Shoppers Balance Beliefs, Business
Directory Identifies Christian Firms

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 5, 2006

On Faith appears the first Sunday of each month.

When Linda Brown needs to get her car fixed, she takes it to an auto repair shop that she found in the Shepherd's Guide, a directory of local businesses owned by self-professed Christians.

She turned to the guide again when her mother died and she needed a lawyer to handle the estate.

For Brown, 47, who worships at Victory Gospel Church in Manassas, using the Christian equivalent of the Yellow Pages is an expression of her faith and a smart way to shop.

"That's where I go first for anything, really," said Brown, who lives in Manassas and has been using the guide for about eight years. "Usually, with Christians, they are honest people and they put God first, not money."

With many other Christian consumers adopting Brown's approach, the popularity of Christian business listings has surged. The Shepherd's Guide, which started in 1980 with 150 advertisers, now has 20,000 advertisers and publishes 4 million books in more than 100 markets, including cities in Canada and Mexico. The guide went online in 2004. Several smaller Christian business directories also have expanded in recent years.

Their growth reflects a steady increase in the number of Christian evangelicals, but it also can be seen as part of a broader trend in which people are striving to integrate their moral and political values into all aspects of life, some scholars said.

"People want to be who they are 24-7," said David W. Miller, executive director of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture at Yale Divinity School. The belief in "holistic living" applies not only to faith groups but also to people expressing their ethnic identity or sexual orientation, he said.

There also are business directories for Mormons, Jews and Muslims, but not on as large a scale as the Christian guides, which list businesses ranging from pest control companies to tax accountants. The books are typically distributed through churches and Christian bookstores.

To advertise as a Christian business in the Baltimore-based Shepherd's Guide, business owners must sign a statement saying they have received Jesus Christ as their personal Savior and will follow "the highest Biblical code of ethics in my transactions." For Keener Communications, which publishes the San Diego-based Christian Examiner's Yellow Pages, a spoken statement of faith is enough.

Among Washington area vendors advertising in the Shepherd's Guide, the notion of what it means to be a Christian business varies widely.

Some said in interviews that they sought the listing because they sell Christian-specific products and services. Some said they offered lower prices or better service than competitors. Others said they treated customers honestly but did not operate any differently from other businesses.

Jenny Caro, who owns Jewelry by Design in Woodbridge with her husband, John, said she upholds Christian values by offering the same fair prices all the time -- unlike stores that mark up their merchandise and then offer sales to make it seem as though customers are getting a good deal.

"Misrepresenting is stealing. We don't play the game," she said in an interview in her store, where a copy of the Ten Commandments hangs outside the stockroom.

Caro said that she has advertised in the Shepherd's Guide for about 15 years and that it generates business among Christians who may be looking for specific items, such as chastity rings.

The rings -- often emblazoned with crosses, hearts and unopened roses -- come with pledge cards that allow the wearers to make a vow of sexual abstinence. "If they go to a regular jewelry store and ask for chastity rings, they get laughed out of the store," Caro said.

As a Christian, she said, she brings understanding and sensitivity to those kinds of sales.

Minnie Campbell, who owns the You're Beautiful salon in College Park, also believes her business has a special mission. Some may think she's just cutting and styling hair, but she feels that she is touching souls when she talks to her customers about matters of faith -- and that they are looking for that kind of relationship.

"If you have the love from God, you can help people," she said. "I love the money. I need it. But more than anything, I get to help people from hurting."

Other advertisers in the guide do not see themselves acting as deacons outside the church.

Jack Kim, owner of Jack's Auto Body in Falls Church, said he is being Christian simply by offering honest service. His ad brings in many customers who worry about getting cheated by other auto repair shops, and that fear is justified, he said. "I try to do my best to be as cheap as possible and good as possible and to be more honest," he said.

But Frank Grayton, a plumber who has advertised his District business in the Shepherd's Guide for about five years, said he charges standard prices for the high-quality service he provides. That comes as a disappointment to many shoppers who have seen his ad and assumed that a Christian business would be less expensive, he said.

"I think some people come with these expectations," he said. "We are more expensive than the guy with a tool belt and equipment in the back of his truck."

Grayton said that doesn't make him less of a Christian.

As much as such businesses may try to balance capitalism and Christianity, there is no way to resolve the tension between the two sets of values, said Laura Nash, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and co-author of the book "Church on Sunday, Work on Monday: The Challenge of Fusing Christian Values With Business Life."

Christianity is tied to charity. So, she asked, how can stores truly operate with Christian values and still make money?

The low cost of advertising in a Christian directory -- typically about $175 a year for a small ad -- makes it a good marketing tool. But what if it was more expensive? "If it's really just [a statement of] your evangelical faith, what would you pay to be in there?" Nash asked.

In turn, Christian customers may say they want to patronize a business that shares their religious and moral outlook, but they also want deals and are likely to compare prices, she said. It's the rare shopper who is "buying a lampshade for Jesus," she said.

Several customers who have used the directories said they see them as just one of many resources. Margaret Allen, 45, of Woodbridge said people should treat the listings like any other directory. "Just because they are in it doesn't mean they are honest," she said of the advertisers. "It's good to give your business to Christians, but you have to be smart."

Laurie Derose, 37, of Rockville said she turned to the Shepherd's Guide for a very specific reason: She was looking for a massage therapist and did not want to go to a business that might be involved in prostitution.

"When you pick someone out of the Yellow Pages, you're not absolutely sure. It can be a euphemism," she said.

Derose found Renee Wiggins, owner of Results by Renee in Silver Spring. Wiggins said her business caters to Christians by avoiding the use of New Age music, candles, incense and chanting during massage therapy -- all of which are a "big turnoff" for many Christians. "They prefer to listen to gospel music," she said.

Miller said customers should view businesses listed in religious or ethnic-oriented directories just as skeptically as they would those in the regular Yellow Pages.

"The reality is that there may be some marvelous people, the salt of the earth," he said. "There's also a lot of people that are using this, and they are no more moral and ethical than anyone else."

Nash said she wondered how the publishers of the Christian directories conduct audits of businesses or verify the owner's religion. "I don't know how to test someone's faith," she said.

Doug Scheidt, co-founder and president of the Shepherd's Guide, said it has found dishonest vendors in its pages after investigating customers' complaints. He said the company tries to serve as a mediator between customer and vendor but has sometimes had to drop businesses from its pages.

"We're not in Heaven yet. We don't walk on streets of gold," he said.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company