While most of the for-profit dot-coms aimed squarely at the evangelical Christian market have faltered or failed, an online service that is about as polytheistic as they come appears to be flourishing. The service receives about 1 million unique visitors each month, and approximately 7-8 million page views per month, according to statistics from the research firm PC Data Online. (MediaMetrix, another online statistics firm, says the site only receives about 418,000 unique visitors a month—fewer than Gospelcom.net, Crosswalk.com, or even Christianbook.com.)

Beliefnet, which burst upon the scene last January, has landed celebrity writers such as Michael Jackson, Colin Powell, and retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong while signing up over 1,000 houses of worship for its Web-hosting service.

With its tagline, "We all believe in something"—as nonthreatening a brand id as can be found in the marketing world—the service also embarked on its first product-marketing venture, a CD of sacred tunes from around the world. Magazines, books, and other items are due to follow, says cofounder Steve Waldman, a former U.S. News & World Report editor.

"We seem to be doing well," Waldman told CT in an interview. "We're watching all these other companies dropping like flies. We had our second round of financing in May, and we've gotten some big traffic-driving partnerships."

The largest of these partnerships—for which financial terms have not been disclosed—are with America Online and About.com, a portal for "comprehensive information" Web sites. On AOL, which bills itself as the world's leading Internet service provider, "co-branded" Beliefnet sites "will offer … tens of millions of users … information, community applications, resources, and products in the religious and spiritual arena," according to an announcement. Beliefnet will also have the ability to sell ads on the co-branded sites.

For About.com, which claims nearly 20 million viewers, Beliefnet is now "the premier provider of religious and spiritual content, news, and interactive tools," supplementing the "human guides" About.com has employed in the same fields.

"Places like AOL view our content as having real value," Waldman says. "There aren't many places that provide high-value content about religion and spirituality."

The mixture of content-providing and controversy—with a healthy dash of commerce thrown in—appears to have done the trick for Beliefnet, which continues to be the media darling for all things spiritual. Time magazine chose Waldman as one of its six religious innovators who "will guide our inner lives" in the 21st century, Yahoo! named Beliefnet one of the 100 best sites on the Internet, and the service was a finalist for a Columbia University Online Journalism award for its Memorial Day area.

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The controversy surrounding some of Beliefnet's offerings started when Associated Press religion writer Richard N. Ostling reported in a January 2000 article that the firm had tapped scholar Marcus Borg as its Bible columnist. Borg, a theologian and member of the hypercritical "Jesus Seminar" (CT, Aug. 7, 2000, p. 73), would not be a favorite of evangelicals; Beliefnet quickly clarified that he would be a columnist, but not the sole one.

The service has not shied away from Spong's participation, even though the retired bishop's other online activity—a column on sexuality for Theposition.com—drew front-page censure from the New York Post, which labeled the prelate "The Bishop of Cybersex."

"It's important that the site be fair and balanced; not in any given article, but in the diversity of viewpoints," Waldman says. He adds that by including former Family Research Council leader Gary Bauer in the Beliefnet roster (as well as Fuller Seminary president Richard Mouw, the Southern Baptist Convention's Richard Land, and former CT columnist Frederica Mathewes-Green), Beliefnet achieves that diversity of views.

"The ones who are most provocative tend to raise issues in a clarifying way," Waldman said. "But we also have middle-of-the-road and mainstream viewpoints."

He added that while there are occasional bouts of Beliefnet users criticizing other religions, the site's users (and managers) police truly hostile messages, keeping a civil tone throughout.

That's important when you run a site as diverse as Beliefnet, with Mormons click-by-jowl with Methodists, and Jews with Jehovah's Witnesses. The main roster includes Baha'is, Jains, pagans, and Scientologists along with Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and Mormons—the latter four under the "Christian" heading.

"Being multifaith actually helped us, from a business point of view," Waldman said. "It's not a practical thing, but there is an economy of scale for an About.com to deal with one Web site like us; so I think [while] some people thought [being] multifaith was our Achilles' heel, it turned out to be the reason for our success."

The multiplicity of faiths adds another dimension: the firm's site-hosting venture, Beliefnet Web Services, said in December that it had signed up more than 1,000 congregations during its first 90 days.

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"With nearly 375,000 churches in the U.S. and Canada, and thousands of other religious and spiritual communities as potential customers, the market opportunity for the Beliefnet Web Services program is huge," Beliefnet's CEO, Tony Uphoff, said in a statement. (Of course, Beliefnet isn't the only company targeting those churches for online partnerships.)

The firm recently acquired online donation service CharityCounts.com, which assists in making online cash donations to nonprofits and offers celebrity auctions (profits go to charities). CharityCounts.com's software will also allow Beliefnet visitors to contribute to churches and organizations using Beliefnet's Web hosting service.

Such groups, Beliefnet says, range over "all practice and denominational lines, from Baptist churches to yoga centers, [and] from urban ministries to retreat centers."

While Beliefnet's Waldman says the firm "seems to be doing well," there's no easy way to verify this. Unlike other dot-coms who sold stock and then had to produce detailed financial reports, Beliefnet answers only to the venture capitalists who funded the project.

At the same time, Beliefnet is avoiding the massive media spending that apparently helped doom iBelieve.com. While admitting to dreams of expensive Super Bowl TV ads, Waldman said the firm is counting on deals such as those with AOL and About.com to drive traffic to the Beliefnet site.

Related Elsewhere

Be sure to read today's related story "Is God.com Dead | Investors lost faith in ibelieve.com, Lightsource.com was extinguished, and Crosswalk is being run over. What happened to the for-profit Christian Web site boom?"

Beliefnet is available at both Beliefnet.com and Belief.net.

Read Time's profile of Steve Waldman, Beliefnet's innovative force.

CBS profiled Beliefnet itself, describing ways that people were using several sites on the Internet to fuel their spiritual quests.

Other media coverage includes:

Beliefnet.com Performs Modern Miracle | The religious site's $20 million in second-round financing bucks the e-commerce beating. — The Standard (June 7, 2000)
Beliefnet preaches the gospel of diversity — LocalBusiness.com (Aug. 16, 2000)
Beliefnet.com seeks an interfaith niche amid the Web maze — Associated Press (Feb. 10, 2000)

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