Startup FaithStreet lives at the corner of tech and Christianity

By Erin Griffith , written on November 27, 2012

From The News Desk

Worried they're missing the "startup revolution," as the Christian Post calls it, churches across the country are hungry to get a piece of this thing we call the Internet. Some of them, like Redeemer Presbyterian Church, are starting incubators to invest in seed-stage consumer Internet startups. Others are hosting conferences for "Mobile-preneurs" with names like Christ in Business.

Still others are taking a more lightweight approach to social media, joining a new service called FaithStreet. Launched two months ago by former attorney Sean Coughlin, the service acts as a matchmaker for Christians and around 5000 churches on the site. FaithStreet provides a directory for Christians seeking a church, searchable by denomination and location. Soon, it'll add more advanced search features like the type of music played, the average age, and other tags and keywords that indicate whether a church is the right fit. Christian churches span the spectrum of ultra-conservative to ultra-liberal -- FaithStreet's goal is to place believers in the appropriate setting.

Even the most savvy churches are pretty old school, says Coughlin, who grew up teaching Sunday school and traveling on mission trips. But they at least know they need to be online. "Maybe ten years they were very resistant to change and technology," he says. "They're now excited by and receptive to technology, they just don't know how to use it."

Of the 360,000 churches in the country and one million various Christian communities, around 40 percent of them don't even have websites, Coughlin says. They often start a page on Facebook, but for a static, searchable web presence, they are using FaithStreet.

"The thing I hear over and over again (when talking to church administrators) is, 'They don't teach us any of this in Seminary,'" Coughlin says. "There's no Social Media for Pastors class," he adds with a laugh.

Right now FaithStreet includes anything from a small baptist church in Alabama to a progressive Brooklyn church that meets in a bar. I asked if the company has experienced any pushback from conservative churches that don't want to be listed next to, say, a gay-affirming church. Perhaps, but the purpose of FaithStreet is to be inclusive and diverse, Coughlin explains. "Our position is that we accept all Christian churches right now," he says. "Christian churches that have a diversity of viewpoints can co-exist on FaithStreet, united by a certain set of principles and mutual belief in the gospel."

Fair enough. But a directory service alone does not a startup make. Faithstreet's plans are much bigger -- the company plans to add big data, local advertising services, and event rental info along the way.

And as God intended, there's a business model in there. It's of the freemium variety, with churches in new markets joining for free. Once they're on the system for a bit, churches can pay for a product akin to Zocdoc. It's half lead generation and half back-end management system; around ten customers in NYC are currently playing.

FaithStreet estimates churches spend between $5 and $10 billion on advertising, much of which ends up on roadside billboards. Only around 500 churches buy Google AdWords now, which is surprising in that Google experiences 25 million church-related inquiries a month. Many churches know digital advertising and engagement is a necessity but find it too complicated to begin. Which is where FaithStreet hopes to help. "Churches are both economically motivated because they want to be sustainable, and spiritually motivated to spread the word... doing what the business world calls marketing," Coughlin says. "The Christians call it outreach."

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]