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You've probably heard some version of this joke. A man from San Francisco decides to write a book about churches around the country. He travels to congregations in Seattle, Boise, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, New York, Atlanta, and at each church he notices a golden telephone on the wall with a sign over it that reads: $10,000 A MINUTE. The man is told that the phone is a direct line to heaven.

Finally, he arrives in Dallas. He enters a church and spots the usual golden telephone. But this time, the sign reads: CALLS: 25 CENTS. Fascinated, he asks to speak to the pastor. "Reverend, I have been in cities all across the country, and in each church I have been told that this phone is a direct line to God, but everywhere else it costs $10,000 a minute. Your sign says 25 cents a call. Why?"

The pastor, smiling proudly, replies, "Well, my son, you're in Dallas now. It's a local call from here."

What makes this tale more than just an amusing example of "Don't Mess with Texas" bravado is the nagging suspicion that, in Dallas, it could very well be true.

Judging from the unusually large number of churches, seminaries, and parachurch organizations here, one gets the impression that God has some special arrangement with the city—the kind Disney has with Orlando, or that movie stars have with Beverly Hills. The ubiquity of Christian institutions is astounding.

And these aren't your average-size churches, seminaries, and parachurch organizations either. In the great Texas tradition, they are big—really big—in both membership and clout.

For instance, travel downtown and you'll find First Baptist of Dallas, believed by some observers to be the nation's first modern megachurch. Under the leadership of the late W. A. Criswell, from 1944 to 1991 the ...

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May 21, 2002

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