Arms wave in the air, hands outstretched as if to grab something fleeting. It’s Friday night at MyCity Youth, fists and music pumping. Teenagers and preteens sway transfixed, all eyes on the stage, where a techno-pop band of sorts scurries around under colored lights. Reminiscent of a Disney-synthesized, TV-spinoff group, they belt out a tune from the songbook. Pathway to God, dance party for conformist adolescents, cult, or perhaps an amalgam? The answer depends on whom one asks.
2716 Gateway Road, Carlsbad
“John,” a 56-year-old small-business owner who moved to San Diego in 1989 and who currently resides in coastal North County, is conflicted. On many a Friday night, he can be seen dropping off his kids at the weekly MyCity Youth gathering in Carlsbad; yet, he has misgivings, some vague, others taking the form of specific complaints about how MyCity is run. Functioning as a recruitment arm of C3, a nondenominational Protestant megachurch, MyCity is, according to John, a shadowy youth group that aggressively targets teens by offering financial incentives to enlist other kids in the cause. But, he frets, “What is their cause?”
I spoke with David Chiddick, who, along with his wife, Briana, serves as lead youth pastor for MyCity. “We’re part of C3 Global [formerly Christian City Church International], a church started by Phil and Chris Pringle in Sydney, Australia. Our pastor, Jurgen Matthesius, and his wife, Leanne, moved here 11 years ago to start C3 San Diego.”
In an effort to learn more about what C3 is trying to inculcate in San Diego teens, I asked Chiddick, who preaches primarily at the Carlsbad location, about the Wikipedia description of C3 Church: “‘Pentecostalism, Evangelical, Charismatic.’ Is that accurate?”
“Yeah, I think so. I don’t know who writes those articles, but we absolutely believe in the power of God and that the Holy Spirit is present and alive today. The terms ‘pentecostal’ and ‘charismatic’ have been abused a little bit by people. In the past, people have used these terms to describe churches that speak in tongues. Now, let me say that we absolutely believe in speaking in tongues and we do practice that. But there are people who’ve tarnished the terms ‘pentecostal’ and ‘charismatic,’ what they mean, and what it means to actually move in the gifts of the spirit. Speaking in tongues is a gift of the spirit.”
When I spoke with John, he wasn’t aware of C3’s glossolalia but was nonetheless struck by the dichotomy between his church youth group experience in a small Midwestern town and what’s offered at MyCity Youth, as well as other congregations of its ilk.
“I went to United Methodist Youth groups as a teen, had friends who went to Catholic youth services, but church was church, organ and hymns, right? Now, you go to a non-denominational church (I’ve attended a few) and it’s all pop music, guitars, and drum kits. Words are up via Powerpoint so you can sing along if you don’t know the lyrics; there’s no hymnal.”
John has indulged his kids but says, “I have some reservations. In her sixth-grade year, my daughter came home with a printed ticket, ‘My City youth, come Friday.’ She was excited because one of the popular kids had invited her. She and her friend went; I took her there. I said, ‘What’s this about?’ I walked in and checked it out and thought, All right, it’s just a modern youth church service that’s on steroids. Her friends are there; it’s all good. That’s how it started. Then, several weeks went by and she went again, and after a while, she started going more regularly. About a year ago, we talked about it. I said, ‘You get to see your friends, and maybe there’s a good message. Of course you can go.’”
But John began to look more closely at C3 and MyCity and grew uneasy. I asked John to elaborate on his trepidations, one of which centers around a movie, Nerve, whose leitmotif MyCity has utilized to generate enthusiasm among its teens.
“There’s this Nerve challenge thing. The kids play an online game like ‘truth or dare,’ except there are only ‘dares.’ In the movie it spirals out of control, where they take huge risks and sometimes get harmed. MyCity came up with their own version. My son and daughter explained to me that you’re required to do a series of ‘challenges.’ One example was when my daughter went to a friend’s house and jumped in the swimming pool with her clothes on. MyCity kept amping it up. In the next one, they told the kids to go to a shopping mall and spill their drinks all over. The culmination occurred when all the kids who’d done the daily challenge as instructed did a final one at the church, and the winner got $500.”
John views the challenges as an affront to his own ethics, his sense of propriety.
“I saw on Instagram where one of the main youth pastors said, ‘If I get 200 ‘likes,’ I’m going to run on the field during a Padres game. Apparently, he actually did do it and posted a photo of a security guard grabbing him. My thought was, why would any adult, let alone someone associated with a church, promote running on a field at a Padres game? Who says it’s okay to run on the field at a Padres game? Number one, it’s against the law; besides, it’s rude and disruptive. I’m pretty sure you go to jail when you do that. Why doesn’t anybody else care? Maybe I’m just an old crank.”
I asked David Chiddick about the hijinks for Jesus. “One of our core values is staying relevant, so we’ll take the things that are most cutting-edge today, what’s grabbin’ the teenagers’ perspective and eyes, and we put our twist on those things. One of the most popular movies for teenagers out today is Nerve. We put our spin on it to get the teenagers engaged and [be] a part of what we’re doing. We did a few different things like, ‘jump in the pool with all of your clothes on’ or ‘fall in the middle of a public place.’ So it’s just these little challenges that we’re puttin’ them up to, and basically, it created a great sense of community where people were bringing their friends and introducing them.” Chiddick insists, “We never asked them to do anything inappropriate or rude; in fact, we encourage them not to. The kids think it was pretty incredible and ingenious.”
I asked Chiddick what MyCity Youth hopes to gain from issuing “challenges.”
“We want MyCity Youth to be the number-one place for teenagers to be on a Friday night. In the times we live in, the church has gotten to a point where it’s pretty irrelevant to teenagers. They associate church with being boring and dead, so they associate God with that. We’re trying to show them, God’s not boring, God’s not dead; church isn’t boring, church isn’t dead. We’re reaching out to show you that we’re relevant. Let’s face it — they’ll never come to church if they think it’s a place where they’re condemned, hated because they’re sinners. It’s a first impression. Some kids say, ‘I thought it was lame and boring, but it’s relevant.’ It gets them in the doors of the church, and that’s where we can introduce them to Jesus and radically transform their lives.”
As for the pranks that John decries, I asked Chiddick, “So, those things happened?” Chiddick hesitated. “Uh, what things?” While tacitly admitting some of the challenges, he stiffened when it came to the alleged incursion onto the holy grounds of Petco Park. “No, that did not happen; no one ran onto the field during a Padres game.”
Was it perhaps suggested but never carried out?
“Listen, there are a whole lot of things that teenagers will do. I’m sure they did some of these things, but they’ve never been directed or encouraged to play pranks or [do] illegal things. People will have perceptions on social media.”
Whatever those perceptions may be, MyCity is taking no chances. The officially sanctioned images displayed on its website and on Instagram are polished and professionally produced. Minimalist in style, carefully crafted and tailored, they seem designed to portray the youth of MyCity as athletic, outgoing dynamos, with an occasional cameo by the Holy Spirit. But you won’t see any photos of kids parsing Bible verses or debating doctrine. On a given perusal, one may encounter large, scowling men breaking slabs of rock; dads doing push-ups onstage for a Father’s Day event; a girl hawking a MyCity T-shirt; or young men darting around on hover boards.
John charges that MyCity Youth is permeated with secrecy and a lack of supervision, both of which are denied by Chiddick.
“I tried to find a schedule online,” said John. “There’s no schedule. No names, either; isn’t that interesting? Who do you contact? Sometimes, I ask my kids, ‘Am I taking you guys to MyCity this Friday?’ and they’ll say, ‘There’s no MyCity this week.’ I’ll say, ‘Why not?’ and they’ll answer, ‘They’re just not going to do it.’ Where’s the schedule? Ordinarily, at a regular church, as an adult, I’d be able to look up dates and times online. But the kids apparently just hear about it, post info on Instagram. They also have these ‘Connect’ groups, where small groups of kids meet. They’re led by a youth counselor who’s 20 or 30.”
As John recalls, things came to a head earlier this year. “Some girl was texting my daughter, ‘Can you come to Connect on Friday? We’re going to have pizza,’ blah, blah, blah. I called this Connect leader and asked, ‘Why are you texting my daughter? She’s a minor, so you can’t contact her. Contact me if you want to invite her someplace.’ She argued with me and said, ‘When she first came to church, she filled out a card with her email address and cell-phone number.’ I replied, ‘I don’t care. She’s only 13, so don’t contact her. Go through me if you want to invite her to a pizza party. I don’t want you texting my kids.’ They were adamant about it. I got pissed, actually. Then I got a call from another MyCity person, someone up the ladder, who said that their attorneys had looked into it and had assured them that it was okay. I said, ‘I don’t want to hear the word “attorney.” Just don’t do it.’ So, they took my kids off the list. But I never did get any consent forms for my okay.”
John has a problem with not only MyCity’s communication, but its transportation, as well.
“A while back, my son told me that he was going to the Friday thing 45 minutes early. When I asked him why he needed to be there early, he said that he was going to ‘help set up.’ I asked, ‘How are you getting there?’ He said, ‘Oh, the counselor is going to pick me up.’ I didn’t know the counselor’s name.”
Then, according to John, there was the Stadium Night debacle.
“Maybe it was a weak moment, but I agreed to let my daughter attend one of their big blowouts, which they put on twice a year. They call them ‘Stadium Nights,’ where the kids are transported to the Clairemont Mesa Boulevard location via bus. Later that evening, I got a text from my daughter saying that she’d ‘missed the bus’ and that a counselor, some random youth leader, was driving her home.” On the other hand, he confesses, “We let her take an Uber to MyCity once. Later, I thought about it; maybe that’s not such a good idea.”
I asked him, “What’s your fear? Pedophiles?” Hesitating, he replied, “This one girl, who said she was 26, told me that she’d had a background check and was approved by C3 Church. In my anger, I said, ‘The world’s largest church was brought to its knees by church-approved folks.’ The counselor said, ‘Don’t worry — it’s women with girls, men with boys’ and so on. ‘I don’t care,’ I said. ‘In my mind, it’s inappropriate.’ She’s probably a great gal, but it bothers me that they think it’s okay to do that.”
Are MyCity youths having too much fun while getting introduced to God? John’s concerned.
“Let me tell you,” he exclaims. “A lot of it is just a ‘hook-up’ for middle-school kids. It became apparent (and I’m not alone in thinking this) that my daughter realized, ‘this is a great place to meet other kids.’ That would include boys. So, I’ve been letting my daughter, who just turned 13, and my son, who’s 12, go to a place where there are 18-year-old high school seniors. Is it a ‘make-out party’ or is it a church? I’m a little taken aback; the environment makes me uncomfortable. I’m just not used to young kids holding hands, swarming all over one another and snuggling during a sermon.... It’s just a little too wide open and they pander to the kids too much.”
David Chiddick dismisses John’s concerns as much ado about nothing, minor technicalities at most. Speaking in a preacher’s cadence, he sounds a note of weariness.
“Our leaders give up their job, their time, their money — to pick up kids whose parents are too lazy to take them. So for the focus to be, ‘I never signed a consent form,’ is pretty shocking and amazing.”
But, admits Chiddick, in apparent response to said concerns, MyCity Youth has implemented some changes.
“We no longer contact kids under 16 without parental consent; that’s a policy of our church that’s in place now. And when we hold organized events, such as summer camps, every parent signs a waiver form.”
He adds, “Every leader is over 18 and has gone through an extensive background check,” but admits, “as of yet, we don’t have parents sign a waiver for counselors to pick up their kids because, legally, we’re not required to. That’s something we definitely would look into in the future if parents are concerned. But we’ve had zero feedback and input from parents suggesting that.”
I asked John, “Organized pranks aside, are C3’s teachings consistent with your own beliefs?”
“I’ve never been to their services,” he concedes. “I guess I’m cynical, but personally, I wouldn’t get involved in a church like C3. My kids tell me it’s a cult. That’s part of my fascination. What’s their game?”
The word “cult” is a lightning rod around fundamentalists, and in the hinterlands of the internet one can find critics (who appear to hail from obscure non-denominational Protestant sects) who term C3 Church a cult. The critiques read like dispatches from internecine skirmishes.
“What’s their definition of a cult?” asks Chiddick. “What do they mean by that? A lot of people call things a cult when they don’t know what they are. I would say to those people, ‘You need to come and spend time with us.’ I’m not going to say, ‘We’re not a cult,’ because to me, there’s no point in defending that. I don’t have to defend who God is or what God is doing. In the Bible, Jesus says, ‘I will build my church,’ so I don’t have to worry about that. Everywhere we go, people are going to say things like that.”
Setting aside for the moment allusions to Shakespeare’s oft-quoted excessive protest commentary, Chiddick is all in. Imbued with all the fervor one would expect from a pastor whose flock embraces glossolalia, he spoke of his personal journey from would-be commando to youth preacher.
“All I know is that I walked into the church a broken person with no thought of what I was going to do with my life. I had got dropped from Navy SEAL training, which is what I was trying to do with my life. I walked into church and encountered God. He radically changed my life and I know thousands of others with the same story. Unfortunately, people are entitled to their own interpretation of what we do; they’re going to call things for what they think it is. It has less to do with what we’re doing and more to do with what’s happening in their hearts.”
I asked John if MyCity has changed his kids. “Do your son and daughter come home Friday nights and exclaim, ‘Hallellujah, Dad! Praise the Lord’?” He laughs, “Not even remotely. It hasn’t affected their religious beliefs or general outlook; my kids aren’t that into it. My kids just go for the fun; they don’t get too emotionally involved.”
And he questions MyCity Youth’s sincerity. “One of my daughter’s good friends got baptized there last week. My daughter asked if she could do it, too, and I said, ‘You’ve already been baptized; why do you want to do it again?’ She told me that she just wanted a second baptism because her friend did.” John maintains that the kids who participate do so largely for social reasons, not spiritual. “I even know some Catholics whose kids attend.”
Theology? “It’s, like, ‘God loves you.’ But what if you go out and do all this stuff — get stoned and wreck your dad’s car? There’s no message of social responsibility. I’m not that much into dogma, but there is none, as far as I can tell.”
Where do folks like the Matthesiuses and the Chiddicks come from? I asked, “How does one become a lead youth pastor at a church like C3? Do you attend a seminary or divinity school or attain a degree of some sort?” With nary a hint of sheepishness, Chiddick replied, “No, it doesn’t require that; our training and our education is practice. What it requires is actually knowing who God is, what God has done in your life, the practical working-out of things. There are a lot of people with a lot of head knowledge who don’t know who God is. So, first and foremost, it’s having a love for God and God’s word, not varying from God’s word, and having a love for people.”
Chiddick recounts his path. “I don’t have a college degree; I was in the Navy. I’ve served in the church close to 11 years now. What we do in our church is call people what they already are instead of calling them something else and hoping they’ll rise to that occasion. I was pastoring young kids, looking after them, discipling them. One thing led to the next, and that’s when I was legally ordained as a pastor for C3 San Diego.”
The gospel according to John? He’s convinced that MyCity is, at heart, a numbers game, something like multi-level marketing for Jesus.
“In addition to counselors they have student leaders who pressure other kids to join. I know of one, a girl in middle school. She’s in charge of ramping it up. The sense is, ‘You’ve got to get them there.’ I asked my daughter, ‘How does this work?’ She said that the leader gets gift cards. If she gets 10 new people, she gets a $50 gift card to a store like Urban Outfitters, 50 new people, a $100 gift card. It’s seriously about recruitment.”
“It’s absolutely about bringing in kids,” enthuses Chiddick. “If we’re not doing that, we’re not doing anything. We have to concentrate on that. But, when you look at MyCity Youth, should the focus be on whether the kids are playing pranks? Oh, my goodness: are you missing the big picture of what is actually taking place in these teenagers’ lives? To me, that’s the most important part. I don’t know what this article will contain, but I really hope that it doesn’t miss what MyCity is doing. If the guy you spoke with was to look on Instagram and read some of the comments our youth have made, he’d be blown away by the transformation in teenagers’ lives.”
I asked Chiddick if the criticism of lax supervision is legitimate. “Absolutely not. We actually have a security team, and they are dedicated to ensuring that every teenager who steps onto our campus is taken care of, looked after, and is safe. In saying that, teenagers are teenagers and we’re not responsible for what they text or what they say. The security team has over-18 leaders who’ve all gone through and passed background checks and who have been trained by ex-military and law-enforcement people who go to our church. They’re instructed on how to look for suspicious people to ensure that the kids are safe. They’re present in the service, in the lobby, and they roam around the entire campus throughout our operating hours.”
When I related John’s criticism about a lack of “core values” and what he termed “pandering,” Chiddick countered, “That couldn’t be further from the truth. Every service is designed for the most important thing, which is for teenagers to encounter God. Every week, there’s a powerful message of who Jesus is and what he’s done for people’s lives. It’s unlike anything anyone has seen with teenagers before — how powerfully the gospel is being presented by the team and leaders. When you have teenagers who come to something that they’re not required to attend, and they bring a Bible and a notepad to take notes on what somebody’s talking about, that speaks volumes. They’re being taught something that’s applicable to them and is radically changing their lives; those notes change their lives because of what God has done.”
I brought up Yelp reviews, which seem to be equally split between five-star paeans and one-star excoriations: C3 as a paragon of spirituality or as a wallet-wringer, with few comments in between.
“Times have never changed,” Chiddick says. “When Jesus walked the Earth, he got the same exact response from people. Many loved him, and obviously, their lives were dramatically changed, but even when they had the perfect savior in front of them, others judged, condemned, and crucified him. Some people are blinded by things. Just like they couldn’t see Jesus for who he was, the same thing happens today.”
Chiddick claims to know John’s real identity. “I’m pretty sure I’ve reached out to him before and asked to meet, because I would love to talk to somebody like that. This guy is exactly who God has called us to reach. I’d love to meet him and talk with him. We’re never in a place where we think we know everything.” Cryptically, Chiddick adds, “A church that’s taking ground will be attacked, and we’re constantly being attacked. And we respond in the same way, which is all based on the Bible.”
Why would MyCity be attacked? Is there anything controversial, different, or unusual about MyCity Youth that would attract criticism? “Absolutely,” replies Chiddick. “Any church that’s doing what God has created it to do will always be controversial. But I don’t know what that is. To me, our church isn’t controversial; it’s life-giving and truth-speaking. Anytime you speak the truth, it hurts.”
I asked Chiddick about faith healing. “We absolutely pray for people to be healed. We practice what the Bible says, what Jesus commands us to do: ‘You will lay your hands on the sick and they will recover.’”
“Do you handle snakes?” I joke.
Chiddick laughs, “We absolutely do not do that.”
“Can prospective parents go to a service to check it out for their kids?”
“One hundred percent!” responds Chiddick. “We’ve had parents come in many times and observe. What our security team will do is, when they see people who are over the age of 18, the team meets them, talks with them, and stays with them throughout the service, because we don’t necessarily know if they’re parents. We actually encourage parents to check us out, because we have a lot of people who speculate about what we do. Every time I get a speculation, I invite them to actually come see what we do, because there’s a big difference between hearing about what we do and witnessing it.
“Ask the youth, the people who are part of what we’re doing, what’s taken place in their lives. Here’s a post from one of our youth girls who tagged me in an Instagram photo: ‘Hey, I just wanted to say this to all the people who think C3 is some rave or a party or a cult. It’s not. We do get excited about Jesus and jump up and down during worship, but there’s nothing wrong with people who are on fire for God. And maybe that’s not everybody’s thing, but at least you don’t have to talk bad about it. MyCity Youth has changed my life. I couldn’t be happier than I am now due to going to C3. God is moving there and lives are being changed. So yeah, I just want to say that I love MyCity.’”
Chiddick adds, “We’ve had many other posts like that. Look past why it might be bad and the little things you think would destroy it and look at the lives that are being changed.”
Lurking just beneath the surface of John’s discomfort is an unstated question: Does MyCity Youth drive a wedge between teens and parents? It was in that context that I queried Chiddick about the Connect gatherings.
“These are for discipleship, because everywhere Jesus went, he gathered a crowd and made disciples. They also work alongside parents, not against parents. Here’s what we teach our youth: the Bible says to honor your mother and father. We don’t teach them to rebel. The closer you get to God, the more you’re going to love people, including your parents.”
What about parents who aren’t particularly spiritual or religious?
“That’s most of them.”
I ask Chiddick, “Is there a danger that teens will criticize their parents for not sharing the belief?”
He replies, “If our leaders weren’t doing the right thing that could happen, but in fact, the greatest compliments we get are from the parents who don’t know who God is and don’t go to church. They thank us because their children’s lives are forever changed because of what God and our leaders have done. The greatest criticism we get is from the parents who would say that they’re religious.”