Money may be the root of all evil, but two religion start-ups are hoping to make bundles of it -- and they may not need a loaves-and-fishes miracle to do it.
Both sites, Beliefnet and iBelieve.com, went live this month thanks to mammon from today's hottest idols: venture capital firms. Highland Partners poured $5 million into Beliefnet's collection box, and iBelieve.com drew $30 million from Madison Dearborn Partners and Andersen Consulting, among others.
The sites stand on different sides of the religious aisle -- Beliefnet is multidenominational, iBelieve.com is evangelical Christian -- but both are hoping to capitalize on the American culture's Puritan roots and current interest in spirituality. Eighty percent of Americans say they pray regularly, according to the marketing research firm Barna Research Group. And while I wonder what counts as "regularly," news magazine covers devoted to Jesus, Moses and other religious topics outsell any other topic save health, according to an unofficial audit by Steve Waldman, co-founder of Beliefnet, former national editor at U.S. News & World Report and correspondent for Newsweek.
There are other online religious offerings, such as Religion-online.org, which publishes essays on theology, and the Religious News Service, which posts stories and commentary about religious and news events, but Beliefnet and iBelieve.com want more than just readers. They want shoppers. That's why their business models are based on the holy trinity of the Web: content, community and commerce.
"We're a content-oriented business, but with commerce driving the revenues," says Jeff Fite, president of iBelieve.com. The company, based in Grand Rapids, Mich., is affiliated with Family Christian Stores (FCS), a chain of Christian retailers. Most of iBelieve.com's products are drawn from FCS distributors, and they range from books like "When Christ Comes" by Max Lucado to John 3:16 T-shirts. They recruit writers from churches and Christian magazines, Fite says.
Beliefnet, on the other hand, has cast a wider net. Listing a half-dozen religions, 50 contributing writers of all clerical cloths including some big names like James Fallows and Andrew Greeley and stories that spin off of mainstream news, the site aims to be a tent under which all religions can be discussed.
"We want to be the America Online for the soul, the Yahoo for the internal life," says co-founder Bob Nylen, a former CEO of the New England Monthly. "We think we will be a powerful destination for people to find answers to questions and goods to purchase."
So far, the goods haven't arrived. Content is all you'll find. But in the next few months, Beliefnet will begin selling a wide range of products, "including rosary beads," Nylen says. He's hoping that the company will become profitable in four years or less.
But wait: Aren't the poor supposed to inherit the kingdom of God? Aren't profit and holiness as compatible as pagans and the Pope?
Not according to these guys. Look at history, Nylen says: "The Puritan ethic has always been one which smushed the economic with the spiritual."
Better yet, "look in the Bible at the parable of the talents," Fite demands. The New Testament story tells of three slaves who are given "talents" (money). Two invest the gift and double their money. The third buries it. "The only slave who was punished was the one who buried the talents," Fite says. "We believe Jesus, God, doesn't have a problem with money. We believe it's a matter of responsibility, and from those to whom much has been given, much is expected."
I can almost hear the VCs now: "Amen, brother. Preach it."