9 July 2022
Online dating can mean being spammed, deceived, even judged. But for these Anglicans, it was the way they found “the one”.
Sam Lewis (not her real name) had always wanted her ideal life partner to be a practicing Christian and hold the same strong values she did.
But when Ms Lewis, then 21, decided to start looking, she found the going hard.
Raised a member of a small church, she says there was little chance of finding love within its limited social circle.
“I definitely was not meeting any Christian men out in my normal work or study life, either. And so I thought that it could be a good idea just to meet new people by going online,” Ms Lewis said.
The Tinder dating app was popular, but she was apprehensive about being on it or other secular sites.
Encouraged by a few close friends and family to give Christian dating sites a go, she eventually decided to follow their suggestions.
“I just thought that a Christian site would already do a lot of the narrowing down and make it a lot easier,” Ms Lewis said.
For Rebekah Crossley, being able to be upfront about her faith and how much it meant to her, was very much why she found the idea of faith-based dating sites appealing.
A youth and young adults’ leader, it had also always been important to Ms Crossley that the person she ended up with, would be actively Christian and would understand the nuances of her church tradition.
She didn’t start going online however until a friend started having a hard time with wanting to find a life partner.
Her friend had been considering looking at digital introductions, so Ms Crossley, then aged 24, suggested a faith-based matchmaking site.
In a bid to lend emotional support, she decided to sign up to it as well.
A growing number of Christians believe that dating sites and apps are where they can find the kind of love they want, according to a 2020 report from the Pew Research Centre.
Since their advent more than 25 years ago, digital matchmaking sites and apps have evolved somewhat from being geared toward people who wanted casual get-togethers, to places where it was possible to find romance and serious connections over a wide range of common interests.
There are niche meeting sites for vegans, people in particular career fields, those who bond over a love for pets, politics, even gardening.
Some leading Christian sites have refined the elements they offer their members.
For instance, some enable users to specify the faith tradition or sexual orientation of the person they would prefer to meet, and others even allow members to create prayer or Bible study groups.
Nonetheless, they have their drawbacks.
Ms Lewis said that there were many times she felt dispirited by the culture of judging people by their limited profiles, and the plain awkwardness of interacting with people who didn’t seem to be the kind of individuals their profiles professed them to be.
“It was really difficult. I’d go on the site and then off it again for a period of time. But at the end of the day, I just realised, when I wasn’t on that platform, I just wasn’t meeting any new Christians, so I kept on going back to it,” Ms Lewis said.
Ms Crossley found herself unsettled by how deceptive some people were.
“They could misrepresent themselves through the screen, even if they were not doing so intentionally,” she said. “Some would put up copious Bible verses and you’d wonder whether they’d just copied and pasted them from Google or whether they genuinely understood them.”
When her friend finally met a match and married, Ms Crossley stopped browsing and forgot about her own profile.
Then she was spammed and found herself being harassed.
Despite those lows, both women ended up finding partners in those Christian online spaces.
But there was another very difficult aspect to hurdle – how their chosen avenue for meeting people was perceived by others.
Ms Lewis found her secular friends, many of whom had met people online, were accepting of things, but not so her Christian circles and community.
“People would ask my partner and me, when we were dating, how we met. And when we said online, probably about 80 to 90 per cent of the time they would get really awkward about it and not know what to say,” she said.
The more conservative people in her social groups were particularly critical. “The message they gave me was that God would send the right person onto your path, so you shouldn’t try to make anything happen yourself,” Ms Lewis said.
Ms Crossley had always vocalised her hopes among her faith circles that God would put marriage in her story.
Yet after she married, she found herself being apprehensive about telling people she’d met her husband online.
She believed that if she didn’t get the chance to explain the full context of their meeting in the first place, they would take that as meaning that she had intentionally pursued digital matchmaking.
The Reverend Dr Danielle Treweek believes the associations with hook up culture may be chief among the reasons some people in church communities actively discourage Christians from pursuing online relationships.
“I could imagine there would be a fair degree of cynicism from people who perhaps haven’t actually looked into it themselves, have very little understanding of what that looks like, or are just relying on second-hand reports about online dating,” Dr Treweek said.
A Christian theological researcher, her work has often highlighted the difficulties of navigating relationships as a single Christian.
She said that some of the more conservative Christian expectations around how people should meet people, would make it difficult for singles to find partners online.
“It would put them in a catch 22 position, because where do you meet that person? I suspect when you’re younger, you have lots more opportunities to meet unmarried Christians. But the older you get, the more people are married, so trying to meet new people can be much harder,” Dr Treweek said. “Online dating, I think, is one legitimate way that people can turn to in the hope of actually meeting people outside their immediate social circles.”
St Jude’s Carlton vicar the Reverend John Forsyth gives marriage classes before couples get married.
Mr Forsyth has presided over the weddings of and known a fair number of people who found love on dating sites, both Christian and secular.
He said he has never sensed any feelings of shame among any of the people who have told him they had met online.
On the contrary they had been happy to volunteer that information to him, even those who were religious, Mr Forsyth said.
For him there was just no way to tell whether or not people’s marriages would flourish or falter just because they met online.
“But how you meet is probably less important than what you do after you’ve met,” Mr Forsyth said. “My understanding of online dating is that it’s really not so much dating. It’s online introduction.”
Now 25, Ms Lewis still feels frustrated that some people could still be awkward about how she met her husband. She believes their criticisms are too insular about how God might choose to work.
“It’s as if [they think] God wouldn’t be able to use an online platform to lead people to each other. I absolutely believe He can very fruitfully use any platform to help people meet, including the internet,” Ms Lewis said.
Ms Crossley said she decided to confront her feelings of belittlement by first praying through them and asking God why she felt that way.
“I realised that if I was awkward or skittish and stayed away from things because of how I felt I would be perceived, I would limit what God could do with my life.”
She then decided to speak about her experiences at some events for young adults, letting them know that she believed there was nothing aberrant in seeking a partner to build a life that honoured God.
Now in her early 30s, Ms Crossley thinks the internet can be a sadistic place.
But she also believes it is far from being a God-less platform.
She said when she realised she was being spammed because she had forgotten about her online account, she set about trying to find her old password so she could close it down immediately.
She reported the harassment and the person behind it, and then went to click the homepage icon as the last step before deleting the account. And there among the list of profiles the algorithms had curated for her, sat the highlighted profile of the man who became her husband.
Ms Crossley said he had decided to open a matchmaking account because he had been raised in a small town and didn’t have many connections. “Aidan was home-schooled and awkward about speaking to girls at his church. So he put up his profile but then didn’t actively seek or contact anyone else on the site.”
She said he had promised God that if someone did contact him, he would respond and strive to engage with them.
“So, the way my husband and I came together, God was very much at the centre. He was very much the driving force behind it,” Ms Crossley said.
Would she use internet dating again if for some reason they were not together in the future?
She believes it would be a headache, but if she had to go online again, she would.
“And if it came to that, I would choose a Christian dating site in a heartbeat,” Ms Crossley said. “But I wouldn’t go in with my eyes shut.”