- The Washington Times - Friday, February 25, 2000

Although a lot has been said about how religious Web sites are booming these days, about 30 staff members of the Chantilly, Va.-based Crosswalk.com got a rude shock when they were laid off a month ago.

That turn of events has raised questions as to how long religious sites will hold public interest and how profitable they really are.

"No Internet sites really make any money," said Craig Van Hulzen, director of values-based investments at Crosswalk. "The market perceives value as how many members a site has. Profit is gained mostly through advertising revenues."

However, alternate sites such as Beliefnet.com and ibelieve.com hope to eventually make money. Co-founded by Robert Nylen and Steven Waldman, Beliefnet states on its Web site it will "do whatever it takes to help individuals meet their own needs in the realm of religion, spirituality and morality."

They also expect to generate tens of millions of dollars in business revenue over the next five years, with the backing of the Boston-based Highland Capital Partners. The Boston group backed Beliefnet with more than $5 million when it went on-line during the first week of the year.

Unlike traditional religious Web sites, Beliefnet will sell products on-line, such as books, music, videos, alternative health materials, and eventually, products bearing the Beliefnet logo. Mr. Nylen is a former consultant for the Harvard Business Review, Parenting magazine and the Lands' End catalog. Mr. Waldman is a former national editor for U.S. News and World Report and a former Newsweek national correspondent.

Also launched in January was iBelieve.com. Founded by Madison Dearborn Partners and Family Christian retailers and backed by $30 million, iBelieve.com is hoping to get more Christians to use the Internet as a resource.

"Faith is the core basis of this site," said Jeff Lambert, principal adviser for Lambert, Edwards and Associates Inc., iBelieve's public relations firm. "The Internet provides a new medium in which to express and discover faith, whether Christianity or religion in general."

The iBelieve site has five major links entitled "my faith," "my life," "my community," "my world" and, of course, "my store."

"We are very pleased with the initial reaction, and we look forward to attaining our business model, which projects profits within five years," Mr. Lambert said. "We want faith and religion to be a Sunday through Saturday experience, not just Sunday."

The emergence of these new sites speaks for their growing popularity. A little over a year ago, sites such as Crosswalk were rare. Now, others are trying to replicate its strategy, such as Amazon.com, msnbc.com and Zondervan.com, which have opened their own on-line religious stores. Financial advisers and analysts say that religious Web sites together are worth an estimated $3 billion.

"I see how much interest in religion has grown, especially among the younger generation, and I think religious sites will be very helpful in connecting people and providing useful resources," said Scott Spiewak, president of Fresh Impact Communications in New York.

As for Crosswalk, its Jan. 28 press release, issued on the same day as the layoffs of one-third of its work force, emphasized its fourth-quarter profits and only briefly mentioned its "cost-reduction program." News and culture channel editor Peter Edman, one of those laid off, termed it "quite depressing, very painful and rather shocking." Crosswalk said the layoffs were a result of "refocusing."

Its goal is "to position ourselves, through a combination of revenue growth and expense reductions, to obtain a net profit as quickly as possible," said William Parker, Crosswalk president and chief executive officer.

Some of the jobs were eliminated, he added, because Crosswalk wants to shift its focus to home schooling, spiritual life and money management subjects the company sees as more financially promising.

The company is also in the process of closing down stores that sell company-owned materials like books and music because they cannot compete with companies such as Amazon.com.

Crosswalk has had at least one other period of major layoffs since its founding in 1993. Considered a trailblazer of sorts, it was the first religious organization to be listed on the Nasdaq Stock Market (with AMEN being its corresponding symbol). With 1 million-plus members and 18 million page views per month, Crosswalk has had one of the fastest-growing religious sites.

The much younger Beliefnet has tried to catch up by posting controversial topics. One article, posted in mid-January by Lauren Winner, a 20-something senior writer for the evangelical journal Christianity Today, proposed that premarital sex should be acceptable among evangelicals. Her piece, which has since been taken off the site, got a heated response in the Feb. 19 issue of the evangelical weekly World.

Beliefnet also hired leading writers from a variety of religious and academic backgrounds, and they have a storehouse of more than 50 contributors, including Harvey Cox, a theologian at Harvard University; a Dallas evangelist, the Rev. T.D. Jakes; Elliot Abrams, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center; and National Public Radio correspondent Margot Adler, who practices the pagan religion Wicca.

"We want the contributors to reflect the diversity of the audience," said CEO Tony Uphoff. "We recruited many people, but many people came looking for us. Everybody believes in something and the contributors can relate to what is important to people on an individual basis."

The success of these religious sites may depend on their uniqueness. "We are seeing a return to traditional values," said Howard Schwartz, a former rabbi and teacher of religious studies at Stanford University. "The Internet provides the opportunity to create community and connect people to religion."

"It has created a wall-less church where people can come at their own time, and pick and choose from a diversified menu of Hinduism, Judaism or Christianity. At the same time, it is consumer-oriented, so it has to attract you first."

Barna Research of Glendale, Calif., says that out of the 100 million Americans on line, 25 percent of them use the Internet for "religious expression" each month.

"The Web site is the core of what we do, not all we do," said Mr. Uphoff of Beliefnet. "Tens of millions of people surf the Net. We provide privacy, the ability to explore both your own and other religions, and we promote tolerance, all of which come from communication."

Religious sites are "attractive," says Mr. Van Hulzen of Crosswalk, because "they reach out to a very broad and specialized market of believers." But, he adds, "they are also controversial because each individual holds to a certain belief system and wants to make a statement about what [he or she] believes."

Some still ponder the ethics of profiting from America's faith. Crosswalk marketing director Steve Biggerstaff says: "Our mission is to support the everyday life of Christians via the Web. But, we are still a company, not a charitable cause."

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