More than 300-strong, the crowd was packed shoulder to shoulder, reverently listening to the opening scripture, prayer and song.
Now and then throughout the evening, individuals showed their agreement with an occasional "Amen." When the program was over, the organizers passed a collection basket that quickly swelled with cash.
Despite similarities, the group gathered Thursday night in a packed Beverly Hills Auditorium didn't meet for a church service.
Instead, they met to learn how to keep what they describe as New Age religion from infiltrating Citrus County's public school curriculum.
The meeting was sponsored by Concerned Parents of Citrus County, a group seeking policy changes in the kinds of curriculum allowed in the schools. Specifically, the group wants to ban any programs that use meditation, relaxation techniques, self-hypnosis, guided imagery or yoga, elements normally associated with the so-called New Age movement.
Concerned Parents has primarily focused on the so-called "self-esteem" programs in the public schools and especially the Pumsy and DUSO guidance programs in the elementary schools.
Teachers use Pumsy, a cuddly dragon puppet, to help elementary school children adopt a positive approach to life and to build a child's self-esteem. The DUSO program follows the escapades of a dolphin named DUSO. The aim of both programs is to teach children to avoid peer pressure and make their own decisions.
"Father God, we don't need Pumsy. We don't need DUSO. What we need is Jesus Christ . . . not some fantasy land, but the living God," Brian O'Connell said in the opening prayer.
Pumsy and DUSO are used in various Citrus elementary schools, but school officials stress that they do not use the portions of the program that have generated the most controversy nationwide, specifically the relaxation techniques and guided imagery.
Two nationally known experts on Pumsy and DUSO were the keynote speakers Thursday night and explained to the audience how they feel the New Age philosophies and Eastern mysticism have crept into public schools nationally.
Craig Branch, co-author of the book Thieves of Innocence, who is known across the country for his fight against New Age practices in public schools, began by discounting reports that linked groups like Concerned Parents with a "national far-right fundamentalist plot to take over our education system."
"We're just a group of people and parents," Branch said. "It's not any kind of national conspiracy."
He said the movement "is not just a Christian-only perspective. I don't care what religious background you have, unless you're New Age. . . . You shouldn't want your children to be exposed to this."
Branch said he didn't want to see the group become adversaries of public school educators.
"I'm not anti-public education by any means," he said. "Ninety percent of the people have their children in public schools. I'm of the opinion that we need to be involved in the public school system, radically involved" to make the system better.
He explained that he was originally involved when he was asked to study several programs in Alabama and he read footnotes and bibliographies. From the source information used in those school programs, Branch said he learned that many of the concepts came from people who were openly involved in the New Age movement.
Branch's contention is that, by practitioners' own admission, New Age is just as much of a religion as Christianity. If one religion is not allowed in the schools, the other shouldn't be used, either, he said.
Branch said New Age ideas have made their way into the educational program through educators who want to help the growing number of children from dysfunctional families. "All of these are psychological problems so, where do they look for help? Psychology," he said.
The debate about New Age and education stretches far beyond Pumsy, DUSO and self-esteem programs, Branch said.
Other programs he encouraged parents to watch carefully include gifted education, health education, stress management, creative writing, art, drama, and sex and drug education.
He encouraged parents to learn about the programs in their schools and fight any of the relaxation, meditation or hypnosis techniques that might be used.
Thursday night's other guest speaker, psychiatrist George Twente, told the audience that he knows about those various techniques firsthand. Not only did he practice them himself, but he also taught his patients to use them.
Then, one day, he said he realized that he had been participating in the "beautiful side of evil" and he turned back to God.
When he read the Pumsy curriculum, Twente said he was surprised to see instructions for what he called "classical hypnosis" and other meditation techniques he had used.
Twente said that he saw placing children in altered states of consciousness as dangerous and that the basic lessons in the curriculum were "contrary to normal childhood development.
"These children are told that their main authority is within themselves. . . . but they need external guidance at that age," Twente said.
He garnered the first enthusiastic applause of the evening when he told the audience that "self-esteem is developed when you face life head on with your eyes open."
Twente urged parents to take back their roles in raising children and set a proper example.
The schools "are always asking for parental involvement," Branch said. "I hope that's not just selling doughnuts. I hope that means getting involved in the process of education."
Concerned Parents will take its concerns about the programs to the School Board on March 22.