Awaken Church founders Jurgen and Leanne Matthesius have built their evangelical ministry around Jesus, but with an emphasis on miracles, speaking in tongues while advocating political activism and “prosperity theology” – a belief that God will reward faith with wealth on earth.
The pastors enhance those themes with attractive young ministers, lively Christian music and eye-catching video presentations.
It’s a formula they learned in their native Australia while training at Power Ministry School (now Hillsong College), and one they are hoping to bring to Coronado despite a backlash from some residents who claim the church is a politicized religious cult.
Awaken officials adamantly deny the accusation, and several religious scholars and experts told The Coronado News the “religious cult” label doesn’t apply to Awaken.
How Awaken came to San Diego County – and now intends to open a campus on the island – is spelled out in a biography on Awaken’s website.
Appealing to Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez
The Matthesiuses followed up their religious school graduation working under the church in New Zealand for seven years before they returned to Australia to work as youth ministers.
In 2005, the Matthesiuses were asked to establish new plants in the United States, opening the first C3 San Diego campus that would later be known as Awaken Church.
The renaming, in 2020, came after internal controversies had rocked leadership at the Matthesius’ old church, Hillsong.
Founder Brian Houston acknowledged that his pastor father, Frank Houston, was a longtime pedophile who had abused multiple young boys before his death in 2004.
Australian prosecutors charged the younger Houston with failing to report a criminal offense, and a judge heard testimony at a trial this year that hush money was paid to a victim.
The New York Times reported that Houston pleaded not guilty and told a court in Sydney that he did not report the assault because the victim did not want it reported. Magistrate Gareth Christofi agreed with him, finding that he had a “reasonable excuse” for not alerting authorities.
While facing those charges, Brian Houston stepped down from all ministry duties last year after an internal church probe found he had inappropriate relationships with two women.
Radicalization: Patriots and Trump flags
In San Diego, meantime, the Matthesius’ church was thriving with new campuses and an array of special programs for teens, women, men, singles, substance abusers and what the church calls “Christian warriors.”
By most reckonings, the messaging was mainstream evangelism leading up to the COVID pandemic and the election loss of President Donald Trump.
Suddenly, sermons and church events became more overtly infused with politics.
Amid the pandemic outbreak in July of 2020, Awaken shutdown services briefly, then reopened claiming there had been an escalation of suicides, depression and addiction among the congregation.
The controversy spawned widespread news coverage, thrusting Awaken into the conservative media spotlight.
Soon, Awaken pastors were appearing on TV and the church was bringing in right-wing media figures such as Tucker Carlson and Dennis Prager to speak to the congregation.
According to Voice of San Diego, Jurgen Matthesius’ sermons and social media posts became steeped with references to spiritual combat and the culture war, infused with conspiracy theories about election fraud and toxic vaccines.
Sometimes speaking in voices that sound like an Asian language, he lauded faithful followers as patriotic warriors while condemning gay-rights advocates, Democrats, government officials and others as acolytes of Satan.
“No Cults in Coronado”
Church members, meantime, began running for local office in Coronado and other communities.
Brad Willis, an ex-NBC News correspondent and Coronado resident, drafted a “No Cults in Coronado” petition against Awaken claiming the church is a disruptive force that spreads conspiracy theories and supports armed insurrection.
In one article for his online substack, Willis focused on Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey’s ties with Awaken Church, noting that Bailey had given a political seminar for RMNNT, a political ministry of the church that flouts military imagery and tells believers it is “not a crime, but a duty” to violate laws which run “counter to the revealed will of God.”
“Despite his long involvement with this movement, Mayor Bailey has steadfastly refused to answer questions about Awaken/RMNNT,” Willis complained in one of his columns.
Bailey declined comment for this story.
“Traveling right-wing festival”
Voice of San Diego described the scene at Awaken’s San Marcos campus as “a traveling right-wing festival,” with Q-anon conspiracy theorists, election-fraud peddlers and anti-vax speakers such as Eric Trump (the ex-president’s son), Roger Stone (the ex-president’s former advisor, whose felony convictions were commuted by Trump) and Michael Flynn (the ex-president’s former national security advisor, whose felony convictions were pardoned by Trump).
During that conference, Matthesius delivered an address based on the biblical story of Samson, a protector of the Israelites whose source of power was in his hair.
Samson was sold out by his lover, Delilah, who cut his hair as he slept, allowing the Philistines to overcome God’s chosen people.
Matthesius claimed the Lord had spoken directly to him about that passage, saying America is a contemporary version of Samson, betrayed and weakened by a cabal of modern-day Delilahs.
“God said the globalists are the Philistines and Delilah is the RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) and the Democrat Party,” Matthesius declared.
God said to me, ‘Do you see what’s happening in America? Do you see the patriots? Do you see the Trump flags?”-The Rev. Jurgen Matthesius.
However, he continued, the country is growing its hair back, regaining strength as Samson did: “God said to me, ‘Do you see what’s happening in America? Do you see the patriots? Do you see the Trump flags?”
Willis wrote about this in his substack: “The Bible warns us about such false prophets and wolves in sheep’s clothing… I cannot imagine an infinite, eternal and omnipotent God talking about RINOs, Delilahs, Trump flags and far-right politics.”
The Bible warns us about such false prophets and wolves in sheep’s clothing.”-Coronado resident Brad Willis.
A curious contradiction
The controversy in Coronado has fostered a curious contradiction:
On one hand, Awaken Church holds that the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights were instituted by God, and that the government has no legal authority or right to interfere with the church.
In a doctrine statement, Awaken stresses there is an “absolute constraint of the government to the civil realm not interfering or influencing in the spiritual realm of the church” – a position mirrored in the “separation of church and state” clause of the First Amendment.
Yet, on the other hand, Matthesius seems to be aggressively pushing to bridge that separation.
Awaken’s vision statement says the church’s long-term goal is to win souls and “make disciples of all nations.”
This does not appear to be mere rhetoric.
God is calling us to take back ground, territory and regions that the previous generations gave over to the devil.”-Awaken Church website.
In promoting an event in June, the church website told congregants: “This year God has given us the theme of DOMINION. God is calling us to take back ground, territory and regions that the previous generations gave over to the devil… Your faith commitment allows us to INCREASE God’s dominion in San Diego, Salt Lake City, Boise…”
Matthesius, told his congregation the Lord spoke with him to sanction those “Vision Builder” plans: “God told me last year that the theme for Vision Builders was going to be ‘surge,’ and that we would go from six campuses to nine campuses.
“Our vision is 16 campuses around San Diego – literally, surround the city and then we can say, ‘Come out with your hands up, we have you surrounded,’” Matthesius said.
The critics: What do they say, fear?
In Willis’ view, that kind of rhetoric threatens Coronado, especially when coupled with apocalyptic and militaristic imagery in church videos and sermons.
Willis’ online petition against the church coming to Coronado says it has nearly 900 signatures as of mid-August.
It claims Awaken is “a radical cult” that spreads disinformation, rancor and intolerance. It alleges that several church pastors supported the U.S. Capitol insurrection of Jan. 6, 2020. It says the church has “vilified and dehumanized those with whom it disagrees, and supports armed struggle to get its way.”
Willis contends Awaken already has disrupted the town, causing outbursts at school board meetings and infiltrating local elections.
However, Coronado School Board and City Council meetings in the main have been civil throughout 2023 even when community members have passionately spoken out on LGBTQIA+ issues.
Some of that discord arguably arises from the backlash spearheaded by the journalist turned community activist.
Who is Brad Willis?
After working as an investigative reporter for several U.S. television stations in the 1970s and ’80s, Willis joined NBC news as a foreign correspondent and covered the first Persian Gulf War in 1990.
Three years later, a failed back surgery and other medical issues ended the media career and led Willis to yoga as a practitioner, school founder and author of books on Vedic wisdom.
The longtime Coronado resident also became involved in the local Democratic Club, served as the city’s public arts commissioner, launched a controversial campaign to close beaches as COVID spread and organized a mask-distribution campaign.
His multi-pronged attack on Awaken Church, however, seems distinct in the way it merges his journalism pedigree with activism.
Ethics codes for mainstream news organizations typically prohibit reporters from engaging in politics, let alone writing about issues they’re involved with.
Willis, who has worked for the Coronado Times online news organization, laces his substack articles with first-person criticisms. He also has criticized Awaken Church in letters to the editor in The Coronado Times and The Coronado Eagle & Journal.
Moreover, those who sign his online petition vow to do “all in our power to ethically and energetically spread awareness of this group and seek to prevent it from establishing itself in our community.”
Impinging religious freedom?
How will they accomplish that without impinging on religious freedom?
Willis, in his email correspondence with The Coronado News, said a public awareness campaign is the only available tool.
“I think the more people know about Awaken, the fewer will be inclined to join,” he added. “We are not asking city officials to block Awaken, but I hope they won’t support or encourage this group.”
Willis said he does not object to churches trying to influence governance, and noted that the Rev. Martin Luther King led a nonviolent political movement “based on loving our enemies, working to end discrimination and embracing the fact that we all are created equal.”
By contrast, he said, the ReAwaken America event hosted by Awaken Church featured “confessed felons, anti-Semites, Nazi-sympathizers, white supremacists and conspiracy theorists. I don’t see any valid comparison between the demagoguery of Awaken and the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King,” Willis added.
Awaken pastor sidesteps questions
The Rev. Mike Yeager sits outside the Awaken church in El Cajon, where he has just delivered a sermon to the congregation earlier this summer.
He shakes his head when talking to The Coronado News about what he views as a smear campaign by Willis, and insists that Awaken Church fosters Christ’s message of the New Testament.
When Jurgen Matthesius prophesied that the church will surround Coronado while ordering critics to “Come out with your hands up,” Yeager said, the senior pastor was talking about raising arms in worship and adoration rather than surrender.
What about Matthesius referring to critics as “demoniacs” and vowing to drive them out of the city?
Yeager said he could not speak for Matthesius.
Does Awaken’s mission statement, which says the church goal is to “make disciples of all nations,” envision an American theocracy?
Yeager said such questions suggest bias, and he urged the reporter to write about Awaken’s positive impact on congregants.
I came to this church as a broken person…and what I found was the message of Christianity, which is filled with love.”-The Rev. Mike Yeager, who will co-lead the Coronado Awaken Church.
For example, he noted, being born again saved him from alcohol: “I came to this church as a broken person…and what I found was the message of Christianity, which is filled with love.”
Reneged on promise
Yeager promised to arrange interviews with other Awaken members in Coronado who could share similar experiences. “We are there to bless the city,” he added, “…and if people are against that, it’s unfortunate.”
In a subsequent email, Yeager again criticized questions about Awaken teachings. He reneged on the promise to facilitate interviews with church members.
“I understand that there are real concerns in the Coronado community because of misinformation spread by a few,” Yeager concluded. “As a good journalist, you must address and explore those lines of thinking… But, above all else, our mission is to build a church that is fresh, real, and powerful, a place where people can come and hear the life-transforming message of Jesus Christ.”
Willis indicated he would welcome a church with that kind of vision.
“Come to Coronado, preach the gospel, remind us to love our neighbors, hold peace in our hearts and serve those in need,” he wrote. “But don’t come here to spread a false gospel of hate and division, demonize others, and vow to drive out those who decline to submit. This is hate in the guise of virtue and completely antithetical to the teachings of Jesus Christ.”