[Paleopsych] NYTMag: The Soul of the New Exurb

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The Soul of the New Exurb
New York Times Magazine, 5.3.27


    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
    children would.

    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
    did so.)

    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
    a church.''

    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
    Assemblies church.''

    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,
    snakes?' ''

    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
    being used.''

    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
    transcendental perspective.''

    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
    judging people.''

    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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