Multi Level Marketing and the Church

This is an underserved topic, and one which will see some more development here over the next few months.  Meanwhile, to get the conversation started, please take a look at this response from Jonathan Leeman in the 9 Marks Mailbag.

View the original here

Hello! I’m wondering whether Christians should be involved with multilevel marketing, like Amway, for example. I’d also like to know what to do if someone who claims to be a believer is ‎involved, but doesn’t go to the same church as I do.  

Thank you!

—Anna, Calgary


I’m glad you asked since this is a subject Christians don’t always give much thought to, particularly in the context of their church relationships.

At the most abstract level, multilevel marketing is simply one form of direct sales that is neither good or bad in itself. It’s a tool that can be used well or poorly. A pyramid scheme, of course, would be a very bad (and illegal in many countries) use of the model. At the same time, when a real estate or insurance salesman has someone selling for him or her, and they receive a portion of the commission, that effectively is a form of multilevel marketing. And I don’t have a moral objection to that, as such.

But now let me offer a couple of cautions. First, you should always ask whether the product you are selling actually helps people to live better lives. If your company seems more interested in signing up others to sell than it is in selling the product, take that as a big red flag. Realize also that multilevel marketing organizations, both the good and bad ones, love churches because churches are one of the few remaining places that autonomous Westerners structure their lives around a community, and the organizations are only too happy to take advantage of those relational webs.

Second, whether you are selling insurance, real estate, Amway, Arbon, Cutco, Mary Kay, Juice Plus, Tupperware, or whatever the latest suburban living room party product is, you don’t want to exploit your church relationships to make the sale. Just as I wouldn’t want an insurance agent joining my church so that he can phone his way through the membership directory, so I would caution someone against emailing all their friends at church in order to talk about Arbon or Juice Plus.

The reason is, we want our church relationships to be used to pursue much more important matters, namely, helping one another prepare for eternal life. And we don’t want anything to interfere with that.

I remember people felt slightly suspicious about a couple who sold Amway in my church as a kid. Were they using relationships just to make a sale? To some extent, they jeopardized their ability to enter into fully transparent, vulnerable, sin-confessing, hope-encouraging relationships with other people. They worked against their own spiritual good. And goodness, how much more important to help one another begin living eternally now rather than expanding our current client base!

(Full disclosure: I spent two weeks the summer between college and graduate school selling Cutco knives to my parent’s friends in the church. It was horrible! But I still have an awesome set of knives.)

Am I saying that someone involved in a multi-level marketing program should never invite a fellow church member to consider their product? No, assuming that product is in some shape or form legitimate, but I would strongly caution pastors against doing so, and I would want to have a conversation with any member who was pushing into church relationships with their product. I’d want to know more specifics. I know of situations where pastors needed to tell members to stop involving other members entirely.

On the other hand, my friend and fellow church member Jason is a real estate agent, and he does an exemplary job of serving our church members through his profession (including me). But he doesn’t pursue us. We pursue him. There is no doubt in people’s mind that he loves them as people, not as potential clients.

There is a larger conversation here, and that is, how do we balance church relationships with professional competencies? You don’t want the real estate agents or doctors or handymen in your church to feel like you only contact them when you need their professional expertise.

Much depends upon judgment. Yet thanks for raising the subject, because my sense is that many Christians can be careless about these things, including me. The solution is to make sure we’re loving our fellow members for eternity’s sake more than ourselves for this world’s sake.

So – what do you think – Let’s get the conversation started – and then I will tell you what I really think!  🙂

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One Response to Multi Level Marketing and the Church

  1. Joe says:

    I think that MLM selling gets into dicey territory. I’m used to seeing the same people in my sphere of influence do it over and over again, transitioning from company to company, and idea to idea. This is what I dislike about it:

    1) It’s all about selling, period. Some of these MLM companies don’t even care if you buy your own product en masse, as long as you meet your minimums. So, in theory, let’s say you have a $600 minimum selling requirement/month to remain an active member. They wouldn’t even care if you bought that product yourself and threw it out/donated it. They’d simply say you met your minimums and leave it at that. They don’t care whether or not you sell the product to people that don’t really need it either. They just want you to be selling, period.

    2) It’s all about the MLM member. Or, at least it seems that way. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people that I know come up to me and say will you please buy ‘x’ from me because I’m trying to win this trip and I need so many points (based on meeting sales targets). Another classic one is, here is my Christmas catalog. Why don’t you buy your wife a candle. You know she would like it. Actually, if I bought a candle for my wife for Christmas she would not be happy! When you’re telling me what you think I should buy for my wife for Christmas (as it directly correlates to meeting your sales numbers for your grand prize trip) then you’ve gone too far. Way too far. I would say you don’t really care at all anymore about what my wife truly wants for Christmas, because this is about you and what you’re selling, and not my wife.

    3) The biggest lie about MLM – and it is a lie – is that you can make all this money! Yes, you can make a lot of money. How? Working F/T at it for 50-60 hours/week! Just like any other regular career that you could be successful at. I get so weary of pointing this out to people who are involved in MLM. Getting together for a few ‘parties’ with your girlfriends every month is not going to allow you to retire. If you sell hard, you ‘might’ make as much some months as you would having a P/T 15 hour/week gig at a fast food restaurant. That’s it.

    There’s a classic problem that every single MLM member runs into sooner or later. It’s such a problem that it causes 99% of them to switch to a new MLM idea and start over, or quit altogether. What do you think it is? The problem is that because most people involved in MLM don’t try to actively sell their product beyond their friends/family network they eventually run out of customers. That means little to no future growth. It means death (to your business) at a certain point unless you can convince a whole lot of your friends/family to hold a selling ‘party’ on a regular basis where people do more than show up, but are also willing to open up their purses and wallets. Inevitably, friends/family get fatigued from always supporting the MLM member, and the next thing you know the MLM member has switched to a new MLM business for which they’re looking to drum up support yet again. Seeing the same people go through cycles like this gets old after awhile.

    The most successful MLM idea I’ve seen done thus far was when a friend of mine decided to sell for DOVE chocolate (yes, the same company that sells DOVE in the stores, and is owned by MARS, sells some interesting products). Now, that was an idea I could support, for at least a little while. 🙂 At any rate, this is what I observed. When my friend started going out to shows and festivals and selling his DOVE stuff (and memberships to that MLM program) he started to go places. He started to get people underneath him, and build the classic MLM network. He won rookie of the year. He went on a very expensive trip to the Caribbean (all paid for). He was offered a job in NYC (a regular office job) by the corporate office. An idea he should’ve probably gone with while he was successful. People at corporate were starting to have him speak at conferences about ‘how to be successful’. He was their ‘poster child’. What happened after that?

    Well, he stopped going to events and festivals. He stopped trying to grow his MLM network with people outside of his sphere of influence. He didn’t support the people underneath him. When he started to meet some resistance (as any person trying to be successful eventually does, especially with MLM)….. he gave up. Sorry folks but friends/family alone are not going to buy enough chocolate to keep you at the top of the charts! I spend maybe $50 on a good month on chocolate and that’s just because I’m a crazy chocoholic! Most people aren’t like that. The phone stopped ringing. Corporate stopped asking him to do presentations on ‘how to be successful’. And the business died just like that.

    Yes, I have gone on and on. But, it’s important people know what they’re getting into. MLM requires hard work if you want to make more than $100/month at it. And it’s hard to not make it solely about you while you’re involved in it. If you want to make a lot of money doing it, then you may find that possible, but it surely won’t be easy. And you better be good at selling to strangers! Which begs the question why you wouldn’t try to just be a successful regular salesperson in a traditional sales career? You risk alienating some of your friends/family too, especially in the early stages of your MLM business when their support will be critical.

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