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Staying faithful: How the Internet changed the Christian dating game

Anne Kolsky wasn't sure online dating was for her.

Kolsky's 15-year marriage ended in 2008 because she adopted Christianity, and she knew faith would be the foundation of any new realtionship she built. But when she tried a few different Christian dating sites, she didn't have much luck.

"I was amazed at how many were ready to get married before even meeting. It was scary and very discouraging," Kolsky said. "There were a few men from my church that were interested, but I just did not feel a connection with them."

Then she met Mitch, a blind man who was working toward a career teaching blind children and had even uprooted his life in California to help start a church in the Midwest. Now, more than a year later, Kolsky says the two have a strong relationship thanks to the faith connection she didn't have in her marriage.

"I would rather be single than do it the wrong way again. If my future husband leads me closer to Christ, then great," Kolsky said. "If he takes away from Christ, I'm not interested. It is that important to me."

Dating sites like ChristianMingle and JDate have opened the floodgates for people of faith to find friendship or love with fellow believers outside of their local churches, but the services could also be bucking stereotypes about Christian relationships.

Director Corbin Bernsen wanted to explore the idea of faith as an individual journey — and dispel stereotypes about Christians — with the romantic comedy called "ChristianMingle The Movie," set for release in October.

The film’s main character meets a proverbial "nice guy" on ChristianMingle.com and decides she has to lie about her faith to keep him interested. In the process, she reawakens her Christian faith. Bernsen says the message is that there are many paths to God and faith is no guarantee for a good relationship.

A February Christianity Today article addressed the problem of conflicting media reports about divorce rates among Christians versus nonbelievers. Some reports erroneously said that divorce rates among Christian couples were the same or even greater than those for society as a whole, the article noted.

Yet Christians are actually less likely to divorce, as the book "Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites ... and Other Lies You've Been Told" points out: Catholics are 31 percent less likely and Protestants 35 percent less likely to divorce. Jews are 97 percent less likely to divorce than greater society. The American Psychological Association reports that the divorce rate for married couples in the U.S. is 40 percent to 50 percent.

“There’s this weird blockage when you say you’re of the ‘Christian' faith. Nobody’s going to fault you for being a Catholic or Jewish, but when you say you’re Christian, people react almost like they do to Scientology, like, ‘Oh, you’re one of them,’ ” Bernsen said. “I just wanted to make a fun movie about faith and say that you don’t get to the Christian faith with an IKEA manual. There’s an infinite amount of ways to put this chest of drawers together."

Click the slideshow on the top left of this page to view 10 celebrity couples who have made marriage work.

Faith up front

Cyber dating expert and digital matchmaker Julie Spira says the beauty of dating online is that many sites recognize how individualized faith can be.

"There’s not just one kind of faith on these sites," Spira said. "It allows you to have respect for each other's faith without trying to change it."

Because faith information is on the forefront of dating profiles, online faith daters can more easily avoid problem areas. On JDate, for example, different check boxes splinter Judaism into its many incarnations from orthodox to reform to conservative, but the choices also span lifestyles (kosher or not?) and religious practice (temple attendance each week, or only on the high holy days?).

"It offers the opportunity for people to see how important religion is to them before you pick up the phone, write an email or meet for coffee," Spira said.

These details are important, ChristianMingle community manager Ashley Reccord said, not only because differences can lead to issues down the road, but because it can take months to figure these things out in traditional dating.

"When you're able to get that information up front, that helps people understand the foundation of who the person is without being pushy or prying," Reccord said. "With online dating, you can get to those faith questions in the first several weeks because people are expecting to have these conversations as they meet you."

And, like Kolsky, many people may approach dating differently the second time around, either being more open or more specific about religious background as a relationship requirement. That leads to a lot of dabbling in multiple sites, Spira said.

"People are going online because they have millions of people to pick from that they’re not seeing at church on Sunday. That is a terrific thing," Spira said. "It’s more common to see people on religious sites also being a member of a larger site."

See also: The costs and benefits of online dating

Broad horizon, narrow focus

Online dating also allows people to cast a wider net for potential partners who aren't necessarily interested in a certain faith, but share certain values. The number of interfaith marriages has more than doubled since the 1960s. Spira said the number could be rising because as people age and enter second or third marriages, faith and religion can become more about culture than hard-and-fast practices.

"Many of these people have raised families in a certain faith, and the religion isn't as important to them because the kids are grown," Spira said. "You find a lot of people on these sites because they were raised a certain way, but they're not living their life that way now. It doesn't mean they want to change religions, but they still want someone to share their traditions with."

That could be good or bad, depending on perspective. As the Economist reported last year, 45 percent of American marriages in the past 10 years were faith blended. But interfaith marriages also have a high failure rate: According to the American Religious Identification survey, last conducted in 2001, marriages involving more than one religion were three times more likely to divorce.

"Online dating broadens your horizons beyond your church social circle, but our service allows users to narrow the pool down to people who share your common values," Reccord said. "Marrying someone in your faith is critical to the strength of the relationship."

ChristianMingle is also boosting the Christian population, Reccord said.

"ChristianMingle is allowing Christians to potentially marry and grow the Christian community more than ever before," Reccord said. "Obviously, faith-based marriages are highly likely to raise children in that faith."

Whether people prioritize religion in online dating or not, the chance for the faithful to find happiness is higher than with traditional dating. Kolsky's online membership was about to expire when she unexpectedly found someone she's crafting a future with.

"(The experience) has really stretched me in terms of what I want and what I think I want," Kolsky said. "I am very blessed."

Email: chjohnson@deseretnews.com Twitter: ChandraMJohnson

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