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BIBLE SEARCH
Meeting Christians Online
Does Internet dating really work? Internet dating services are not only an effective means for Christian singles to meet other Christian singles—they have also become a booming business.


It's not often that loneliness, dating and the Internet all combine to strengthen someone's religious faith, but it did for Sharon Topping. In November 2003, the 49-year-old divorcee was living in St. John's, Nfld. and, by her own admission, she was lonely. "I needed a friend," says the mother of three grown sons. "I longed for the companionship of a male."

She had one major proviso for a mate: he had to be a practising Christian. So Topping, a Pentecostal, did what millions of other Christians worldwide have done in recent years to find their soul mate: she went online, figuring it was less awkward and in some ways safer than going to church mixers or answering newspaper personals.

A few weeks later she noticed one e-mail from an interested party—a man in the small northern Saskatchewan town of La Ronge. Her profile at www.ChristianSinglesToday.com was the only one Fred Topping, a Lutheran, had expressed interest in. His was the only e-mail she received. Talk about being destined for each other. About seven months after going online, Sharon flew the 6,000 km to meet Fred, and "it was like we had known each other for years."
The couple was engaged seven months after the trip, married in June 2005, and now live in La Ronge.

Sharon sees a divine hand in her cyber-tale. "There is no way this could have transpired without God," she says, noting that her biggest adjustment, apart from going from city to rural life practically half a world away, was worshipping at a considerably smaller church. "If everything has been designed by God, then this was too," she adds, the contentment in her voice loud and clear.

Topping is one of millions of Christians who have collectively spent millions of dollars searching for that special someone on the Internet, where dating and matchmaking have became a booming business. Analysts say the industry generated revenues of $500 million in 2004 in North America alone. That total was projected to climb to $560 million in 2005 and to $623 million by 2009. And the Web offers no shortage of niche sites for those who are discriminating.

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of sites geared expressly to Christian singles. (A Google search of "Christian online dating" yields more than 200,000 results—not all are actual matchmakers, but the sheer variety of services out in cyberspace can be daunting.) Degrees of specialty are becoming ever finer, as site names suggest: www.SingleParentsMingle.com, www.FarmersOnly.com, www.DateMyPet.com. The top religious personals site is reportedly www.JDate.com for Jewish singles. The three biggest singles sites— www.Match.com, www.YahooPersonals.com and www.e-Harmony.com—are enjoying record-breaking profits and attract hundreds of thousands of singles (www.Match.com is estimated to be earning $50 million per quarter).

Amid the clutter and confusion of up to 700 websites offering dating and matchmaking, what's a good single Christian to do? Should they sign onto the bigger sites or go to the Christian ones? Or avoid them altogether?

"I always tell people they should consider what their preferences are," says Mark Brooks, the New York-based editor of www.OnlinePersonalsWatch.com, a Web portal that tracks the Internet dating industry. "If you really want to meet someone who is Christian, you can go on Match and Yahoo and say, 'I'm a Christian and I want to meet a Christian.' [However] they'll send you a whole bunch of people who are interested in you but are not Christian. So if you're open to receiving communications from people who aren't [Christian], then by all means [use a general site]."

In other words, despite filters and preferences, it's still difficult to instruct most sites to tease out non-Christians, according to Brooks. That's where the niche sites come in. If you're on a specialty site, "you'll probably be jumping on a plane soon," because you've found someone so eligible that you'll risk the money and time to go to meet them. As Brooks says, there may be fewer niche sites than general ones, but common sense dictates they're more likely to have what you're looking for.

Sam and Pollyanna Moorcroft founded and operate ChristianCafe.com. Another dating website, and a friend, helped to bring them together. Their children are Cyrus and Cheyenne.

One of them—Single Christian Network—certainly clicked for Nancy Aird, a 47-year-old informational technology worker in Toronto. Divorced for a decade, she signed onto www.singlec.com in June 2001. "I was looking for someone strong in their faith, but not so rigid that they were intolerant of others," she recalls. "I guess I felt they might be intolerant of me." While browsing one day, she came across a snapshot of Cecil Aird, the man whom she would eventually marry. "I was attracted by the picture. He had this amazing smile—and quite a story! He was an artist who had fought in Vietnam and worked on Wall Street. I was very intrigued by his story." So much so that she contacted the man and the two began corresponding by e-mail and telephone, which became a daily routine.

Though aware of the dangers of physically meeting a man she had only virtual knowledge of—there are dozens of stories of women being attacked or worse by Internet suitors—she agreed to meet her "cyber-beau" in August 2001 at his home in Mountain View, California, about 60 km south of San Francisco. "I was worried," she concedes, "but I took precautions."

She stayed at a motel and called and "regularly" e-mailed family back home. "Everyone knew where I was," she says. To understate it, the meeting went well. "Cecil had every quality I ever wanted," says Aird, who grew up in the United Church of Canada, with involvement here and there with a Pentecostal church. "He's extremely kind and focused on his art." And active in his local Baptist church to boot.

The two were wed in June 2004, but she returned to Toronto and he to his home. Leaving a good job for a foreign country takes careful planning, not to mention jumping through many bureaucratic immigration hurdles. So temporarily the couple is restricted to daily phone calls and visits every two months.

In April, Nancy Aird is scheduled to quit her job of 24 years and move to California. She too cannot deny a divine plan: "We really do feel God's hand in this." While it might be easy to take a spiritual approach to online dating—expecting God to play cyber-matchmaker and allowing prayer to guide you—"it's equally important to take ownership of the process," advises marriage and family therapist Dr. Leslie Parrott in a recent posting at www.ChristianityToday.com. " target=_blankScripture is full of examples of people being proactive about finding mates," Parrott counsels a young woman who was considering surfing for a spouse. "And a Christian dating service can be a great help in connecting you with people who share your interests, traits, and deeply held values. Think of it this way: Would it help to be in a room with a dozen single men who are potential good matches for you? Of course! And that's what an effective online matching service does. I know dozens of happily married people who found each other this way." Parrott suggests that anyone weighing this route keep the following in mind:

• "Don't be tempted to play games by presenting yourself to be different than you are. Be real.

• "Focus on the characteristics you want to find in your date. I've seen too many singles who want so desperately to be dating that they overlook problems in the other person. They sometimes fall for the popular myth, 'I'll change him.' You won't, so don't try.

• "God reveals His will in a variety of ways and we have to resist the idea that there's a predictable formula to follow that leads to a spouse."

After meeting online, Sharon married Fred Topping, which involved moving from St. John's, Nfld. to a small northern Saskatchewan community. "There is no way this could have transpired without God."

One problem is that a lot of outfits want to cash in on Internet dating, leading to a congested and confusing landscape. "The market is simply oversaturated," says Sam Moorcroft, founder and president of Markham, Ontario-based www.ChristianCafe.com. (The site recently signed a partnership agreement with www.Christianity.ca, an online ministry of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, the publisher of Faith Today.) "A lot of companies got into it thinking it's easy, which isn't true. You don't turn on a switch and watch the money come in. The same thing applies in the Christian market."

Meantime, there are dozens of dating sites that have a page up, but no traffic. "This is a very 'sexy' business," says Brooks of www.OnlinePersonalsWatch.com. "It's like opening a restaurant. Everybody wants to do it. It's very appealing, like you're doing humanity a great service, but it's tougher than it looks."

Finding himself 30 and single in 1997, Moorcroft began spending a lot of time on www.Christian.Matchmaker.com. "I thought you had to be desperate or a loser to use these things. Not me, of course, but everyone else."

After telling a friend that he thought he could do a better job than the "primitive" sites back then, Moorcroft was challenged to put his money where his mouth was. With $100,000 on low-interest credit cards, he launched his site in early 1999. "We decided to call it Christian Café after the café concept, because when I spoke to women friends they said the biggest impediment to going online was safety. They said they wanted some place cozy, designed so nobody had to list their e-mails or real names."

Today, Moorcroft proudly notes that www.ChristianCafe.com is the largest exclusively Christian singles site in the world and controls fully one-third of the Christian singles market online. Brooks might quibble. His site measures hits, or the number of actual visits to a page, and lists www.ChristianMingle.com as the biggest Christian singles site.

Moorcroft says "nominal" Christians should have no trouble making friends at Match or Yahoo. "But if you're even half-serious about your faith and you want to meet someone who shares what you believe, I would highly recommend a Christian-only site."

Serious, but only up to a point. "Some sites require a statement of faith. We thought, 'Do we want people agreeing with the Nicene Creed or do we want people who consider themselves Christians? Are we going to make this dogmatic or practical?' "We basically tell people, 'Look, you're on this site to find someone who matches your faith level.' When we ask people their level of faith, it goes from 'I believe in God' all the way to 'Jesus is number one in my life.' The bulk of our market—I would say 80 percent plus—is conservative Evangelical Christian." About ten percent of the membership is Catholic.

www.ChristianCafe.com, like other successful sites, doesn't define what a Christian is. But like most others it does require users to abide by Christian standards of ethics and morality, meaning no profanity or threatening or abusive language. At any given time, www.ChristianCafe.com tallies 100,000 members within a three-month timeframe. Moorcroft's company grosses into seven figures per annum and has 10-12 employees.

In 2002, he launched www.JewishCafe.com in direct competition with www.JDate.com. "We do very well," he smiles. The icing on the cake: he met his wife through someone he'd met on www.Christian.Matchmaker.com. They've now been married two years, have twin boys, and she's become his chief marketer. "So I tell people that while I didn't meet her directly, what I do worked for me. And that's a great testimonial." So is the fact that the number of weddings the site has generated is "in hundreds if not low thousands."

"We really do feel God's hand in this." Cecil and Nancy Aird met through an online dating service.

Still, Nancy Aird, who met her husband at a Christian site, would not recommend online dating to a younger person, suggesting that the process requires some level of maturity and discrimination. "You have to know what you're getting into and what you're looking for. Be streetwise. Have realistic expectations. Be careful. And read between the lines." And watch out for frauds, if a recent chat room at www.ChristianCafe.com was any indication.

While no chatters had outright horror stories (one woman related the tale of how a man she once met dropped her at a pancake house with all her luggage), several rued having met someone who was not a fully-practising Christian, in spite of the house "rules."

"That hurts doubly," one man wrote. Moorcroft advises Evangelical online daters to look for one particular red flag. Any site that touts Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses—groups that born-again Christians would consider heretical—"guarantees the owners aren't Christian. Do you want to be on a website where you can potentially meet someone who considers him- or herself a believer, but they're from a background that we regard as an apostate faith?"

So exercising care and Christian sensibilites are good ideas. Other than that, the virtual world seems no different than the temporal one. As one woman who earned the kudos of her fellow chatters put it recently: "The biggest thing about the Internet and meeting people is to be open to making friends first."

Ron Csillag of Thornhill, Ontario, regularly writes feature articles for Faith Today.

Originally published in Faith Today, March/April 2006.


 

 
 
 
 

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