forgotten on many fronts. The younger people first raised on Agapeland musicals were in their teens by the time the eighties were underway, and in some cases the Agapeland musicals had been one of the few bridges of the generation gap which existed in Christian music itself

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   It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that there were no other effective children's albums. Projects by Clark Gassman, Flo Price, Super Gang, the Rambos, the Gaithers, and the Maranatha! Music Kid's Praise series of albums all were highly important ventures into the world of communicating to children. The music from their albums would be sung for generations to come.

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