Updated June 3, 2023
A controversial, fast-expanding megachurch has set its eyes on expansion to Coronado.
“Right now, we’re in the middle of our surge,” said Jurgen Matthesius, lead pastor at Awaken Church, in a video update to his congregation while on a trip to Israel. “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.”
Vision Builders is a program that secures property – or “takes territory,” as the church calls it – for new campuses.
“In Coronado, we are actively pursuing the purchase of a building for its own campus,” said Summer Peterson, executive of strategic initiatives for Awaken Church, in an April 25 update. Matthesius confirmed the move in his own update.
Awaken opened its latest campus, a five-building complex in Bay Ho, in April. It also purchased a 30,000 square foot facility in Boise, Idaho earlier this year.
“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.
Awaken is an evangelical Christian church that opened in San Diego in 2005 as part of C3, an Australian megachurch that has buckled under sexual abuse allegations in recent years.
The San Diego branch severed ties from C3 in 2020 and emerged under its new name. Awaken then earned a political reputation as it fought county restrictions on indoor gatherings during the pandemic, saying the government held no authority in restricting religious gatherings.
This prompted four cease and desist orders from the County of San Diego, but also fueled the church’s rapid growth. Currently, Awaken boasts six campuses in San Diego.
The church also has locations – or plants, as they are called – in Salt Lake City, Utah and now in Boise, Idaho.
With its sights set on Coronado next, some residents are wary of the church’s political and doctrinal leanings, with its harshest critics calling the church a cult. A petition against the church’s expansion had garnered nearly 400 signatures at press time.
“This organization is grooming future insurrectionists at every opportunity,” wrote Mary Taylor with her signature. “Deny them the opportunity to infect our community with their hatespeak.”
The church is a polarizing force both within Christianity and the wider community in San Diego. The church is unapologetically politically active – a tenuous stance for a tax-exempt, 501(c)3 organization like Awaken. It has hosted political commentators like Tucker Carlson and its sermons often contain political messages or asides.
Awaken partners with and hosts meetings for The RMNT, a conservative political activist group whose mission is to “raise up a bold and passionate army to effectively influence politics.”
“The RMNT is dedicated to preserving liberty, teaching conservative principles, protecting the Constitution, and raising up future political leaders,” says a video on its website, showing an armed man and woman trekking through the wilderness, seemingly bracing for battle. “America is either on the brink of destruction or greatness. It will take a remnant to save her.”
Wartime allusion is prevalent in other of Awaken’s ministries, such as Emerge, the church’s men’s conference, where men dressed in paramilitary garb brandish guns and swords while simulating hostage takeovers.
Awaken’s doctrine has drawn criticism not just from outside the church, but within it as well.
“The one thing you don’t hear (Matthesius) preach about is the common, historical Christian doctrine of living a life of humble service to God and to your neighbor,” said Pastor Chris Rosebrough, pastor of Kongsvinger Lutheran Church in Oslo, Minnesota, whose podcast has amassed a global following. “With them, it’s all about power, influence, affluence, discovering your purpose, hearing the voice of God and going and conquering.
“The doctrines that they’re teaching have nothing to do with the biblical doctrines at all, and their complete twisting of Scripture, that’s not the message of Christianity at all,” Rosebrough continued. “Rather than come with armies to conquer, Jesus laid down his life for the purpose of saving people.”
Rosebrough urged Coronadans to stay vigilant in fighting against Awaken in a video he published in February.
In addition to its less traditional ministries, Awaken supports organizations traditionally associated with churches, like those fighting homelessness, addiction, and food insecurity. Matthesius said in a video that 10 percent of church members’ gifts toward Vision Builders goes directly to these ministries, and although he does not elaborate on where the remaining 90 percent is channeled, most of it is presumably used to acquire new campuses. The church’s new Bay Ho campus carries an estimated worth of $14.5 million.
“The impact we get to make through our Vision Builders pledge each and every day changes lives,” Matthesius said, noting that the church has given $7 million away since the church was founded in 2005.
He went on to say that he and his wife sponsor five children around the world through Compassion International and World Vision. (Both programs charge just under $40 monthly to sponsor a child, a stark contrast not lost on critics of Awaken, who often point out the couple’s designer clothing in online groups critical of the megachurch.)
Awaken’s online giving portal allows giving directly to its member retreats and to a blanket “giving” fund, but the tithing FAQ does not address what that entails.
It’s undeniable that the church is widely criticized, but it’s just as clear that the church continues to grow, and its expansion is picking up steam. It’s a church people either love or hate, with reviews either calling the place their “second home” or condemning it as a cult.
“The presence of God is heavy in this church,” wrote Turath D’hont in an online review. “It’ll take your breath away.”
But in another review, Addy Hardin called Awaken a “hate-filled church” that was “scary.” “Making your church a political arena is not at all our call as Christians,” she wrote.
At press time, Awaken had not responded to calls or emails asking for comment.
This is the first in a series that will explore Awaken’s history, doctrine, and the controversy surrounding it. Future articles and updates about the church’s move into Coronado will be linked below.
Editor’s Note: Updated June 3, 2023 to correct the location of Kongsvinger Lutheran Church.