When Deborah Williams received the devastating diagnosis of Parkinson's disease last spring, she needed spiritual support. She also needed a haircut. She got both at Classic Body Image Salon & Day Spa, a Christian beauty parlor in Blacksburg, Va. When Williams told owner Cindy Griffin about her illness, Griffin, 35, and another hairdresser ushered her into a massage room where, Williams says, "we all just held hands and we cried and we prayed together."
Griffin, the salon owner, says the business was her calling. "The Lord just kept putting in my heart that this is what I needed to do," she says. Still, when she first opened her salon in 2000, she shied from identifying the business as Christian. "It's risky because we're a small community," she says. "You might turn people off if they think, At that salon, they're going to preach Jesus to me." In recent years, as her clientele solidified and evangelical Christians gained prominence nationwide, she grew bolder. She had Scripture stenciled on the walls and named the adjoining café Java Garden (as in Garden of Eden). The salon plays Christian rock, displays Christian magazines and forbids cursing or gossip. Stylists halt haircuts to pray with clients. The dose of religion is paying off. She serves 1,000 clients a month, grosses $540,000 a year and moved the salon to a 4,300-sq.-ft. space in February. Haircuts and massages are competitively priced, but prayer--her most popular service--is free.
As the 88 million Americans who call themselves born-again Christians rise in politics, culture and society, so too do they in business. Emboldened by a sympathetic White House, Christian business owners are increasingly meshing prayer with profits--marketing to the like-minded, proselytizing to the unbelieving. Whether the enterprises are new or established and coming out of the religious closet, their numbers are exploding. Listings in the Shepherd's Guide, the nation's leading Christian business directory, have more than doubled in five years. Michael Zigarelli, dean of the School of Business at Regent University, a Christian school in Virginia Beach, Va., estimates that there are 500,000 to 600,000 "Christian owned and operated" businesses in the U.S. today--10% of all corporations.
Christian businesses were once easy to spot only if they belonged to the $4.2 billion industry of producing and marketing Bibles, CDs and other explicitly Christian products. Large corporations with Christian foundations--the Curves fitness chain, Chick-fil-A, Servicemaster--have quietly tucked religious principles in mission statements or employee guidelines. But the new breed of Christian entrepreneurs advertises its faith loud and clear, often in its names and logos. There are Christian banks, car dealerships, gyms, plumbers, financial planners, mortgage lenders, moving companies, building contractors and Internet-service providers. As more Christians hang their beliefs on their shingles, secular observers are raising concerns about the rights of consumers and employees. Some question the wisdom of limiting markets by faith. "Capitalism worships the market, on which there aren't supposed to be any restrictions," muses Alan Wolfe, a Boston College sociologist and the director of the Boisi Center on Religion and American Public Life. "It'll be interesting to see if it works. Are we witnessing a big change or a fad?"