Thursday, August 04, 2005

"Verily I sell unto you"

Is God becoming a business partner on Main Street, or are some savvy entrepreneurs just making hay on the pretense?

... There are now Christian real estate agencies, cellular and long-distance services, financial planners, computer repair guys, furniture stores, bed-and breakfast associations, diets, yoga and karate instructors, and goat breeders. These companies -- in contrast to religious bookstores, for example -- do earthly things in, they say, a Christian way.

Unlike Curves, Domino's or Coors, for example, which have been criticized for tithing their earnings to archconservative causes -- and unlike the Chick-fil-A fast-food chain, closed on Sundays because of its founder's religious beliefs -- these Christian companies link their work directly and overtly to their missions. ("Christian," in these cases, is generally taken to mean "born again," in which the business owner has a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ" that guarantees eternal life, and the responsibility to offer others the same opportunity.) The mission statement of Houston-based auto-repair franchiser Christian Brothers Automotive ("Christian" as in Christian, not a surname), for instance, reads: "To glorify God by providing ethical and excellent automotive repair service for our customers, according to Colossians 3:17, 'And whatever you do in word and deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the Father.'"

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"I got saved at an Amway meeting, so the marketplace is where I invite Christ into my life," says Chuck Ripka, 46, co-founder of Riverview Community Bank in Otsego, Minn. ("We invited Jesus to be the CEO of our bank," he says, attributing the bank's "supernatural" growth -- from $5.5 million in start-up capital to $103 million in 27 months -- to divine intervention.) While the bank's name may sound generic (and the company Web site is "God"-free), the Ten Commandments banner in the foyer, the "God Bless You" sign at the tellers station, and the painting in the CEO's office of two businessmen shaking hands with Jesus, might tip customers off. "God has allowed us to be who we are: We're Christians and we're bankers, and we're allowed to mix the two. To me, it's seamless. We're a bank first, but in the midst of it all, when customers express their own needs, I am able to pray along with them," says Ripka, who customarily asks God's blessing for reporters at the end of interviews. ...

"When someone asks, 'Who's your long-distance carrier?' it's a way for me to have a foot in the door to share the message of Christ," says Chandler, who also works as a sales agent for Blessed Hope Communications. Ripka of Riverview Community Bank says he has had 105 people "invite Christ into their lives" on bank premises. (He also claims over 70 faith healings.)

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