The ads resemble a highlight reel from a Nicholas Sparks movie: Couples twirl, cuddle, and walk hand in hand through golden fields. “Sometimes we wait for God to make the next move, when God is saying, ‘It’s your time to act,’ ” the kind-sounding narrator says. “The next move is yours.” Finally, the trademarked slogan: “Find God’s match for you at ChristianMingle.com.”
Mocked by Stephen Colbert and parodied in scores of YouTube (GOOG) videos, the $30 million advertising and marketing push has done its job, making ChristianMingle an unexpectedly popular destination in the growing online dating market. The upstart service boasts the largest user base—9 million registered users, 154,000 paying subscribers at $29.99 a month—of any of the 28 sites owned by its parent company, Spark Networks (LOV). That’s almost double the 84,000 paying subscribers of the company’s groundbreaking Jewish singles site, JDate. (Spark Networks’ 26 other niche sites, including Black Singles, Silver Singles, LDS Singles, and Deaf Singles Connection, combined generate only about 26,000 paying subscribers.)
The Internet, to paraphrase Rihanna, is no longer a hopeless place to find love. Annual revenue from online dating in America tops $1 billion. A 2012 University of Rochester study found that 23 percent of U.S. couples were finding their partners through online dating as of 2009, second only to mutual friends. EHarmony boasts that 5 percent of American marriages are a result of the site’s algorithms, and Match.com (IACI) claims about 96 million registered users (and nearly 2 million active accounts), not including the millions of members at sister companies Chemistry.com and OkCupid (which is ad-supported and free). Sites such as Plenty of Fish and Gay.com have been joined by smartphone apps and sites such as Grindr and HowAboutWe—many of them not exactly geared toward the faithful. Ashley Madison, with more than 17 million registered users, explicitly encourages married people to violate one of the Ten Commandments: “Life is short. Have an affair.”
Based in Beverly Hills, Calif., Spark Networks is a relatively small player. It was founded in 1997, when “online dating was new,” says Chief Executive Officer Greg Liberman, who’s Jewish and has been with the company since 2004. “Our founders started JDate because one of them had recently gotten divorced, knew a bit about the Internet, and wanted to meet Jewish women who weren’t in his immediate social circle.”
JDate grew rapidly by word of mouth, introducing Jewish singles separated by city blocks and time zones. “Now JDate is at the core of the Jewish community and has been for a long time,” says Liberman, noting that awareness of the brand among Jews is nearly universal. JDate has been so successful that growth has flattened: When singles get married, they log off.
ChristianMingle was launched in 2004, “but there was still some level of stigma associated with online dating then,” says Liberman. Conservative and evangelical Christians weren’t leading the charge: ChristianMingle remained small until 2010, when Spark consulted with local ministers and prominent Christian leaders about how best to serve their constituents. As a result, the company founded an advisory council of church leaders and hired ChristianMingle spokeswoman Ashley Reccord, a pastor’s daughter, to help conduct outreach. Then the company launched Believe.com, which features Christian editorials, and redesigned the site into something more devout-seeming than JDate. “The tone of JDate is kitschier,” says Arielle Schechtman, that site’s spokeswoman. “We’re not afraid to make fun of ourselves.”
Built more on shared cultural affinity than interpretations of the Torah—it features a gossipy Kibitz Corner—JDate jokingly advertises how cheap the service is. “Save beaucoup bucks ($$ bling-bling $$),” the site announces on its About JDate page. “One month’s Subscriber costs less than a night on the town.” That claim isn’t advertised as prominently on ChristianMingle, but Liberman laughs it off. “The sites have very different voices,” he says. “It’s not that Jews are looking for a deal, though I like deals and I’m Jewish, so that would resonate just fine with me. Going to either site is cheaper than a date on the town.”
Unlike the mostly coastal population of JDate, the majority of ChristianMingle’s users live in the Midwest or the Bible Belt. Fifty-five percent are older than 36, and 25 percent are older than 50. Daters are encouraged to identify primarily through descriptions of their faith, in statements such as, “To me, being a Christian means …” or “My favorite Bible passage is …” You don’t have to be Jewish to join JDate—you can sign up for “Willing to Convert,” “Not Sure if Willing to Convert,” and “Not Willing to Convert” categories. On ChristianMingle, in the Ministry category, the only option for nonbelievers is “Other.”
Reccord explains that Christian singles identify much more with their faith than their favorite movies or albums. “It’s a self-selecting, targeted experience,” she says. “People are joining ChristianMingle because that’s the driving force in their life, and when you get there, you’re already among those who share those same values.” As for the controversial slogan, Reccord says, “we’re not saying that ChristianMingle is the only place where you can find God’s match for you, but so many say, ‘We just don’t see how we could have met had it not been for ChristianMingle.’ ” She cites Miki, a Radio City Rockette, and Tre, a California youth pastor, who found each other on the site and are featured prominently in the service’s ads. “We think this is really something that God can use,” she says.
And why not? Most religions have a tradition of paid matchmakers and faith-based singles events where pastors encourage marriage to strengthen the religious community. ChristianMingle is “just another example of His creativity,” says Reccord. “If God gives us the ability to be able to create the Internet,” she says, “why wouldn’t He use a site like this to bring people together?”
Spark reported the number of ChristianMingle paid subscribers grew 89 percent for the third quarter of 2012 vs. the period a year earlier. There are other suitors in the market for Christian romance; the biggest remains the much larger EHarmony, which once had a marketing arrangement with James Dobson’s Focus on the Family. And some evangelicals have been skeptical of ChristianMingle’s mission because it was founded by Jews. The upstart competitor ChristianCafe announces on its site: “ChristianCafe.com is Christian owned and operated, unlike all other major Christian dating sites.”
Liberman is treading carefully, attempting to establish Spark’s Christian bona fides while balancing its other interests. JDate offers its users the opportunity to register as “men seeking men” or “women seeking women,” for example, but ChristianMingle, like EHarmony, doesn’t. (EHarmony settled a class action brought by gay and lesbian singles in 2010; both EHarmony and Spark offer separate sites for LGBT singles.) “Many gay sites are more casual in nature, and Spark’s mission is to create more serious online dating sites,” says Reccord. “We’re aiming to forge more focused relationships.”
Asked to explain why ChristianMingle excludes gay and lesbian Christians who may be looking for long-term relationships, Reccord says, “We strive to run all of our sites to the standards of that community, and that extends to ChristianMingle.” God couldn’t be reached for comment.