In the best-case scenario, the Revs. Jurgen and Leanne Matthesius are prophets who converse with God and spread his word while building religious communities, leading the faithful to goodness and wealth through the power of the Holy Spirit.
In the worst cases scenario, as described by critics, Awaken Church leaders are huckster evangelists who prey on weak-minded believers, taking their money in return for a theology that blends Trumpist politics, Christian nationalism and demonizing hate speech.
Either way, the Matthesiuses and their desire to plant an Awaken Church campus in Coronado has churned up a First Amendment dispute, with freedom of speech, assembly and religion all involved.
High-stakes culture war
The controversy is the latest in a culture war playing out here and across the country as conservatives and liberals have staked ground in high-stakes skirmishes.
Nationally, there’s the recent boycott of Bud Light by conservatives after Dylan Mulvaney, a transgender influencer, promoted the beer on Instagram. And Disney pulled the plug on $1 billion in development and 2,000 new jobs in Florida over legislation that Republican Gov. and GOP presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis signed that restricted the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity for kindergarten through third grade.
Closer to home, community members made LGBTQIA+ training an issue at the Coronado School Board meeting on April 20, while concerned parents and residents crammed the Coronado City Council chambers on July 18 to debate the Coronado Public Library holding a storytime hour for children ages 3-6, where a book was read in honor of Pride Month.
So, when some vocal Coronado residents banded together this year in an attempt to block the Matthesiuses from opening a new church in the community, Jurgen Matthesius expressed outrage.
“The demoniacs on Coronado…don’t get to dictate. We’re going to drive them out and the church is coming to Coronado.”The Rev. Jurgen Matthesius
He went so far as to claim the critics were backed by Satan, adding: “The demoniacs on Coronado…don’t get to dictate. We’re gonna drive them out and the church is coming to Coronado.”
Leading nemesis is ex-NBC journalist
The leading nemesis, Brad Willis, is an ex-foreign correspondent for NBC News.
He drafted the “No Cults” petition and authored a scathing five-part series about Awaken at his online Substack site that’s also used to expose what he claims is a threat to his adopted home. And, he’s recently used two of the city’s longtime publications to express his views.
He wrote a letter to the editor on May 12 in The Coronado Times – where he’s listed as part of its news team, alleging the church was a “cult” that tried to take over the Coronado School Board in the last election and is in “cahoots” with Mayor Richard Bailey.
The mayor declined to comment for this story.
Willis also wrote a letter to the editor on July 20 in The Coronado Eagle & Journal, where he wrote Awaken’s move to Coronado is “cause for great concern,” and he added: “You are not going to surround us and make us surrender with our hands in the air, as you have threatened.”
His “No Cults” petition with nearly 900 signatures contends Awaken’s aggressive political tactics will disrupt schools, assail town officials and lead to “active recruitment in our community for Awaken’s militia-style camps, and result in more unsuspecting Awaken followers being fleeced of their money and Coronado youth being subjected to indoctrination.”
In an interview via email, Willis said Jurgen Matthesius frequently claims he has spoken with God, and his proclamations suggest the church wants to impose its theocratic vision on Coronado, rather than become a part of the community.
He also noted that Awaken videos and literature are rife with war imagery, and militia-style training is offered by a subgroup known as The RMNNT (an apparent allusion to biblical passages that say only the remnants will be saved).
A RMNNT post on Facebook, for example, asserts that all commands from civil authorities running “counter to the revealed will of God are null and void, and disobedience to them is NOT A CRIME BUT A DUTY.”
I fear people will be indoctrinated into a radical ideology that relies on disinformation and conspiracy theories, be fleeced out of their money, and manipulated into participating in activities that ultimately put our democracy in peril.”-Coronado resident Brad Willis, a journalist leading the charge against Awaken Church.
Noting that there are conflicting interpretations of many Bible passages, Willis asked: “The ‘revealed will of God’ according to whom? Certainly not to mainstream Christians or a majority of Americans… I fear people will be indoctrinated into a radical ideology that relies on disinformation and conspiracy theories, be fleeced out of their money, and manipulated into participating in activities that ultimately put our democracy in peril.”
Unapologetic about political involvement
In a 2020 sermon posted on Youtube, Jurgen Matthesius pounds the lectern and accidentally drops the Bible while railing against wickedness in America.
He reads an Old Testament passage (Samuel Chapter 7, verses 13-14) wherein God crushes Israel’s enemies as a reward for Samuel’s devotion: “So the Philistines were subdued… And the hand of the Lord was against the Philistines.”
Matthesius tells followers they must mirror that kind of devotion in San Diego or Satan will control the government, educational system and culture.
“If we don’t prophecy over San Diego, who will?” he asks. “If we don’t prophecy in our high schools, then the Devil will run rampant. It is a war. There is no neutral territory.
“God is raising up a church called Awaken… I want the testimony to be that the hand of the Lord was against the Philistines all the days of Awaken Church.”
Matthesius and his wife also are unapologetic about Awaken being involved in politics.
On the Awaken website, the couple in a short video explain that America was founded on biblical principles, and “We believe Christ has called the church to be thermostats of culture, not mere thermometers.”
Members can receive “PoliticalAction” text updates, and the website provides links to conservative political sites like Turning Point USA, which has promoted culture war activism at universities and high schools.
Matthesius turned down interview requests through Mike Yeager, an Awaken pastor who with his wife, Katy, plans to lead the Coronado campus when it opens.
Awaken pastor: Cult label is offensive
Yeager, who recently moved into the community, told The Coronado News that the “No Cults” petition was shocking because Awaken had never before faced a backlash.
He said critics have spread fear and hatred by cherry-picking church teachings and sermons out of context, just as someone could make a romantic comedy seem like a horror flick if they produced a trailer using fragmented scenes or images.
The label, “cult,” is particularly offensive, Yeager said, because it derives from an ancient term for hidden or dark.
Nothing we do is hidden or in darkness.”-The Rev. Mike Yeager of Awaken Church.
“Nothing we do is hidden or in darkness,” he added. “That word just doesn’t apply, period.”
Willis counters: “With a religious cult, the leader often makes false and fantastical claims to glorify themselves, such as claiming they perform miracles and are in a two-way, direct conversation with God. Matthesius makes numerous such claims, including that he helped stop the tanks in Tiananmen Square by speaking in mock Asian tongues from his bedroom 1,000 miles away.”
Religious scholars: Avoid cult label
Religious scholars, social scientists and other experts typically hold that, while cults do exist, the term is so subjective that it should be avoided. They more commonly speak of “new religious movements.”
The term ‘cult’ can too easily become a label that marginalizes groups we don’t understand or simply don’t like.”-Mathew Schmalz, a religious studies professor at the College of Holy Cross and Founding Editor at the Journal of Global Catholicism.
“The term ‘cult’ can too easily become a label that marginalizes groups we don’t understand or simply don’t like,” warned Mathew Schmalz, a religious studies professor at the College of Holy Cross and Founding Editor at the Journal of Global Catholicism. “Calling a group a ‘cult’ can become a bogus pretext for denying people religious liberty.
Phillips Stevens, Jr., an associate professor of anthropology emeritus at State University of New York at Buffalo, also said branding with the word “cult” is “not helpful.”
In an email, he noted that the term has been applied to all sorts of groups ranging from Catholics who revere specific saints to devotees of Princess Diana or former President Donald Trump.
“That label has various legitimate meanings; but popularly it’s mostly negative and is applied loosely to various tightly knit groups whom the user of the term doesn’t like,” Stevens said.
“Most commonly, I think, it’s applied to groups whose methods of recruitment and retention of members are extremely coercive, so that members are ‘trapped’ in some way, psychologically, emotionally, economically, etc. I don’t see any of this in any of the various Awaken congregations around the US.”
Benign and destructive cults
Rick Ross, founder and executive director of the Cult Education Institute, makes a distinction between benign and destructive cults.
The latter, he said, share three characteristics: 1) a charismatic leader who becomes an object of worship or claims to convey God’s directives as a means of controlling followers; 2) the social isolation of new recruits and group members; 3) teachings or practices that hurt members physically, emotionally, financially or in other ways.
Organizational structure is often a red flag, Ross added, especially if a sect’s pastor cannot be fired, there is no elected church board, and there is no accountability or transparency with finances.
And while some mainline evangelical churches post their annual audited financial statements or budgets on their websites, Awaken does not appear to do so.
Awaken, however, makes it easy to give through an online program called “MyAwaken,” where members can donate through their checking accounts, debit or credit cards. And, the church accepts cryptocurrency as well as stocks and assets, according to its website.
Yeager said he could not provide Awaken’s budget, audits or a list of church board members.
Pastor: Church-goers spiritually uplifted
Yeager said he wishes critics such as Willis would attend Awaken services and see how church-goers are spiritually uplifted, marriages are saved and addictions are overcome.
He said Willis has never reached out to church leaders, and he denied accusations that the church and its leaders spew hate, traffic in conspiracy theories or promote violent insurrection.
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.”-The Rev. Mike Yeager, an Awaken pastor who plans to co-lead the Coronado campus when it opens.
“Jesus Christ was arguably the most controversial figure in all of history,” Yeager added in a subsequent email to The Coronado News. “… Any church that never offends anybody and perfectly integrates into all cultures and communities with zero friction is not teaching the Bible. 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 contends the church and Matthesius do not offer religion but Christian nationalism or “an extremist movement that uses the faith of Christianity as a cover for totalitarian ideology.”
Our founding fathers fought to liberate us from tyranny and religious persecution…As Thomas Jefferson noted, the First Amendment to our Constitution was designed to build ‘a wall of separation between church and state.’”-Coronado resident Brad Willis, who opposes Awaken Church.
“Our founding fathers fought to liberate us from tyranny and religious persecution,” Willis wrote in an email. “…As Thomas Jefferson noted, the First Amendment to our Constitution was designed to build ‘a wall of separation between church and state.’ The Christian nationalism movement would knock down that wall. As a result, we would no longer have majority rule, the freedoms we cherish, or liberty and justice for all. We would have an authoritarian theocracy. Think about the Taliban…”
Schmalz, the religious studies professor at the College of Holy Cross, says the question in Coronado comes down to “how far does religious liberty go?”
“If a group is law abiding can you prevent them from practicing their faith…? When do a religion’s beliefs and practices become real dangers? In this case, I see the potential for social disruption but I am not sure the label ‘cult’ is helpful in working through the complexities of religious liberty and community standards,” Schmalz said.
Coming Next: Part 2 A Church Service: Music and Miracles