Joel Osteen's Mega-Watt Grin Can't Keep Houston Within the Bible Belt, Survey Says

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Every week, Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church sermons reach over seven million viewers across the world. The Second Baptist Church Houston, the largest Baptist church in the largest Baptist nation, hosts a weekly attendance pushing 25,000. The Woodlands Church -- pulling those from Humble, Katy, and Tomball -- boasts one of the fastest-growing five-figure membership bodies in the country.

It may not be the main buckle in the Bible Belt, but Houston has long presented an important hub for Christian fellowship in America. And, as the fourth-largest city in the States, it's long posted an anomalous presence, melding the heathen-based trappings of a major city with the heaven-based core of its Confederate history. Outreach Magazine, the preferred dead-tree weekly of those who prefer a Living God, annually lists five Houston-area mega-churches within its "Top 100 Churches in America" compendium. Bible and barbecue still reigned.

Now, though, that impression needs a re-think. As the population's boomed -- as the loops metastasize, as the diversity balloons -- it seems that that mid-century brand of Houston as a Bible-based bastion may be starting to crack.

On Wednesday, the American Bible Society released its list of the "96 Most Bible-Minded Cities" in America. Plugging phone and online interviews with over 42,000 respondents, the folks at ABS -- an interdenominational non-profit founded in 1816 -- searched for those who had read the Bible within the previous week, and who agreed "strongly in the accuracy of the Bible." Melding the two responses, ABS plugged a formula that then spit out a percentage of those considered "Bible-minded."

"We wanted to marry two things: what people feel about the Bible, but also with what they've done with it -- if it's presented a day-to-day experience of transformation in their life," Geof Morin, ABS's chief communications officer, told me.

The top of the list should come as little surprise. Knoxville, Shreveport, and Chattanooga, Tenn., grab the podium, with Birmingham and Jackson, Miss., rounding out the top five. The Bible Belt trounces, as expected. And the Northeast -- with the aptly-named Providence, R.I., pulling up the rear -- round out the bottom of the pack.

But as you peruse the rest of the ranks -- Nashville, at No. 14; Memphis, at No. 23; Atlanta, at No. 28 -- you start to realize that, over a third of the way in, Houston's nowhere to be seen.

There's Dallas, at No. 27. There's San Antonio, at No. 33. There's New Orleans ­-- New Orleans -- at No. 36.

It's only at No. 39, along with Dayton, Ohio, that Houston finally crops up. Just in the top-40, with 32 percent of respondents claiming that they maintain some form of Bible-mindedness. Nearly halfway through, barely beating out godless Austin and philistine Philadelphia and lecherous West Palm Beach.

"We'd had this perception that the Bible Belt was monolithic, at least in terms of Bible readership," Morin said. "But it's just not. We've started calling it more of a Bible Polka Dot -- it's spottier than we thought it would be. Houston's just within the top-40, so the presence of these strong ministries, even with these mega-churches, doesn't mean what people might think it would." Perhaps expectedly, some of the local mega-churches -- among the largest in the nation, again -- didn't offer a full-throated endorsement.

"You have to be careful about what criteria you're using," Gary Moore, a senior associate pastor with the Second Baptist Church, said, questioning the findings. "We get such an area to cover. You just have to be careful."

But, look: Houston's changed, and will only continue, and will only present new generations and new populations that either have no desire for or no access to whatever people think can be found within the Bible. And some ministries realize this. The mega-churches -- those weekly enclaves larger than the towns Houston continues to gobble -- may be nice, but they also paint a picture of something passed.

"I'd say I'm not surprised at the ranking," Steven Murray, the director of communications at Houston's First Baptist Church, noted. "I could speak for days about the general trends of the country, of a society drifting away from the values of the Bible. This isn't the Houston of the 1950s that some people think of."

The poll, conducted by the Barna Group and with a margin of error of only 0.5 percent, was the first of its sort in ABS's 200-year history. As such, this initial foray is little more than a moment, a capture of stasis without any form of trajectory. (Morin, fortunately, did say this poll would likely turn into an annual affair.) But it's a snapshot of a town carrying a reputation it perhaps doesn't deserve, or of one that's as outdated as, well, most of the stereotypes carried therein. Barbecue can still have its place, but the Bible and its backers need to catch up, or grow accustomed to the middle of the pack.

"We have to come to terms with the fact that we're in the fourth-largest city in the country, and that we're incredibly diverse, which is such a beautiful thing," Murray added. "But I hope this is a wake-up call. We can't just assume everyone in Houston grew up in Houston. This has to be a wake-up call."

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