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Love at first site?
Is speed dating the preference of men or women? Which English cathedral runs speed dating as part of its ministry? And why have record numbers of people joined dating websites since the economic downturn? Simon Parke recently stepped off the tube at London's King's Cross, walked through a few back streets and pressed the buzzer of Christian Connection – the UK's largest online Christian dating agency – to probe the mysteries of online dating.
"I'm afraid we're all rather tired," says a weary looking Jackie Elton, founder and managing director of Christian Connection. She offers me a coffee, and I suggest that she needs one more than me.

"Yes, it was our members' Christmas party last night. It's a great chance for people to meet, of course, and strengthens our web community. But it did mean I didn't get to bed until 2.00am. And then I was up at 5.00am to drive a friend to an airport."

"Did the party go well?" I ask, hoping for a bit of gossip, but Jackie is most discreet.

"It went very well – though we never know until the last minute quite what's happening. Women always book up way in advance, but men leave it to the last minute. I think generally, women like more organised interaction, whereas men prefer something more natural. Anything in a pub, they'll come to – but they're less keen on organised events like a wine tasting or something."

Christian Connection was started in 2000 by three women, pioneers in an industry that is largely run by men. So why did Jackie, now in her mid-40s, take the plunge?

"I attended church myself and saw that single people were largely ignored. They are the invisible people – church leaders really don't see them. Apart from telling them they shouldn't have sex until they are married, of course. So I knew something was needed in terms of support. I'd also reached a stage in my business career when I needed to branch out on my own. But I didn't expect it to take off as it has."

So does a woman run a better dating site than a man?

"I don't think my gender is significant now," says Jackie, who has a staff of seven, men and women. "You have to have a balance. You tend to sympathise with your own sex when responding to affairs of the heart – so it's important for me to have male voices in the office as well; to put the other side. These days, men are in a majority in the office. Just!"

"And your site only serves Christians. So is everyone in the office a Christian as well?"

"Two-thirds are Christian," says Jackie. "Because of who we serve, it's important to have at least some people around who understand the religious mind-set. It's a basic courtesy to our clients. Many Christian sites are owned by non-Christian organisations and lack that understanding."

So who's making waves in the dating industry at present?

"Well, I suppose the current headline maker, earning millions through Google Adwords, is plentyoffish.com. It is owned and run by a very young man from his apartment in Vancouver. He has very limited customer service, but that seems to have little impact on the millions who access the site – because it is free, you see; funded by advertising."

I sense a little online disdain here.

"But even he is being affected by the new kids on the block: the social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace. No one really knows how they will affect 'traditional' internet dating sites. The general view is that the younger and more casual punters go to social networking sites; the more serious older person logs on to internet dating."

So in the short term, nobody in the industry seems too worried. And while other businesses creak or crumble in the recession, there has actually been a 40 per cent increase in online dating applications over the last few months – a trend which is mirrored in the US. Heavy hitters in the industry, such as date.com, matchmaker.com and amor.com, reported a 17 per cent increase at the end of last year, while another US dating site saw three times more people than usual joining on 29 September 2008 – the day the stock market fell 700 points. Did Jackie have an explanation for dating sites bucking the economic trend?

"It may be that people are asking bigger questions about the future and looking for security in relationship. And so they decide to invest in our website."

This could be true – though the UK telephone directory service 118118 also reports a huge upsurge of interest in pole and lap dancing outlets, escort agencies and sex shops – particularly sex shops. So perhaps in recession, we all just need a great deal more sex?

ONE THING I'M LEARNING, though, is that online dating is a well developed industry, and that really whatever your fancy or quirk, there's a special site for you. When Jackie goes on industry conferences in such glamorous venues as Nice, Miami and Amsterdam, she encounters an extraordinary range of options.

"There are sites for everything," she says. "There are lesbian and gay sites, of course, but specific provision also for lonely Jews, Muslims, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons and those who are HIV Positive. I also came across a site for those desiring several partners; and a toy boy site, for women seeking younger men."

So no shortage of niche-dating sites to choose from. But a Christian site? What's that about? Aren't believers meant to trust in God for a partner rather than go fishing online? Jackie smiles wearily – and not just because of her exhausting night. This is clearly territory she has visited before.

"It is something which some Christians wrestle with. They do wonder if it's right to put their future in something other than God's hands. And consequently, some do choose not to tell their vicar – because vicars are not always helpful. Having said that, I know a few vicars who actually got married through this site, and speak warmly of it to others. Actually, when I think about it, it's the vicar's wives who are often more hostile towards us."

Jackie's face tells of a few painful encounters of the clergy-wife kind. But she prefers not to dwell on the matter: "It's also a generation thing. I was at a wedding recently of a couple who met online – and they still hadn't told their parents. Probably never will. But as time goes by, there's an increasing sense of comfort with the idea. After all, people have been setting up encounters for years. In the Bible, people used to meet round the well. Now they meet online – it's really no different."

Fair point. But at least at the well you had a sense of who you were meeting. Meeting someone online is more of the unknown.

"Absolutely. And security and safety are very important for our members. People need to know the person they're meeting online is who they say they are. Unlike some of the bigger sites, we pride ourselves on checking every single profile that appears on our site. I used to do it myself – but reading 50 profiles a day was getting exhausting. So the basic checks for fraud and accuracy are now done in India, while we do the rest in-house."

So there are a lot of people out there with motives other than love?

"Probably about 10 per cent of those who apply to join are scammers, preying on the vulnerable. They are getting more sophisticated all the time, but we are pretty good at spotting them. Their photos are often a give-away. People who look like Tom Cruise or a catwalk model do raise suspicions. I'm not saying our members are not very good looking. Some are lovely – "

" – but good looking photos ring alarm bells?"

I am now wondering which celebrity I'd use to impersonate me. Probably a strong, forceful type, like Vladimir Putin. But for Jackie, this is a serious business.

"People are vulnerable in love, so this is a very important part of our customer service. We use photo libraries a lot to flush out the fakes. We know of only one person in the past nine years who has been fooled by a fake on our site. But that's still one too many."

It all sounds a lot of work.

"Oh, it is. When I started this, I thought, 'We'll set up a site, lots of people will join, and it'll all be very easy!' It didn't take long to realise this is a pretty major undertaking. It takes huge commitment to run a dating site. It's why so many similar sites don't thrive."

CHRISTIAN CONNECTION HAS 12,000-15,000 members at any one time, and is used mainly by late 20s to mid-40s, with most in their 30s. But "never say never" 80 year-olds are apparently not unknown. Commercially, the site generates 95 per cent of its income from subscriptions, and 5 per cent from events. And the most popular event they organise?

"Speed dating," says Jackie. "Particularly with women. Men are less keen and often have to be encouraged there – though sometimes, with happy consequences. I remember one speed dating event at a Christian festival. We had plenty of women but not enough men, and so I went into a bar and suggested to this guy that he give it a try. He wasn't at all keen, but I kept on until he finally decided to come along for the laugh. He's now happily married to one of the women he met there."

"I'm inexperienced in all this," I admit. "How long do you actually meet with someone on a speed date?"

"It varies, but somewhere between 2-5 minutes."

"And then what?"

"People fill in forms to say who they liked. And if two forms match up, we let each of them know – and leave all further contact up to them."

"Sounds like a complete nightmare to me."

"Speed dating is great for those who are young, confident and relatively attractive, but I'd suggest it would probably not be suitable for you, Simon. Though we recently held an event in Coventry Cathedral."

"Coventry Cathedral??" As a former priest myself, I can't hide my shock.

"Yes – they've done about three as part of their local ministry. It's all very tasteful."

"So no crashing organ in the background?"

"Not at all. There was a nice quartet playing – flutes, violins, that sort of thing. It was great. People really felt valued for who they are, and they got a tour of the cathedral as well. We even had a blessing from the Dean at the start! It'd be nice if more cathedrals did it."

"Speed dating... at a cathedral near you!" It does have a ring to it. And staying with churches, presumably Christian Connection has a long list of marriages to its name.

"Oh yes," says Jackie. "We hear of about three or four marriages a month, but there are probably many we never hear about."

So what are the busy times for online dating sites? Do they have a rush hour, or a busy day?

"Sunday is the big joining day; but Monday is the day when people seem to pay. We offer five days free trial, but it's often Monday when they commit to the site financially. On average, we have about 15-25 new subscribers a day."

And is there a busy time of year?

"Early January is a very busy time, when people either come to us after Christmas nightmares or with New Year resolutions still fresh. And the January weather helps – cold and horrible suits us, driving people to their computers."

Everything's good for someone.

"Yes, sometimes when my own Sunday is being ruined by the weather, I comfort myself with the thought of the economic bounty."

And Valentine's Day? More economic bounty?

"Not really, no. Valentine's Day is a significant time, but we do not make a great deal of the day online."

Isn't that like a restaurant being closed for lunch?

"Not at all. It's a time when people feel their singleness more, and so it can be painful. Single people tend not to like Valentine's Day – so for us, it's more a time for support, really. This is what our members tell us."

And what of psychologists? I'm aware the big American dating sites have psychologists on hand, going through the data, working out who matches who. It's all about the right amount of difference and similarity apparently; with each being important. Difference stimulates interest; similarity offers the common ground in which to enjoy it. But I don't see a large team of data-crunching shrinks in this London office. Clearly Jackie is waiting to be convinced of their value.

"The jury is out on how useful psychologists are – maybe it's more of an American thing. They're held in higher esteem there. So no, we don't suggest to our members who they might link up with. But on other levels of compatibility, we do help. If they are looking for a non-smoking 5' 9" Baptist in his 30s, with at least two A levels, who lives in or around Rotherham, then we have that information. But they'll decide who they want to meet – not us."

OUR DATE IS FALTERING. Jackie is looking wearier by the minute, and it's clearly time to leave. So nine years on, how does she feel about her adventure in online dating?

"It is not what I thought it would be," she says. "Much more demanding than I imagined. The first thing that struck me on entering the dating industry was that it's a world dominated by numbers and statistics – cost per acquisition, cost per click, return on investment and conversion ratios – that's conversion to membership, by the way, not conversion to faith! For me, though, it's a business and a ministry. It needs to be financially sustainable; but also serve the needs of a community.

"You talk of them as though they are your flock," I say, mischievously. "Are you sure you're not becoming an online vicar?"

There's a hesitant pause; too long maybe?

"No!" says Jackie firmly. "No, not at all! A facilitator perhaps."

And one many are grateful to, I reflect, as once again, I step out onto the lonely streets of London.

"Love at first site" is clearly an idea reborn – and one with some fervent believers.

Visit Christian Connection
fish in love
Visit Christian Connection.
simon parke
Simon Parke. Visit Simon's website for online creative writing, retreats and more.
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