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Mega-Spirited Texas

If you see motorcycles flying overhead while you're in Texas, forget the state fair or rodeo, you just might be in church. As surely as Texas history is seen in its missions like the Alamo, a slice of the state's current culture can be seen in its Battlestar Galactica-like churches. Beyond their sociological significance, the sheer "wow" factor alone (generated by their immense size and offerings) makes Texas's megachurches tourist-worthy sites. In fact, many of them even cater to tourists, with building tours, special events, and book signings.

Texas has more than 182 megachurches (those with a weekly attendance greater than 2,000)—many more per capita than California, which has about the same number of big churches but twice as many residents. Statisticians say that Texas ranks first in the nation in the number of evangelical Protestants and third in number of Catholics.

Houston features the truly stupendous Lakewood Church, the largest church in the country with a Sunday attendance of 45,000, spread out over three services. Its Texas-sized slogan is "Dreaming Big," and its leaders, Joel and Victoria Osteen, have plunked the church into the sports arena formerly occupied by the Houston Rockets. With a Texas-twanged smile Joel welcomes people to "our big living room." His most recent book Become a Better You, released in October 2007, was at the time of this writing expected to sell more than 5 million copies. Visitors can take self-guided tours of the church, or stop in for music concerts, seminars, conferences, and classes held throughout the week.

Houston has lots of other "biggest of the big" religious sites to visit. Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, who presided over George W. Bush's presidential inaugurations, also presides over the largest Methodist church in the country: Kingdom Builders Center. Mega-synagogue Beth Yeshurun is the largest Conservative Jewish congregation in the country (with more than 4,000 attendees), and in 2008 Catholics—not to be outdone—built a mega-European style Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart with 32 million pounds of concrete and one-half million pounds of steel. Even Rick Warren has an outpost in Houston; at Fellowship of The Woodlands, Pastor Shook's services are known for dramatic sermon illustrations like motorcycles leaping over his head when he discussed having faith.

If you're single and looking, then be sure to visit Second Baptist Church, which claims it hosts the largest adult singles gatherings at any church in the country—7,313 to be exact. And every March the largest Cowboy Church in the world forms on Sundays at the world's largest rodeo, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

Not to be religiously out-bigged by Houston, Dallas proclaims itself as the newest buckle of the Bible belt. The city is a sort of Disneyland of big churches. You can attend various churches' weekday power lunches, use their mega-sports centers to play ball, or attend conferences that attract more than half a million attendees. On 140 acres (and growing rapidly), Dallas-area's Prestonwood Baptist gathers 28,000 every Sunday to listen to Dr. Jack Graham and the 650-member choir, the largest in Texas. If you like the Texas Rangers, Dallas Cowboys, or other Texas sports teams, then Prestonwood's PowerLunches on Tuesdays are the place to hear the athletes talk.

T. D. Jakes's The Potter's House sponsors the biggest conferences, including, in 2008, a men's conference featuring excursions, concerts, and seminars in one of Texas's grand cowboy-styled resorts. Author of the mega-hit book Woman, Thou Art Loosed, Jakes held a four-day Megafest in 2004 that had more than half a million attendees. On Sundays 30,000 congregants pack his church, along with a Grammy-winning choir. Bishop Jakes has twice been featured on the cover of Time magazine as "America's Best Preacher" and one of this nation's "25 most influential evangelicals."

But if you want to visit the mega-author of Texas churches who has written more books than any pastor in the U.S., then you must go to San Antonio to Max Lucado's Oak Hills Church. After 14 refusals, Lucado finally found a publisher and then batted out more than 100 books and counting (with more than 55 million in print). He preaches—simply and directly—three times a month at his very tourist-friendly megachurch of 5,300 weekly attendees.

—Tony Carnes

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