Jurgen Matthesius, the lead pastor of Awaken Church, and his family flew into San Diego on July 4, 2005. As they looked out of the plane’s window they saw fireworks, and Matthesius joked with his sons that the explosions were meant to welcome their arrival.
Recounting this story at a political conference held at the church’s San Marcos campus in March, Matthesius said the moment gave him an opportunity to tell his wife and fellow pastor, Leanne Matthesius, and their three boys about God’s role in the founding of America and the drafting of its constitution.
He went on to spin a lengthy biblical metaphor that cast the United States as Samson — the protector of God’s chosen people who got strength through his locks — and the Republicans-in-name-only and Democrats who seek to collectively destroy it.
“They want (the United States) to be subject to a new world order,” Matthesius said in his thick Australian accent, but the tide was turning.
“God said to me, ‘Do you see what’s happening in America?’” Matthesius claimed, the urgency of his words increasing with each utterance. “Do you see the patriots? Do you see the Trump flags? Do you see the ‘Let’s Go Brandon’ flags? Do you see the school boards?”
The patriots are rising and the hair on Samson’s head is growing back, Matthesius shouted as he rapped his knuckle on the lectern.
Matthesius’ animated performance was relatively tame compared to some speakers at the ReAwaken America conference, a traveling right-wing festival whose San Diego lineup featured Eric Trump, Michael Flynn and Roger Stone among other anti-vaccine and election fraud peddlers. One speaker claimed fried foods were satanic, while another warned not to be surprised if the “Angel of Death” showed up in Washington D.C.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Awaken has played a pivotal role in a new movement of conservative activists who thunder in public and at times make vaguely threatening statements toward elected officials. As the Republican Party’s influence in local politics wanes, some conservatives, sensing a vacuum in the regional power structure, have pivoted away from traditional Republican values, and toward a more hyperbolic worldview that casts them as righteous fighters against a diabolical liberal ruling class.
Where there was once talk of limited government, low taxes and abortion, some now infuse their speeches with talk of demonic forces and child trafficking. This shift has also allowed them to appeal to a new group of activists energized by the pandemic who may not have been attracted to the old party line.
Some of Awaken’s leaders and supporters have been regulars at County Board of Supervisors meetings, where speakers made so much noise last year that it attracted national news coverage. One man compared the government to Nazi Germany, repeatedly screaming “Heil Fauci” into the microphone before raising a copy of the Nuremberg code. He attended the ReAwaken America conference.
Three of the church’s pastors attended the Jan. 6 events that preceded the Capitol riot and one former pastor, David Chiddick, who also owns a coffee shop in Escondido, is now running against Rep. Scott Peters in the 50th Congressional District.
Over the past two years, several of the church’s pastors have actively spread medical misinformation at events and rallies throughout the region, and from the pulpit. The church itself has also allied with political groups looking to recruit like-minded conservatives to run for office, and others seeking positions of influence.
That includes Louis Uridel, a dreadlocked bodybuilder arrested in May 2020 for refusing to close his gym, who ran for Oceanside mayor, as well as Sharon McKeeman and Amy Reichert, two mothers who respectively founded anti-lockdown and anti-mask groups Let Them Breathe and ReOpen San Diego. McKeeman’s organization has spearheaded challenges to state vaccine requirements, and Reichert is running for county supervisor.
Like many in the movement, Reichert and Uridel have said they were nonpolitical until the pandemic.
Vaccine denialism and political diatribes aren’t a bug of Matthesius’ sermons, but an integral feature. Talk of rampant election fraud, globalist cabals and genocidal elites are increasingly common in his sermons and in his social media posts.
Awaken and Matthesius did not respond to requests for an interview.
The increasing radicalization of the rhetoric, and the embrace of conspiracy thinking, is also an indispensable feature of the wider right-wing movement throughout California. But, as is evidenced by Matthesius and many of Awaken’s pastors, the extreme talking points are often delivered through a devout religiosity.
The activists here have formed a motley and often surprising, but determined, coalition animated by the overwhelming feeling that something, maybe everything, is wrong, and that they must work together to oust the oppressors who are responsible. Awaken Church, and the San Diego region more broadly, has acted as an incubator and recruiting ground for some of the most energized — and organized — groups in the state.
A New Kind of Church
By the time the family landed in San Diego, Jurgen Matthesius and Leanne Matthesius had already spent years steeped in the evangelical megachurch tradition of Australia. The pair graduated from Hillsong College, whose global network of flashy and youthful churches has been roiled by controversy, and went on to work at another of the country’s most well-known evangelical exports — C3 Church Global.
Like Hillsong, C3’s ultra-modern, strobe-light-tinged sermons are perfectly optimized for the age of social media. “Its target is God’s hipsters — a following of young faithful hooked on Instagram,” wrote Australian outlet 9News.
It’s sold as a new kind of church. But despite the contemporary look and feel, C3 maintained older values, like the Pentecostal practice of speaking in tongues and the shunning of premarital sex and homosexuality.
At C3, Matthesius and his wife rose through the ranks, until in 2004 founder Phil Pringle requested they relocate to San Diego to plant a new church. Though at first unsure about the prospect of moving to a city they’d never been to before, Matthesius said in a 2010 interview the decision to do so was “ultimately an obedience thing.”
Awaken — then known as C3 San Diego — held its first service at Del Mar’s Marriott Hotel in August 2005, and spent years congregating in hotel lobbies, elementary and middle schools and even on the campus of the University of California San Diego.
By 2014, after opening their first stadium-seat location in Carlsbad, the couple had been appointed to oversee C3 churches in the United States. Over the next eight years, the church grew to include five campuses across San Diego County hosting nearly 10,000 congregants in all.
Like many pastors from the evangelical megachurch movement, Awaken’s pastors dispensed with the stuffy robes in favor of fitted tees, jeans and baseball caps. They hosted beach volleyball days, sermons for children, multi-day conferences, pricey specialized courses and even summer camps sponsored by Vitamin Water.
Thanks to marketing videos complete with enthralled, bouncing audiences, Christian pop-rock and electronic dance music, the church was able to appeal not only to already-devout Christians, but to younger, more secular people who may not have been attracted to the Christianity of yesteryear.
In 2017, the San Diego Reader quoted a father who said some of its services were “a shadowy youth group that aggressively targets teens by offering financial incentives to enlist other kids.” In past interviews, Matthesius has explained Awaken’s recruiting tactics by saying “the church is only ever one generation away from extinction.”
The larger C3 organization has faced even greater scrutiny in recent years for its claims of miraculous healing abilities and exorcism of demons. An Australian news show produced a two-part series in 2019 that highlighted the church’s preaching of prosperity gospel doctrine, which promises worshippers God’s favor in exchange for more money.
One former member said the church had brainwashed some into donating thousands of dollars.
Matthesius has engaged in similar rhetoric. “God is the most perfect accountant,” he said at a C3 conference. “He knows everything you give and he makes sure it comes back to you with interest.”
In January 2020, the church relaunched as Awaken Church. It partnered with the marketing company Prophetic on a full rebranding and ended up severing its ties with the C3 network.
Just two months later, COVID-19 swept across the world.
A Change Over the Pandemic
When the pandemic hit, Awaken initially abided by county regulations and shut its doors and moved sermons online. But by June 2020, the church had reopened to the public. Over the next six months Awaken engaged in a series of skirmishes with the county.
In July, the county sent Awaken a cease and desist order after it received video of indoor services taking place at the church. Although Matthesius said Awaken initially complied with the order, it didn’t last long.
A month later, Awaken began holding indoor gatherings once more and continued to do so even after county officials notified the church of a series of outbreaks that had occurred at two of its campuses.
This kicked off a tense confrontation with one local politician. Nathan Fletcher, chair of the Board of Supervisors, who took the rare step of publicly identifying the location of a specific outbreak. By then, the county had issued four cease and desist letters.
Awaken’s pastors said they’d seen a rise in addiction, depression and suicide over the pandemic and reopened its locations to support members struggling with emotional, spiritual and mental health issues.
But rather than tamp down its rhetoric, the church dug in in the face of government scrutiny and became more overtly political. With regional officials acting as a foil to its cause, the church received more attention than ever before.
Awaken’s pastors became regulars on KUSI and the church began attracting big names in conservative circles — like Candace Owens, Dennis Prager, Tucker Carlson, Charlie Kirk and Simone Gold, a doctor who recently pleaded guilty to joining the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
During Carlson’s recent talk at Awaken Church, the Fox News host gleefully claimed he hadn’t been vaccinated against COVID-19, which elicited cheers from the congregation.
Like others, he said he’d experienced a profound change over the pandemic and now understood there was a spiritual element to everything, especially in the official responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. He claimed these responses were harmful not only to the general population, but to the officials’ reelection prospects.
“This is not a phenomenon that secular thinking can explain, it’s too dark,” Carlson said.
There was no conspiracy, Carlson assured the audience, no “conference call of, like, bad people meeting on Wednesdays.” Instead, Carlson said, the “unraveling of Western Civilization” was something akin to the Jonestown massacre.
“You’re watching leaders demand the destruction of the society they preside over. So why would you ever do that? Why would you burn down your own house? Because you’re seized by a spirit that is bigger than you, whose fruits are always destruction, suffering, chaos, pain,” he continued.
And until the righteous can dispatch that spirit, Carlson said, “they will continue to destroy.”
‘I Know the Picture that God has for San Diego’
Individuals who’ve attended services at Awaken have stressed that its pastoral team runs the gamut. Some have delivered sermons they’ve genuinely connected with, and some have been so extreme they’ve chosen to walk out.
Matthesius weaves humor into his talk of spiritual warfare, and speaks with the self-assured certainty that can quickly draw people in.
Throughout 2021, his sermons leaned ever more into the culture war as proxy for a grander spiritual war. Talk of wokeness and other right-wing buzzwords became common in his sermons.
“My preferred pronouns are ‘Your Majesty,’” Matthesius said during an October sermon, putting his finger to his lip like a mischievous child. But the humor in his sermons is enmeshed with talk that implies the real mobilization efforts should be in the political realm.
He’s railed, for instance, against “crazy boards of supervisors” and “rogue school boards,” saying that it was the responsibility of those who have been saved to fight against this “despot governance,” while also claiming wrongly that more people under 18 had died from COVID-19 vaccines than from the virus itself. He also asserted that vaccinated people were more likely to get the virus.
As 2021 came and went and the COVID-19 pandemic dragged on — despite Leanne Matthesius having prophesized a premature end to the pandemic in April 2020 — Jurgen Matthesius’ rhetoric became ever more extreme.
“I know the picture that God has for San Diego, and this ain’t it,” Matthesius preached at a Jan. 6, 2022, sermon titled “Instructions for Taking Territory.”
He continued by denouncing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and calling out Lorena Gonzalez by name, who’d resigned her position in the California Assembly to lead the California Labor Federation the day before, and pledging to fill her now-vacant seat. He was clearly aware that his statements were cutting close to the Internal Revenue Service’s guidelines that forbid tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing particular candidates.
“Oh, God forbid we should shout,” Matthesius said. “You know what? Take my 501(c)(3). I’d rather have a shout that brings down walls than have a tax exemption status.”
Despite Mattheisus’ assertion, there doesn’t seem to be much chance of Awaken’s tax-exempt status being revoked any time soon. Instead, he appears at times to be encouraging the perception that he’s at risk of being shut down.
Warren Smith, president of Ministry Watch, a nonprofit organization that seeks to bring transparency and accountability to the Christian ministry, said, “the likelihood that the Internal Revenue Service is going to actually repeal an organization’s tax exempt status for prohibited speech is extraordinarily remote.”
“It does happen from time to time,” Smith said, “but it is extraordinarily rare.”
At times Matthesius sounds nearly indistinguishable from standard issue Q-anon talking points — a dense and conspiratorial worldview that spread rapidly during Donald Trump’s presidency. It’s something of a big tent conspiracy theory that allows its followers to riff infinitely on its main tenets, so pinning down its exact narrative can be difficult, but it largely revolves around a supposed government insider cryptically leaking top-secret information as a means of fighting back against a global cabal. It supplants traditional Democratic versus Republican politics with a sprawling battle of good versus evil raging between messianic figures like Trump, and what adherents often view as satanic and bloodthirsty liberal politicians and the secular institutions that support them.
Matthesius, however, exists squarely in the post-Q-anon political landscape.
He’s had his Instagram and Twitter accounts suspended and has migrated to the fledgling conservative-aligned social media platforms Gettr and TRUTH Social, and his posts routinely feature conspiratorial talk about globalist cabals, the supposed overthrowing of the 2020 election and “reprobate perverts.”
In a recent Gettr post, he derided the Q conspiracy, labeling it a “globalist deception to paralyze the patriots from rising,” mimicking the post-Trump right’s unwillingness to sit back and “trust the plan,” as was so widely espoused during the feverish lead up to the 2020 election.
Likewise, his attacks on LGBTQ people have also ramped up online. In another Gettr post, he bemoans that if American elections were fair, the country would be totally red, and “LGBTQ would be seen for what it is; dysfunctional destructive heresy.”
Matthesius is clearly plugged into the fever swamp of right-wing online conspiracy thought. In sermons he preaches a popular new theory that the World Economic Forum invented the pandemic as a means to control the population and destroy the United States, but that elites are “talking about exterminating billions.”
On the Attack
Some of what Mattheisus teaches is not necessarily new. It is a highly conspiratorial and hyper-politicized version of the old American cultural gospel of being exceptional on the world stage yet under constant attack.
Evangelicals first began organizing politically in the 1800s, but beginning largely in the 1970s their political goals have been closely aligned with right-wing politics “including opposition to gay rights, reproductive choice and feminism,” according to a typology of American evangelicalism created by USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture.
Richard Flory, the executive director of the center, said there hasn’t been an election since the early 1960s in which evangelicals didn’t vote primarily for Republican candidates.
But the election of Donald Trump in 2016 reenergized American evangelicals to an extraordinary degree, with many viewing his victory as an opportunity to begin taking the United States back for God.
Beth Johnson, minister at Palomar Unitarian Universalist Fellowship — and an organizer of a press conference that brought an interdenominational trio of faith leaders together to protest the ReAwaken conference in March — said Trump’s election was simply a symptom of long-simmering reactionary impulses.
Johnson, who’s also involved in a number of civil rights organizations, called the rhetoric coming from Awaken disturbing, but unsurprising.
She also argued that it has real consequences for communities, particularly the most vulnerable. But, she said, this strain of Christian nationalism may continue to grow more visible.
“As we move into the possibility of a truly multicultural, multiracial democracy, the forces that rise up are forces that are threatened by this,” Johnson said.
Flory agreed, saying evangelical groups tend to organize and push back in times of rapid social change, or whenever they feel their perceived role in society is being threatened.
“They believe they are in battle, that cultural elites don’t like them, and are trying to put them out of business and trying to belittle their beliefs,” he said.
But despite their historical conservatism, and the precedent for political organizing, evangelicals didn’t usually combine the political and the spiritual quite as overtly as Matthesius does in his sermons, Flory said. Based on the typology of strains of U.S. evangelicalism that Flory and his colleagues constructed for the 2018 midterm election, and later updated for the 2020 election, he said he’d largely classify Awaken as “Trumpvangelicals.”
It is, in other words, a continuation of the religious right’s attempt to bring political power to bear.
Indeed, in a GETTR post Matthesius said the recent leaked Supreme Court opinion authored by Justice Samuel Alito that would overturn decades-old precedent established by Roe V. Wade would cause “every demon in hell” to start screeching and “reveal their human hosts.” But as is his tendency, he went a step further, saying the decision would be an end to the “bloodlust & child sacrifice” perpetrated by the globalist cabal operating through President Joe Biden.
Flory posited that Awaken’s separation in 2020 from the larger C3 network gave the church the opportunity to increasingly blend this conspiracy thinking into its sermons.
“You’re going to start seeing with these kinds of charismatic leaders that don’t have any controls outside of themselves, and the boards that they put together, and the pastoral staff that they put together a broader range of theology that may or may not be Christian,” Flory said.
Pastor Rebecca Littlejohn, the pastor at Vista La Mesa Christian Church, said her denomination was founded and built around the concept of Christian unity, so to speak out is a big deal. But her deep Christian conviction, and her commitment to pluralistic democracy, compelled her to join Johnson at the press conference opposing the ReAwaken America tour and the Christian nationalism it espouses.
“They want to rule alone, and force their faith on all the rest of us,” Littlejohn said.
Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, people had been disoriented by the pace of change in society, Littlejohn said. But when the pandemic hit pretty much everything people relied on to be stable was pulled out from under them.
“That’s extremely frightening,” she said. “So a voice speaking with such certainty and conviction is extremely alluring, even if what they’re saying is absolutely not supported by the facts.”
Littlejohn said that some of the conspiracy rhetoric in Matthesius’ sermons abuses scripture and the words of Jesus to normalize a viewpoint pushed by today’s factions of the GOP.
She said that despite the assertion by some, like Matthesius, that Christianity is under attack, in reality it always has been, and continues to be, the dominant religious framework for all the structures of U.S. society.
“American Christianity is not under attack,” she said. “It’s on attack, in many ways.”