A Deep Dive Into Church Culture

Awaken worship team leading an 8:30am Sunday gathering on 1/28 at their Balboa campus. Photo credit to Zach Dinsmore

For the next several weeks I want to do a deep dive on church culture. I want to find out if the different gathering formats, denominations and worship styles have an impact on the members of these churches and what those impacts might be. Do large gatherings like megachurches scare off Christians? Do smaller gatherings just not fulfill the spiritual needs that some people have? What does it take to make someone feel welcomed in a church they’ve never entered? I hope to find the answers to these questions by attending these church services firsthand as well as talking to church members along with staff/faculty about their experiences.

 For the first installment of this series, I wanted to check out a church that I had been hearing a lot about called Awaken Church. Awaken has had 8 locations open in San Diego alone, all of which were built in the last 4 years. I heard talk of Awaken being a megachurch and with all of the new buildings popping up, I thought it was worth putting at the top of my list. 

Looking at Awaken’s website (awakenchurch.com) the night before I attended their 8:30 a.m. Sunday service gave me the sense that they want anyone and everyone to come into their buildings. “Fresh, Real & Powerful” are the words spread across the homepage with montages of their worship concerts, church-held events, children playing games and people overfilled with excitement. 

8:12 a.m .I walked up to the building where there were two men in orange shirts and lanyards waiting to greet me. When I first entered through the transparent double doors, I was approached by a security officer named John. Initially, I thought this was because I was filming what the inside of the lobby looked like but instead, he just wanted to show me around. John said the “Events and Information” desk was to the left of the entrance, the auditorium was straight ahead, and the coffee shop was on the right-hand side of the entrance. I also noticed that past the ‘Events and Information’ desk was an entirely separate area for children where parents could drop their kids off before attending the main service. 

The coffee shop was packed with strangers engaging in conversation like they had been friends for years.

8:15 a.m. I walked into the auditorium and about five to 10 people were sitting quietly waiting for the service to start. I found my seat on the far right-hand side about six rows up from the bottom. A calming ambiance of soft music weaved its way through the aisles. 

By 8:23 a.m., larger families trickle in, greeting each other on the way to their seats. 

By 8:28 a.m. most of the seats in the auditorium were full as the worship team started occupying the stage.

Worship took place from 8:30-9:02 a.m. with various interruptions from one of the pastors. These 32 minutes included rock-style worship songs, interactions with the audience, jumping, dancing and light shows vibrant enough to trigger an epileptic seizure. The music was promptly followed by announcements on the large video board in center stage including the announcements of the two new Awaken locations and their band releasing an album on various music platforms next month.

Giving the sermon was a guest pastor named Mike Kai from a church in Hawaii. He gave off the impression that he was comfortable with the people of Awaken. The delivery of his message was well received by the congregation with most people from the first three rows shouting in agreement the whole time, all of whom looked as if they held important roles at Awaken. The overall goal of his message was to talk about emotions and how to be able to control them. 

“The more emotional I [we] get, the less intelligent I [we] get,” said Kai. 

“Yeah!” from a woman in white.

“Come on!” from a man with glasses

“Amen!” from many of the others.

The service concluded with Pastor Kai asking the congregation if anyone wanted to be saved and anyone who wanted to rededicate their lives to God. Everyone closed their eyes and if you fell into either of those categories, Kai would ask you to raise your hand while keeping your eyes closed. He then led the people with hands up in a prayer that they repeated after him. 

At 9:38 a.m., the service concluded.

Pastor Kai had mentioned that if there were any new faces that morning, they could fill out a “connection card” and give it to a staff member to get more information, so that’s what I did.

I walked out of the auditorium and up to a man in an orange shirt and lanyard who introduced himself as James and handed him my filled-out “connection card.” In exchange, he handed me a pamphlet on what the church has to offer along with a book titled “Awaken” written by the founder of Awaken Church, Jurgen Matthesius.

 According to James, the book is about how Matthesius started Awaken but the first thing I noticed when I opened it was the publishing company that prints and sells the book is named “Awaken Press.” When I researched those words I could not find any public information on what the “Awaken Press” is, as a company.

Remembering that one of the announcements on the video-board was the opening of their ninth and tenth new locations, one in Mission Bay and the other in Coronado, I started to research how fast these buildings started showing up.

According to coronadoTimes.com, when Matthesius and his family got to San Diego in 2005, they were starting an extended branch of C3, an Australian megachurch that has been under heat in recent years due to sexual assault allegations. Around 2020, Matthesius decided to start Awaken as a separate entity and now, only four years later, there are about to be 10 locations across San Diego.

The new location in Coronado has sparked members of the LGBTQ+ community who reside there to make signs and protest outside Awaken’s first preview service on the same day I attended the morning service at the Balboa location, per 10news.com. This backlash is due to public comments made by Matthesius in the past. 

What I have gathered from this experience is that just because a church is “thriving” and “growing” does not mean it is a place you want to be. It is important to be skeptical when something like this happens- ten church locations popping up in 4 years with hopes of six more … peculiar. Awaken has not had a clean history, to say the least; the founders came from the heavily criticized C3 church which is currently being investigated as a money-hungry cult, the large number of buildings and lots purchased in a short time, the public views they hold on LGBTQ+ topics, not to mention all their independent sources of revenue. Through my research and first-hand experience, I have concluded that Awaken is not the place for me.