[Paleopsych] NYTMag: The Soul of the New Exurb
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Tue Mar 29 19:55:08 UTC 2005
The Soul of the New Exurb
New York Times Magazine, 5.3.27
By JONATHAN MAHLER
In the spring of 1996, Lee McFarland quit his high-paying job at
Microsoft, sold his house and drove his Jeep Cherokee from Redmond,
Wash., to Surprise, Ariz. He had come to build a church. McFarland,
who was 36 at the time, knew little about leading churches and less
about building them: he wasn't even halfway through the correspondence
classes he was taking to become an evangelical pastor. Nevertheless,
he'd been hired by a small group of Christians in an adjoining
community to do just that. And so a few days after he arrived, he put
on a pair of slacks and a polo shirt, said goodbye to his wife, Sandy,
and their two kids, who had come to Surprise several weeks ahead of
him to get settled in their new house, and set out to find believers.
For decades, Surprise, which is about 45 minutes northwest of downtown
Phoenix, was mostly scrubby cotton, rose and citrus fields, with a
small grid of streets where migrant workers lived. In the early 90's,
developers discovered the town. By the time McFarland and his family
arrived, its population had climbed past 15,000, and more, many more,
were on their way. Most of Surprise's new residents were young white
families drawn to affordable homes and jobs within commuting distance.
Many of them hadn't gone to college but no doubt hoped that their
These were the people McFarland was seeking when he started knocking
on the doors of one light brown stucco tract home after another.
Applying a lesson he learned a month earlier in a church-development
seminar in Orange County, Calif., he introduced himself to the locals
as the pastor of a new church that he was calling Radiant. From there
he expected to begin long, probing conversations about their lives --
what was missing, what their kids liked to do in their free time and
so on. But the mothers and fathers who greeted him were barely civil.
''This was,'' as he put it to me not long ago, ''a radically
unchurched area.'' No wonder Surprise's three existing churches were
After a few days of trekking through identical streets and cul-de-sacs
under the hot Arizona sun, McFarland figured he had better try a
different approach. He traded in his business-casual attire for a
T-shirt and blue jeans, bought a clipboard and posed as the
representative of a secular organization. He limited himself to two
questions: ''What's your favorite radio station?'' and ''Why do you
think people don't go to church?'' The conversations grew longer, and
McFarland's mission became clear. People in Surprise listened to rock
music. And they didn't go to church because they didn't have any fancy
clothes, didn't like being asked for money and didn't see how any of
the sermons they had heard in the past related to their lives.
McFarland pledged to change all that. By the following August, he had
hired a direct-mail company to send out fliers to everyone in Surprise
-- or at least everyone but the Spanish-speaking farm workers who
lived in the town's original square mile -- inviting them to Radiant.
''You think church is boring and judgmental, and that all they want is
your money?'' it asked. ''At Radiant you'll hear a rockin' band and a
positive, relevant message. Come as you are. We won't beg for your
money. Your kids will love it!''
On a Sunday in early September 1997, 147 people showed up for
Radiant's first service, which was about twice what McFarland had
expected. Until construction on the church was finished, services were
being held in the auditorium of a public elementary school. McFarland
wore an untucked Hawaiian shirt, blue jeans and sneakers. The
air-conditioning wasn't working; it was 114 degrees outside and 92
degrees inside. As he talked about how to build better relationships
with friends, family members and loved ones, McFarland looked out over
his wilting congregation and started thinking that his first sermon
might very well be his last. But the following week more than 100
people returned, and the church has been growing steadily ever since.
When attendance for Sunday services at Radiant hit about 350 in 1999,
McFarland tried to apply the brakes. No more fliers, billboards or
newspaper ads. A few hundred felt like the perfect size -- big enough
to be vibrant, but small enough that he still knew everyone's name.
But then one night McFarland woke up in tears. ''I felt like God was
saying: 'Oh, so that's it, huh? You don't care?' '' McFarland
remembers. ''I said to God, 'I will never decide how big this church
should be.' ''
And so a year later, when Radiant moved into what would be its first
permanent quarters, weekend attendance was approaching 800. Two years
later it hit 2,000, the generally agreed-upon threshold for megachurch
status, and McFarland started planning to build a new worship center.
Weekend attendance is now about 5,000. To accommodate them all,
McFarland leads several services, beginning on Saturday afternoon and
continuing through Sunday morning. For Easter, the busiest day of the
year, Radiant is expecting 15,000.
All of this has come as a big surprise to McFarland.''When we started
Radiant, I thought it would be cool if we got to 200,'' he said when I
first met him in January. McFarland, a big guy, a little soft around
the middle, was wearing a blue T-shirt and black Tommy Hilfiger jeans,
and we were sitting in his office, where a wooden baseball bat
autographed by Garth Brooks -- ''Pastor Lee, may God guide you, pal''
-- is displayed more prominently than the only thing that passes as
religious iconography: a soft-focus painting of a contented-looking
bearded man in a white robe. ''I tease people and I go, 'This is my
rookie season, this is my first church,' '' McFarland told me, ''and
they go: 'Shut up, dude, you're sickening. You're pastor of a church
that has grown like a weed.' ''
One of the more striking facts to emerge from the 2004 presidential
election was that 97 of America's 100 fastest-growing counties voted
Republican. Most of these counties are made up of heretofore unknown
towns too far from major metropolitan areas to be considered suburbs,
but too bustling to be considered rural, places like Lebanon, Ohio;
Fridley, Minn.; Crabapple, Ga.; and Surprise, Ariz. America has a new
frontier: the exurbs. In a matter of years, sleepy counties stretching
across 30 states have been transformed into dense communities of
subdivisions filled with middle-class families likely to move again
and again, settling in yet another exurb but putting down no real
roots. These exurban cities tend not to have immediately recognizable
town squares, but many have some kind of big, new structure where
newcomers go to discuss their lives and problems and hopes: the
This is not the megachurch of the 1980's, where baby boomers turned up
once a week to passively take in a 45-minute service -- ''religion as
accessory,'' as Tom Beaudoin, an assistant professor of religion at
Santa Clara University, has described the phenomenon. In a sense, the
new breed of megachurches has more in common with the frontier
churches of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which served as
gathering places for pioneers who had gone West in search of
opportunity. In sprawling, decentralized exurbs like Surprise, where
housing developments rarely include porches, parks, stoops or any of
the other features that have historically brought neighbors together,
megachurches provide a locus for community. In many places, they
operate almost like surrogate governments, offering residents day
care, athletic facilities, counseling, even schools. Taking the
comparison one step further, there's even a tax, albeit a voluntary
one: members are encouraged to tithe, or donate 10 percent of their
income to the church. At Radiant, McFarland says, about one-quarter of
the members do.
It's hard to imagine a more effective method of religious outreach,
which is, after all, the goal of evangelical churches like Radiant. As
McFarland told me: ''I'm just trying to get people in the door.'' To
that end, Radiant has designed its new 55,000-square-foot church to
look more like an overgrown ski lodge than a place of worship. ''For
people who haven't been to church, or went once and got burned, the
anxiety level is really high,'' McFarland says. '' 'Is it going to be
freaky? Is it going to be like what I see on Christian TV?' So we've
tried to bring down those visual cues that scare people off.''
In fact, everything about Radiant has been designed to lure people
away from other potential weekend destinations. The foyer includes
five 50-inch plasma-screen televisions, a bookstore and a cafe with a
Starbucks-trained staff making espresso drinks. (For those who are in
a rush, there's a drive-through latte stand outside the main
building.) Krispy Kreme doughnuts are served at every service.
(Radiant's annual Krispy Kreme budget is $16,000). For kids there are
Xboxes (10 for fifth and sixth graders alone). ''That's what they're
into,'' McFarland says. ''You can either fight it or say they're a
tool for God.'' The dress code is lax: most worshipers wear jeans,
sweats or shorts, depending on the season. (''At my old church, we
thought we were casual because we wore mock turtlenecks under our
blazers,'' Radiant's youth pastor told me.) Even the baptism pool is
seductive: Radiant keeps the water at 101 degrees. ''We've had people
say, 'No, leave me under,' '' McFarland says. ''It's like taking a dip
in a spa.''
When the church was under construction, people would occasionally ask
McFarland if it was going to have stained glass or a steeple. ''No!''
he'd answer. ''We want the church to look like a mall. We want you to
come in here and say, 'Dude, where's the cinema?' ''
The spiritual sell is also a soft one. There are no crosses, no images
of Jesus or any other form of religious iconography. Bibles are
optional (all biblical quotations are flashed on huge video screens
above the stage). Almost half of each service is given over to live
Christian rock with simple, repetitive lyrics in which Jesus is
treated like a high-school crush: ''Jesus, you are my best friend, and
you will always be. Nothing will ever change that.'' Committing your
life to Christ is as easy as checking a box on the communication cards
that can be found on the back of every chair. (Last year, 1,055 people
McFarland's messages are light on liturgy and heavy on what he calls
''successful principles for living'' -- how to discipline your
children, how to reach your professional goals, how to invest your
money, how to reduce your debt, even how to shake a porn addiction.
''If Oprah and Dr. Phil are doing it, why shouldn't we?'' he says.
''We should be better at it because we have the power of God to
In his recent book ''The Transformation of American Religion: How We
Actually Live Our Faith,'' Alan Wolfe, a professor of political
science at Boston College, writes that ''American faith has met
American culture -- and American culture has triumphed.'' Radiant
seems the embodiment of this assertion. And yet not exactly.
McFarland's long-term plan for his congregants involves much more than
playing video games and eating doughnuts. He says that his hope -- his
expectation, really -- is that casual worshipers will gradually
immerse themselves in Radiant's many Christ-based programs, from
financial planning to parenthood and education, until they have
eventually incorporated Christian values into every aspect of their
This is the vision of the new megachurch, and it's far more expansive
than those of yesterday's megachurches and today's smaller churches.
''The larger church expects a much higher level of commitment,'' says
Dave Travis, who runs Leadership Network, a strategic consulting firm
for megachurches. ''The larger church expects you to be a more
passionate follower of Christ, not just in the church, but in your
community, your workplace and your home.''
As an evangelical strategy, it seems to be working. Weekly attendance
at most American churches has either plateaued or is declining. But
megachurches continue to expand -- and multiply. (According to John
Vaughan, who runs the Megachurch Research Center in Bolivar, Mo.,
there were 10 non-Catholic megachurches in America in 1970. Today
there are 282.) McFarland is clearly doing something right. There are
now 27 other churches in Surprise, but none of them are growing at
anything approaching the pace of Radiant. One day in Surprise, I met a
pastor who moved there four years ago with his wife and children from
Kalamazoo, Mich., to plant a church. After drawing fewer than 10
people for about a year, he folded up shop. When I ran into him he was
auditioning for a part-time job with Radiant's band.
lee mcfarland first heard the call to ministry one Sunday morning in
1995 at his church outside Seattle. As he tells the story, the pastor
was sermonizing about the importance of volunteering free time to the
church. ''And then he said: 'But God sometimes takes people and taps
them on the shoulder and says, ''I want you to do this as a
vocation.'' Sometimes this happens in high school, so you go into a
Bible college. But sometimes God waits until your career is developed
in another area and then calls you into the ministry as a
second-career pastor.' And then he said something really strange:
'Tonight, I think there's someone here that God is calling to do
that.' As soon as he said that, I knew. I just felt like God was
going, 'It's you, it's you.' '' Within a matter of weeks, McFarland
had enrolled in correspondence classes to become a pastor and started
arriving at his office at 5 every morning to study for an hour or so
before his day at Microsoft began.
McFarland had lived outside Phoenix while working for Honeywell in the
early 1990's. When he came back to Arizona on a business trip shortly
after deciding to join the ministry, he had lunch with his former
pastor. McFarland told him he was planning a career change, and the
pastor asked him for a resume, in case he heard of any openings.
A few months later, McFarland received a call from a group of
Christian seniors who lived in Sun City, a retirement community that
abuts Surprise. They could see that Surprise was about to take off and
had tried luring some of the newcomers to their church, a more
traditional place with formal attire, hymns and wooden pews, but they
hadn't had much luck. It was clear that if these young families, many
of whom had either fallen away from religion or had never attended
church regularly, were going to be saved, it would require a very
different kind of church led by a pastor who could relate to them.
After raising $450,000 to buy a 15-acre plot in Surprise, the retirees
received McFarland's name from his former pastor and offered him the
job, which paid $26,000 a year. ''I was like: Surprise? I've been to
Surprise,'' McFarland recalled during one of our conversations. ''It's
a spot on the road that you pass on your way to get gas. It was a
miracle that I was willing to come, and it was a miracle that they
were willing to hire me.''
Surprise was still little more than a spot on the road, but waves of
construction were rippling out from Phoenix. Having started the second
half of the 20th century as the nation's 99th largest city, Phoenix
had become the sixth largest and was busting out of its own skin. Once
most of the land in the nearer suburbs -- Glendale, Mesa, Peoria --
had been built out, developers started moving deeper and deeper into
the exurbs, and Surprise was soon expanding in every direction. The
process worked something like this: A developer would buy land from a
farmer and then ask Surprise to annex it. This guaranteed the
developer municipal amenities like police and fire protection; for its
part, with each annexation Surprise became more populous.
The seemingly endless supply of desert land kept housing costs low,
and young families were soon pouring in. During the 1990's, the
population of Surprise doubled to 30,000. Commercial development was
still ramping up. In 2000, Applebee's was the only sit-down chain
restaurant in town, and the wait for a table on a weekend night could
be as long as an hour and a half.
Then the real boom began. The population of Surprise is now more than
80,000 and is expected to be close to 100,000 by the end of the year.
And the city anticipates that there are still more than three decades
of furious growth to come. Surprise won't be fully built out until
2040, at which point its population is expected to reach 650,000.
There will no doubt be plenty of turnover along the way. According to
Robert Lang, an urban expert who studies exurbs at the Metropolitan
Institute at Virginia Tech,''If you live in a new community, you will
also change communities.''
A sk people at Radiant what first brought them to the church, and you
will almost never hear a mention of God. It might have been a
billboard: ''Isn't It Time You Laughed Again?'' Or the twice-a-week
aerobics class (with free child care) called Firm Believers. Or one of
their children might have come with a friend to play video games.
For Joe and Jodi Garcia, who moved to Surprise nearly two years ago
from Orange County, Calif., it was a flier advertising a sermon series
about marriage, ''Sex, Lies and Second Looks.'' Unlike many Radiant
worshipers, Joe and Jodi were not new to evangelical Christianity. In
1995, right after Joe had finally defeated a long-running addiction to
alcohol and cocaine, both he and his wife (who have been married for
15 years) were saved at the Harvest Crusade, a Christian revival that
took place over several nights at Anaheim Stadium. For a while, they
listened to Christian radio and attended a nearby megachurch. But by
the time they came to Surprise, they'd drifted away from religion.
They were also having some problems in their marriage.
That's when the flier from Radiant arrived, promising to make their
lives better. ''Talking about sex in church -- are you kidding?'' it
began. ''Nope.'' They went to Radiant and have been going back ever
since. McFarland's sermons reminded Joe that he needed to cut out
potential sources of temptation, like many Hollywood movies. ''If you
don't prune, you start absorbing all of that stuff, and then take it
into your marriage,'' Joe, a slight, intense-looking man with narrow
eyes and a goatee, told me one night at Radiant. ''You start saying
things like, 'Hey, my wife doesn't dress like that.' ''
The Garcias came to Surprise with their two children because they were
barely managing to make it in Orange County. They had a lot of debt,
and had outgrown their modest home and couldn't begin to afford
anything bigger in the area. Some friends told them about Surprise,
and they decided to take a look. Phoenix's economy was expanding, so
Joe, a network engineer, would probably be able to find work. In July
2003, they sold their Orange County house and bought a bigger one in
Surprise. Within a few months, Joe had been hired by a health-care
company in Phoenix. (He now works as a computer technician at
Soon after the Garcias started attending Radiant, Joe, who was having
trouble finding an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Surprise he liked,
volunteered to help the church start a branch of Celebrate Recovery, a
popular Christ-based program for recovering addicts. Praised by
President Bush, Celebrate Recovery was founded by a recovering
alcoholic frustrated that he didn't feel comfortable talking about
Jesus in A.A. meetings. A.A. has 12 steps; Celebrate Recovery has
eight principles, based on Jesus' sermon on the mount. ''A.A. is the
higher power of your own understanding, which can be a doorknob,''
says Joe. ''Here our higher power is our lord savior Jesus Christ.
He's the one who gives us the strength we need in recovery.''
Joe now leads Celebrate Recovery at Radiant, which is held on Friday
nights at the church. The evening begins with a free dinner, after
which about 100 people -- alcoholics, drug addicts, co-dependents --
filter into the worship center behind ushers in maroon shirts with
''Follow Me to Recovery'' printed on the back. The Radiant house band
plays loud, uplifting Christian rock, and nearly everyone sings along:
''I'm trading my sorrows, I'm trading my shame, for the joy of the
Lord.'' Once the offering has been collected, Joe gives a short sermon
and then the attendees split up into small groups for their individual
recovery meetings before reconvening for dessert at the Soul Cafe.
Celebrate Recovery is what church-growth experts refer to as a side
door. Before the rise of the megachurch, evangelism was done primarily
through the front door -- the Sunday-morning service. Today, large
evangelical churches try to offer the yet-to-be-saved as many
different entry points as they can. Almost invariably, these side
doors lead people into more intimate gatherings, which are intended to
keep megachurches from feeling too large and impersonal.
The arrival of the small group represents the maturation of the
megachurch. Big churches took off in the 1980's precisely because they
didn't ask much of the baby boomers who represented the bulk of their
congregants. The stage lighting, surround-sound and theater-style
seating turned worshipers into audience members. By the late 1990's,
it was clear that this formula was no longer working. Slick,
performance-oriented churches were drawing people, but they weren't
always keeping them. National studies revealed that boomer attendance
was dropping. Just as some megachurches had only recently repurposed
empty strip malls and multiplexes to accommodate their growing crowds,
they were now in danger of being repurposed themselves if they didn't
At the same time, some megachurch pastors began to worry that they
weren't really reaching people. Rather, they were producing what the
theologian Sally Morgenthaler has called ''a generation of spectators,
religious onlookers.'' In order to transform lives, they needed to
find a way to deepen involvement -- to encourage people to integrate
the church into their everyday lives and build relationships with
other Christians. Polls have since confirmed this hunch. Most
Christians who say they have been changed by their church attribute it
not to their pastors' sermons but to their small groups, where people
can share, in the words of Dave Travis, who runs the megachurch
consultancy, ''their deepest hopes and hurts.'' This was, after all,
the model of Jesus and his disciples: What I've done with you, you now
do with other people.
Small groups are an important part of McFarland's plan to convert what
he calls ''baby Christians'' into ''mature Christians.'' Radiant has
groups for everyone: singles, couples with children, couples without
children, divorced women, married men, stay-at-home moms, widows. Many
use a Christian DVD study kit, ''Life Together: Connecting With God's
Family.'' Some groups involve Bible study; others are built around
subjects like Christian parenting. Whatever the theme, the goal is
always the same: to build what Travis refers to as ''authentic
Getting casual worshipers to take this next step isn't easy. Only
about 800 people, or a little less than 20 percent of Radiant's
weekend congregants, participate in any of its 80 small groups. Such
numbers are not uncommon. It's rare for small-group participation at a
megachurch to break 30 percent, says Eddie Gibbs, a professor of
church growth at the Fuller Theological Seminary in California.
That said, 800 people do orient their lives around Radiant. Brett and
Cristina Bergstrom are two of them. Brett's first encounter with the
power of fellowship at Radiant came a few years ago on the church's
basketball court. He and Cristina had just been to Sunday services at
Radiant for the first time -- their 9-year-old son had been going on
Saturday nights with a friend for months -- and Brett, who played
basketball in college, noticed that the church held pickup games on
Tuesday nights. Brett came back a couple of days later to play and
blew out his Achilles' tendon. His 6-feet-7-inch, 280-pound frame
toppled like a redwood. ''One of the guys I was playing with asked me
if I was a Christian,'' he told me one afternoon in the hot-tub
dealership he owns and operates in Surprise. ''When I said yes, they
all got down on the floor and prayed with me until the ambulance
For several months, Brett and Cristina attended a Christian parenting
class at the church, where they discussed things like how to help
their kids handle science class in public school. (''If the teacher is
up there teaching evolution as fact,'' Brett told me, ''there's
nothing wrong with you asking very pointed questions, and it's a great
opportunity to share your faith.'') Brett and Cristina attend a
potluck dinner every other Saturday night with couples from the
church. On Tuesday nights, Brett leads a Bible study class at the
church; on Friday mornings he has breakfast with a group of Christian
contractors. ''Now I know what it means to have brothers in Christ --
seeing guys, giving big hugs to each other, just that feeling,'' he
told me, explaining the transformative effect that the church's small
groups have had on him. ''It's not Radiant magic dust, but Radiant
encourages you to let the spirit grow inside you and take down the
wall you build up around yourself.''
As soon as he arrived in Surprise, McFarland could see that the city
didn't have the infrastructure to support an influx of young families.
He sensed opportunity. ''From Day 1 we were going to be a church that
was going to really impact our community and provide something very
tangible that would solve a problem,'' he says. ''Just helping the
community opened a lot of doors, made people feel like we weren't just
The first problem McFarland set about solving was that of the public
schools. The newly arriving parents told him they were terrible. So in
the summer of 1998, less than a year after he'd started offering
Sunday services, McFarland rented a trailer, strung up a banner and
began signing up children for an as-yet-unbuilt charter school,
Paradise Education Center; C.E.O., Lee McFarland. ''We had nothing to
show them,'' he told me. ''Literally there was just land here.''
It was a measure of just how desperate parents were for an alternative
to the public schools that the parents of 225 children turned up,
vaccination records in hand, and registered them. Today the school, a
ring of single-story white stucco buildings directly across the street
from Radiant's massive worship center, is thriving. It has more than
1,000 children, and a waiting list close to 200.
Because the school relies on public funds, teachers are required to
follow state-approved curriculum guides, but Paradise nevertheless
provides free advertising for Radiant. ''To this day parents will come
by here and go, 'We just moved to Surprise and my kids go to school
here, so tell me about this church,' '' McFarland said. ''We usually
say it's a real positive church, real upbeat, kind of a community
feel. A great place to get to know people. And they go, 'Great, I'll
check it out.' That story has happened hundreds of times.''
Today the problem with Surprise's public schools isn't merely one of
quality, it's one of quantity. The city builds two elementary schools
every year and a new high school every other year, but parents still
complain of overcrowding.
Commercial development has started catching up with the population
growth. Surprise's main thoroughfare, Bell Road, is now a
traffic-choked avenue lined with strip malls filled with all of the
usual suspects (Target, Home Depot, Wal-Mart, Wendy's, Chick-fil-A,
etc.). But it's the affordable homes that draw people to the city. The
appetite for houses is so strong that most developments have a lottery
system; if there is no lottery, people camp out overnight whenever new
properties are about to be released. Demand is pushing up prices. At
one development I visited, Legacy Parc, homes are climbing between
$5,000 and $15,000 every month. But even with these steady increases,
the average house in Surprise goes for $175,000.
It's an attractive price for many families who are either trying to
make the move into the middle class or remain there in the face of
mounting debt and growing expenses. Which explains why the typical
Surprise resident, as in many fast-growing exurbs, is a young, white,
married couple of modest means.
These are people that the Republican Party has always run well with --
it's conventional wisdom among political analysts that young,
middle-class couples raising children tend to be conservative -- and
in 2004 the G.O.P. made a strong play for exurbanites. Megachurches
were a key part of the strategy. Supporters were asked to supply the
Bush-Cheney campaign with church directories so it could make sure
these churchgoers were registered and planning to vote. ''For the
first time we didn't just engage businesspeople or Second Amendment
supporters; we engaged people who said they were motivated first and
foremost by their values, and these people were often churchgoers,''
Gary Marx, a liaison to social conservatives for the campaign, told me
recently. ''We asked them to reach out to their community, and their
community is the megachurch.''
Marx also went directly to megachurch pastors, not for endorsements,
he says, but to encourage them to help get out the vote. More often
than not, he was well received. ''An old-line pastor who went to
seminary in the 60's is not going to be open to something like
Citizenship Sundays when you pass out registration cards to everyone
at the church,'' Marx said. ''But many of the pastors of these
megachurches are in their late 30's, early 40's. They were teenagers
during the Reagan years, and that's when conservatism and engagement
by evangelicals began to become mainstream. So they would be more
willing to do voter drives and things like that, more tuned into
citizenship and engaging the community beyond soup kitchens.''
Maricopa County, where Surprise is situated, voted 57 percent for Bush
to 42 percent for Kerry. In the run-up to the election, Radiant
published nonpartisan voter guides in the church bulletin, and
McFarland gave a sermon about the importance of voting, though he was
careful not to express support for either candidate -- ''God isn't a
Republican or a Democrat,'' he said. Still, the very fact that
McFarland's sermons are intended to feel ''relevant,'' as he likes to
say, means he at times takes on issues like abortion and
homosexuality, both of which he believes are sinful. McFarland's views
are rooted in his faith, but congregants may, no doubt, draw political
One Sunday in the middle of February, McFarland jammed with the
Radiant band as it warmed the crowd up for his message. When he's in
the mood, he sometimes plays the keyboard, but this morning he was
just slapping a tambourine against his hip and smiling. McFarland's
spiky black hair was standing straight up, and he wore the same basic
Jimmy Buffett outfit -- jeans, sneakers and an untucked red Hawaiian
shirt -- that he's been wearing for seven years now. The effect was
both festive and dorky, like that of a goofy but endearing uncle.
Most of the congregants swayed to the music and sang along; some had
their eyes closed, their hands raised toward the sky. The leader of
the worship band, Pastor Tony, brought things to a climax -- shouting,
''We love you, Jesus!'' over his band's last lingering notes -- and
McFarland settled in behind his plexiglass podium to deliver his
sermon: ''How to Enjoy Valentine's Day . . . Whether Single or
Married.'' He spoke casually, though his sentences all felt scripted,
and there was a hint of self-consciousness about his body language --
not so much that he appeared awkward, but enough so that he seemed a
little uncomfortable in his role as religious leader.
Within minutes, McFarland was talking about his own marriage, and how
his chronic failure to properly sort lights and darks led to his
banishment from the laundry room. A half-hour later, McFarland
instructed the congregants to lower their heads in a brief prayer, and
the sermon was over. ''Fire it up, Pastor Tony!' McFarland said as he
retreated to the back of the worship room, parked himself by the door
and doled out bearhugs to exiting worshipers.
McFarland works under the assumption that people don't want to be
intimidated by their pastors, that modernity has punctured the myth of
the morally superior religious leader. He is replacing the
sinner-be-damned fundamentalism that once characterized much of
evangelical Christianity with forgiveness. McFarland never talks about
transforming your life through struggle, surrender or sacrifice; he
talks about being happier by accepting Jesus -- into your office, your
kitchen, your backyard, your marital bed, everywhere. ''People aren't
looking for the elevated holy man who's got all of the answers,'' he
told me one afternoon. ''They want someone to be real with them.''
He has a knack for this, in part because he has the perfect back story
for the leader of a church that aims at middle- and lower-middle-class
30-somethings who are looking to improve their lot. McFarland studied
engineering at the University of Colorado, and before starting
Radiant, he had worked his way up to a $160,000-a-year (plus stock
options) job at Microsoft. He often alludes to his first career in his
messages; it's a clever evangelical technique, a subtle way of letting
people know that he once had what they're aspiring to and gave it up
to work for the Lord.
McFarland frequently refers to himself as a mail-order pastor. In fact
-- and he readily acknowledges this too -- he never finished his
pastoral coursework. He can lead Radiant anyway because the
denomination to which Radiant belongs, the Assemblies of God, doesn't
require its pastors to be ordained. This is not a mere quirk in the
bylaws. The Assemblies, a Pentecostal movement that grew out of the
preapocalyptic revivalism of the early 20th century and counts John
Ashcroft (the son of an Assemblies minister) among its more prominent
members, has historically been skeptical of all institutional
education, seminaries included. The movement now has its own seminary
in Springfield, Mo., but it continues to hew to tenets that most other
denominations consider radical. Among other things, the Assemblies
treats the Bible as fact and believes in miracles, faith healing and
speaking in tongues.
The only cue that there is any relationship between Radiant and the
Assemblies of God is a small, discreetly placed plaque in the foyer of
the main worship room of the church. McFarland never mentions the
Assemblies in his sermons for the simple reason that he's afraid it
will turn people off.
It is only when casual worshipers are considering getting more
involved at Radiant that they learn about the Assemblies affiliation,
and even then McFarland handles the issue carefully. At a recent
three-hour Saturday-morning orientation class for ''new believers''
who want to learn more about the church, he poked fun at the movement
-- ''What they're known for is being real Holy Ghost: speaking in
tongues, swinging from the chandeliers, all that kind of crazy stuff''
-- and assured his audience that Radiant is ''the most different
McFarland grew up in a Lutheran family in St. Louis. He discovered the
Assemblies through his wife, Sandy, whose family belonged to the
denomination, when they met in Colorado. Before Sandy's parents would
allow him to take her out, they insisted that he come to church with
them on a Sunday night. McFarland nearly freaked out. ''There was a
band up on stage,'' he said, ''people were dancing, and then the
pastor comes out. He's 6-foot-6. He's mad at everyone. He's pointing
at people: 'You are a sinner!' And I'm like, Gosh, I'm sorry.''
McFarland continued, ''People are flopping around like fish, going,
'Yak, yak, yak,' speaking in tongues, and I'm like, 'What's next,
The service lasted two and a half hours; McFarland was exhausted by
the end. Sandy asked him what he thought. ''I said, 'It was cool, but
just so we're clear, I will never do that again,' '' he told me.
''Well, don't ever say never to God, because he will rub your nose in
After McFarland and Sandy married, they joined her family's church. He
gradually grew more comfortable there, though he never felt fully at
home. Eventually, he and Sandy went shopping for another place of
worship and wound up at a different Assemblies church, albeit one with
less overt spiritual fervor.
Radiant's desire to keep the Assemblies at arm's length
notwithstanding, McFarland is an unapologetic believer in the
movement's doctrines. He even says he speaks in tongues, though when
he tells his worshipers the story of how he came to ''exercise the
gift'' it sounds as mundane as such a thing can. He was on his lunch
break, driving around in his brown Trans Am, listening to the tape of
a sermon that a pastor had made for him, when he found himself on the
steps of his house speaking a language he had never before spoken. ''I
received the Holy Spirit through a cassette tape,'' as he put it.
The Assemblies of God has a complicated view of Radiant and other
user-friendly churches like it. Some ministers are thrilled with their
success; others worry about the cost of trying to appeal to everyone.
''There are people in the Assemblies who are quite concerned that when
you have a pastor who says we don't want the vocal gifts of the spirit
expressed at weekend services, then the question is raised: 'What's
going on here, is this really a Pentecostal church?' '' Gary McGee, a
professor of church history at the Assemblies of God seminary, told
me. ''My personal opinion is that it's more important to lead someone
to Christ than it is to fuss over which method of church worship is
McFarland says he has heard his share of complaints from fellow
Assemblies pastors about ''watered-down'' preaching. ''I had one guy
from the Assemblies say to me, 'It's easy to fill a room.' And I was
like: 'Oh, yeah? Show me, dude, because we're finding that it takes a
lot of work.' ''
Expanding the flock through evangelism is a core principle of
Christianity, but the modern church-growth movement traces its roots
to Donald McGavran, a Christian missionary who worked in India during
the first half of the 20th century. What McGavran discovered and
articulated in his 1955 book, ''The Bridges of God,'' was that
churches can't operate like mission stations, rigidly insisting upon
their ways and inviting people to come to them on their terms. Rather,
they had to go into villages and make followers of Christ. There was
simply no other way to build a dynamic Christian community, which
McGavran considered a prerequisite for reaching the unchurched.
McGavran's words were written for overseas missionaries who would be
encountering people who knew nothing about Jesus, but they resonated
powerfully in America. As the 60's progressed, a new generation came
of age, one that felt increasingly alienated from the churches in
which they'd been raised. At the same time, more and more families
were relocating from the cities to outlying areas. It was clear to
church leaders that if they wanted to capture these new suburbanites
(and a little later, exurbanites), they were going to have to go after
them on their turf. The problem was that most pastors had been taught
plenty of theology at seminary, but very little about how to actually
build a church. So church leaders turned to McGavran for guidance. A
nascent industry of church-growth experts adapted his model,
encouraging pastors to engage their local communities by treating
potential worshipers as consumers.
The modern master of church growth is Rick Warren. In the early
1980's, Warren, a fifth-generation Southern Baptist, applied
McGavran's philosophies to his Orange County church, Saddleback.
Warren's community was cut from a very different cultural cloth than
his own family's; things like altar calls, a Southern Baptist staple
in which worshipers are exhorted to come to the front of the church
and accept Jesus, would never play in the wealthy suburbs of Southern
California. Instead, Warren set about building a profile of
''Saddleback Sam''; once he had a sense of his average worshiper's
likes (i.e. contemporary music) and dislikes (preachy, guilt-inducing
sermons), he built Saddleback to accommodate him. A result was the
so-called seeker-sensitive church.
Saddleback is now one of the largest churches in the country, with a
congregation of more than 15,000, and Warren, a cuddly-looking
middle-aged man with a retreating hair line, is no longer just a
church pastor. His 2002 book, ''The Purpose-Driven Life,'' which lays
out a 40-day program to discover God's purpose for us, has sold more
than 20 million copies. Less tangible though no less significant has
been Warren's role in influencing more than 100,000 pastors through
Saddleback's conferences, Web sites and prepackaged purpose-driven
McFarland is an unabashed acolyte. The church-building seminar that
McFarland attended before he moved to Surprise was led by Warren, and
nearly all of the techniques he has used to build his church -- the
informal marketing study; the communication cards; the
self-deprecating, Everyman persona; even the untucked Hawaiian shirt
-- are taken straight from Warren's playbook. This is not plagiarism.
Warren doesn't copyright anything, and he describes his purpose-driven
formula as an Intel chip that can be inserted into the metaphorical
motherboard of any church. Some 30,000 churches across the
denominational spectrum now define themselves as ''purpose-driven.''
As his fame has grown, Warren has come in for plenty of criticism from
other pastors. Should churches really be chasing popular culture?
Isn't preaching only positive messages a reductive, if not distorted,
approach to the Gospels? Shouldn't true believers be in natural
conflict with the secular world? ''There's a healthy reaction here
against a legalistic religion of dos and don'ts,'' says Gibbs of the
Fuller Theological Seminary, referring to the purpose-driven approach.
''The danger, though, is that you end up with a Gospel that endeavors
to meet your needs without challenging your priorities.''
Similar criticisms can be made of Radiant. By modeling his church
after a mall, McFarland is, deliberately or not, desanctifying it.
While his self-helpish sermons clearly resonate with transient
exurbanites looking for ways to improve their lives, they can be seen
as subverting the real purpose of worship. ''Worship is designed not
to make people feel good about themselves . . . but to make them
holy,'' Gibbs writes in ''Church Next,'' his book about the future of
Christianity in America. Gibbs also wonders about the ultimate effect
of the steady diet of sentimental praise songs at places like Radiant:
''Intimate worship that degenerates into a casual overfamiliarity is
both presumptuous and embarrassing to those who see God from a
Tom Tunget, a bearish ex-cop in his early 40's, greeted me at the door
of his home in Surprise, wearing a T-shirt with a silk-screened image
of Jesus, his arms outstretched on the cross. Underneath it were the
words ''I love you this much.'' It's a fitting motto for Radiant,
where love invariably trumps judgment.
Tom led me into the living room, and he and his wife, Cathy, who is
also a former cop, told me the story of how they found their way to
Surprise. When they retired from the Los Angeles police force several
years ago, the Tungents bought a couple of horses and five acres in
Colorado. The idyllic small-town life they had imagined turned out to
be cold and lonely. Tom's brother lived near Phoenix, so they went to
Arizona last summer to look for a piece of rural property. Driving
through Surprise one afternoon, however, they noticed a billboard for
Radiant and decided to check it out. Within weeks of attending their
first service, they sold their land in Colorado, gave their horses to
a friend and bought a tract home in a development just a few miles
from the church. Now their weeks are packed with Radiant-related
McFarland's emphasis on love struck a particular chord with Tom and
Cathy. Tom opened up a small binder -- Radiant passes out
fill-in-the-blank outlines at every service that worshipers are
encouraged to keep -- to help him explain. '' 'Whatever a person is
like, I try to find common ground with him so he'll let me tell him
about Christ and let Christ save him,' '' he read, quoting one of
McFarland's recent sermons. ''Having been deputy sheriffs, we have
tended to judge people from what we see them do -- we had to because
that's how we stayed alive in that job -- but now it's about not
When you ask people how Radiant has changed their lives, they will
almost invariably talk about how it helped open their hearts. But
there's a kind of narrowing going on here as well, which became clear
a few minutes later, when Tom flipped to another passage from a recent
sermon. '' 'Some seed fell among the thorny weeds, and the weeds grew
up with them and choked the good plants,' '' he read, quoting Luke
8:7. Then he added his exegesis: ''We've had friends who were not
Christian, and for me they were like the thorny weeds,'' he said.
''We've had to commit ourselves to friends who could help us grow
The following night I heard this same message, communicated more
explicitly, at Radiant's youth service. ''If I asked how many of you
have close friends who are unbelievers, a lot of you would probably
raise your hands,'' the pastor told the crowd of about 150 teenagers,
most of whom looked dressed for a rock concert. ''I'll tell you right
now, if one of you is a believer and the other is not, your
relationship is doomed.''
Such occasional admonishment notwithstanding, at Radiant, almost
everything is expressed in positive terms.
When McFarland makes his pitch for tithing, he avoids guilt trips,
assuring his congregants that if they give 10 percent of their income
to the church, God will make sure that the remaining 90 percent will
go further than the full 100 percent ever would have. Even when he
tackles a subject like homosexuality, an issue about which the
Assemblies is unambiguous in its condemnation, he frames his message
as one of compassion, entitling the sermon ''What to Say to a Gay
Friend.'' This happens to be something McFarland has personal
experience with. His younger brother, who lives in Southern
California, is gay. When I asked McFarland to repeat the gist of his
sermon about homosexuality, he told me it was the same speech he's
given to his brother at least 20 times: ''I don't believe you were
born gay. I was your brother; I grew up with you. I was there. I see
that you got involved with a tennis pro who was gay when you were 18,
and that's when everything switched.''
With his easygoing approach to saving souls, McFarland couldn't be
more different from the television evangelists of the 1980's. This is
not to say that he's less committed to the ultimate cause. As
McFarland sees it, Radiant must continue to add members. ''Churches
that have stopped growing,'' he says, ''have stopped hearing the
screams of people being sent to hell.''
What remains to be seen is how many of the congregants McFarland is
adding are just passing through evangelical Christianity the way that
many of them are, no doubt, just passing through Surprise -- in short,
whether the exurban megachurch represents the future of Christianity
in this country or whether it is just another chapter in the evolving
story of the American seeker.
For his part, McFarland is already talking about moving the church
again to accommodate the ever-expanding crowds. His hero is Joel
Osteen, the handsome and charismatic 41-year-old pastor of America's
biggest megachurch, Lakewood Church, in Houston. Lakewood has grown so
big that Osteen decided to move the church to a former sports arena
that seats 16,000. ''I keep saying the growth is going to level off,''
McFarland said. ''Then I think, Well, maybe Joel Osteen said that, too
-- and then he decided to lease the Compaq Center.''
Jonathan Mahler, a contributing writer for the magazine, recently
wrote about teenagers and antidepressants. His book, ''Ladies and
Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning,'' will be published next month by
Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
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