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.”