Worshipping the Almighty Dollar

SAN FRANCISCO (01/04/2000) - Aside from the occasional manna delivery, the Rev.

H.L. Champion knows there's no such thing as a free lunch. Raising money for his Baptist ministry has proven to be a lifetime of hard work. Since 1965, the Nashville-based preacher has donated his ministerial earnings to building new churches and preaching the gospel. But now he's found a new calling: the way of the Web.

Some 34 years and 12 churches after entering the ministry, Champion has discovered the shining light of e-commerce. He cobbled together Baptist.org, a Net-based clearinghouse for thousands of loosely affiliated Baptist churches.

Champion plans to build Baptist.org into a full-blown virtual mall, selling "any product you'd find in a Christian book store or that's used by a Baptist church - everything from floor wax to steeples." Profits from the site, he says, will help "provide Internet access to as many people as possible [and] to connect missionaries to local churches."

Champion, who calls himself "the first true Internet evangelist," is not alone in his epiphany. Several high-profile churches and affiliated groups have turned to the Net not only to extend their ministries but to invoke the power of electronic commerce:

* The Promise Keepers, the fraternal Christian organization based in Denver, turned to selling music, videos and apparel on its site, Promisekeepers.org, after it stopped charging admission to its evangelical conferences.

* The Christian Broadcasting Network, which attracts more than 600,000 daily viewers to its 700 Club program, sells computers, software and books on CBN.org. The site also accepts prayer requests - and donations.

* The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has opened an online store - LDScatalog.com - to sell the Mormons' Personal Ancestral File computer software to amateur genealogists.

* The Vatican Treasury Museum of St. Peter's Basilica has teamed up with a New York Internet marketing company, iConnect.com, to form the Catholic Families Network, at CatholicFamilies.net. Proceeds from CFN, an "Internet service provider designed expressly for the Catholic community," are split between the Vatican museum and iConnect. Plans are also in the works to offer a CFN-branded computer.

Why have spiritual leaders suddenly gotten the e-commerce religion? It's just the latest twist on an old story, says Ken Lubeck, CBN.org business manager. He contends that since congregants are spending anyway, it might as well benefit their brethren.

Online religious commerce is serious business. CBN.org gets more than half a million visitors a month. The Promise Keepers site logs 70,000 monthly visitors. And Catholic Families Network hopes a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign will convince 100,000 Catholics to sign up to its ISP by the end of the year. "We want to be the AOL for Catholics," says iConnect VP David Bernstein.

Still, it's not clear how commercially successful online church stores will be.

The Promise Keepers site has boosted traffic with the addition of daily devotionals. But its projected $600,000 in online sales this year reflects a two-year decline in both membership and revenue, says Ted Padwe, Webmaster and senior business systems analyst for Promise Keepers. And CBN.org, while accommodating a rising stream of visitors, has generated only modest revenue from merchandise sales.

The groups running the sites remain optimistic. The Promise Keepers believe an improved site planned for next year will boost merchandise sales, donations and online registration to its conferences. CBN.org expanded its line of merchandise to include 100,000 items, and online donations rose 150 percent since last year, thanks to crosspromotional efforts by the 700 Club's thrice-yearly telethon.

Champion, who spent $60,000 of his own money to launch and maintain Baptist.org, figures he'll break even this year. And iConnect believes Catholic Families Network will be so popular that it plans to launch services for Muslims, evangelical Christians and Spanish-speaking Catholics.

If these sites are successful, expect no apologies for seeking profits. "This is a ministry and it's also a business," says Padwe. "The Web site needs to reflect that. If we are not successful on the business side, the ministry will be diminished."

The Promise Keepers know what happens when ministerial and business decisions get out of whack. For the past two years, the group has charged no admission to its conferences. The idea was to reach beyond the group's traditional middle- and upper-middle-class white audience to "the ethnic and poor," Padwe explains.

In doing so, the chief source of revenue became donations and merchandise sales, rather than ticket sales. Budgets were slashed and the support staff was halved to 200, says Padwe.

The solution to the Promise Keepers' decreased funds, he says, is the Internet.

"Right now, those who feel like making a donation are just two clicks away from putting in their MasterCards. But I'd like to see that enhanced with the ability to take checks on the Internet."

Catholic Families Network faces a similarly delicate balance of faith and business. CFN costs $19.95 a month. For that price, users can peruse categories such as My Faith, check stock quotes and shop online.

"As a practicing Catholic, I take this very seriously," says John Zmirak, CFN's editor. "I see this first and foremost as a way Catholics can have their kids on the Web. Secondarily, it's a way of directing Catholics to grassroots information. I want to help ordinary Catholics to connect." As such, CFN will offer links to about 300 other Catholic sites, including the Vatican Treasury Museum.

The hoped-for link with the Catholic community notwithstanding, Zmirak and Bernstein downplay the link CFN has with the Catholic Church. "We're a private business that offers a service," says Zmirak. "It's like the relationship of the Smithsonian to the White House." Adds Bernstein: "It's not a filter from the Vatican. It's not a political filter. It keeps kids away from porno and bomb-making sites. It's not a matter of keeping people away from free-choice or gay sites."

The Vatican Treasury Museum will use its share of the ISP's proceeds for museum upkeep. But, Bernstein adds, "it's not like we have a direct contract with the pope."

As for the products offered for sale on CFN and other sites, they vary from the secular to the religious:

* CFN is set to offer a $900 PC package that includes a 400-MHz Celeron-based PC, an inkjet printer, a year of Internet access and onsite service. The package is being created by Custom Computer Group, of City of Industry, Calif., which specializes in private-labeled PCs. CFN will also offer other computer-related goods and Christian gifts. For the moment, however, the service links viewers only to online Christian bookstores.

* CBN.org, through an affiliation with Christian e-retailer FamilyCentral.net, offers 60,000 religious books, videos and music titles. It also offers tens of thousands of computer hardware, software and networking products. Ingram Micro of Santa Ana, Calif., which supplies most U.S. computer retailers, handles the computer-related inventory, while a subsidiary of affiliate Ingram Books in Nashville, Tenn., distributes the Christian books, videos and music. CBN.org's computer-related offerings include Microsoft Office 2000 for $455.64, and the Palm V for $360.98. Videos sold on the site include Revelation, an apocalyptic thriller, for $22.64, and Bibleman, a Christian superhero, for $7.

* Visitors to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints online store can purchase the Mormons' Personal Ancestral file computer software to trace their roots for about $35. However, only church members can browse an online catalog that offers church-related materials. The store will soon be open to the public, according to the church.

* Promise Keepers in a light-hearted mood can express their "unshakable faith in God in the face of a computer bug" with a new Y2K T-shirt. Also for sale:

Promise Keepers "stompwear" hats and T-shirts ($18 to $20) that encourage wearers to "Be Bold! Be Strong! Stomp Out Sin." A Promise Keepers logo watch can be had for $60.

Expect the product merchandising and the preaching to grow, for eyes turned heavenward have not overlooked the benefits of the Internet. Says Promise Keepers spokesman Roger Chapman: "We see how successful pornographic sites are.

We need to catch up."

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