The rise and fall of the Western exurb

  • Pastor Lee on the big-screen TV during service at Radiant Church in Surprise.

    Courtesy Radiant Church
  • Radient Church's food pantry, part of its economic relief program.

    Courtesy Radiant Church
  • Emily Steinmetz
  • An overgrown lawn surrounds a Surprise home offered for a "new low price."

    Emily Steinmetz

Surprise, Ariz., doesn't look very surprising. It might be anywhere in the suburban West. Home Depot and Wal-Mart rise like islands from an ocean of pavement, and late-model SUVs gleam in the midday sun. Homes with red-tiled roofs line up like stucco boxes on a giant supermarket shelf. There's little to distinguish this from the hundreds of square miles of housing developments that have sprouted around Las Vegas and San Diego. If it weren't for the palm trees, you could be in suburban Salt Lake City.

But only Surprise has the Radiant Church. Inside this 55,000-square-foot behemoth, 50-inch plasma-screen televisions display huge images of American flags. Starbucks-trained baristas serve up frothy espresso drinks, and the casually dressed congregation nibbles Krispy Kreme doughnuts. The pastor, Lee McFarland, wears jeans and rides a Harley. His uncanny ability to tap into the exurban zeitgeist made this the fastest-growing megachurch in one of the nation's fastest-growing metro areas.

Radiant symbolizes the breakneck growth and prosperity that have come to define Surprise and its Western siblings. Since it was incorporated in 1960, Surprise -- an exurb of Phoenix -- has burgeoned from 500 people to over 100,000 people spread over 100 square miles. Most of that growth happened in the last decade, and it happened largely independent of any economic base, such as manufacturing, mining, farming or even high-tech industry. Instead, growth created its own economic base. To the members of Radiant Church, it must have seemed like a miracle.

Now it seems more like a mirage. On a warm day a few months back, about 200 people -- mostly female and Spanish-speaking -- stood in line in front of the church. Many held small children, or scolded older ones for throwing the ubiquitous red landscaping rocks. They weren't here for a sermon, or even for the doughnuts. They came to take advantage of the church's economic relief program, which distributes food, gas cards, and small cash payments to help with utility bills. The church began the program last October, after it became clear that a profound shift had occurred in Surprise and the neighboring communities.

After a decade of riding high, the exurbs are in crisis. In California, Nevada and Arizona, thousands of foreclosed homes sit empty, weeds reclaim vacant lots in new subdivisions and big-box stores are shutting down. The local newspaper warns of roof rats infesting abandoned neighborhoods and mosquitoes colonizing unused swimming pools. Many observers believe that this is only a slump, albeit a deep one, and that the old patterns of growth will someday return. Others aren't so sure. It's possible, they say, that even after the national economic crisis subsides, the Western urban urge to expand rapidly and without limitation may have ended.

"I'm not sure that the era of sprawl is over," says Ed McMahon, senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute. "But the paradigm of unlimited suburban and exurban growth has definitely shifted."

Grouse coming home to roost
May 01, 2009 08:53 AM
I have zero sympathy for the "New West" exurban hordes and the growth machines that turned so much land into a Dollar Store commodity. The Guerro's spent $80,000 on their pool and other "improvements"? That could buy several homes in Michigan and other places that sunbelters abandoned so recklessly. I would also point out that Michigan and the "rustbelt" receives a sufficient volume of precipitation to support a human population; what, pray tell, was Arizona's plan to provide food and water to their burgeoning masses? Rain dances?
Poor Steward
Oct 13, 2010 05:11 PM
I know Lee Mcfarland and he is a man of low moral character. He bends to suit his own personal needs and wicked behavior. He'll say anything or do anything to look good. His polished, fake outward appearance is a shell for something very dark. He is not a good person.
Kalvin Jackson
Kalvin Jackson
Jul 23, 2012 05:54 PM
Pastor Lee McFarland (Radiant Church, Surprise, AZ.)His chronic addiction to pornography and manipulating married, vulnerable female parishoners into having sex with him finally caught up with him. Even after being discovered he continued to lie about it until multiple victims came out of the wood-work. He’s been outed as a scam artist. He was fired.