It’s Time For Christians (And Society, For That Matter) To Confront MLMs

MLMs, or multi-level marketing businesses, are a modern implementation of traditional pyramid schemes. Despite their constant public positioning against this accusation, they engage in unique operating practices that support the idea of people at the top of an organization taking advantage of those at the bottom. These practices include requiring sales associates to purchase their own inventory of products before they can begin selling to customers, as well as relying on the recruitment of other sales associates and their affiliated sales as a primary stream of revenue (often referred to as network marketing).

Chances are, most of us have met or followed someone on social media looking to exit an MLM due to the low chances of experiencing even moderate success. As a result, they were probably stuck with a closet or room full of products they were financially liable for and unable to sell, and a network of friends and family who had grown tired of constantly being sold to.

When you consider personal anecdotes as well as actual research like this survey reported on by the Washington Post that found most MLM associates only make $0.70/hour on average, it’s more than enough to question why anyone would ever consider getting involved in an MLM in the first place.

And the reason is simple: Because MLMs have become extremely competent at marketing themselves to people looking for their next big break. This isn’t surprising considering pyramid schemes rely on those at the top successfully marketing an idea to others in a way that encourages them to do the very same thing with their own network, and so on. In other words, MLMs excel in recruitment because their business model depends on it (as opposed to relying on the quality of a product or service to sell itself).

Given the prevalence of MLMs in my social media feeds, I often get the impression that society has largely chosen to ignore them. To some, the idea of a free and capitalist market might entitle the strong to prey on the weak. To others, the side effects of MLMs are acceptable as long as business is being generated and goods are being exchanged. And for many — why should they care when it isn’t impacting them?

Unfortunately, Christians are also not immune to MLMs and have become a popular target demographic for recruitment and sales because of their wide social networks, loyalty to serving each other, and frequent need to supplement single-income households. Essentially, a person who regularly gathers with a large group of people outside of their work and family circles and has gained their trust through loyalty and a willingness to serve is the perfect candidate to become an MLM advocate.

But unlike the rest of society, Christians also have a greater calling to hold each other accountable while confronting and addressing actions that take advantage of others. Which brings me to the purpose of this article — MLM practices conflict with and often contradict biblical values, so why are they running rampant within Christian circles while remaining largely unaddressed?

Below is a list of some MLM traits with brief descriptions that I believe contradict biblical values. In the following paragraphs, I’ll take a stab at why I think they aren’t being addressed within the church and present some challenges for Christians (or anyone else) who might be able to positively influence those trapped in an MLM.

Issue #1: MLMs prey on the needy

The largest appeal MLMs use to draw people into the business is the promise of making a steady stream of income, and this income isn’t limited to just cash, either. A suite of incentives — usually consisting of brand new cars or expensive vacation packages — are often offered to those who hit sales milestones (which later reveal themselves to be unrealistic for most people).

Unfortunately, the people drawn into MLMs are often those in actual need of a steady income of cash to pay bills. This might come in the form of a single parent looking to make ends meet or a college student looking for some cash to pay down student debt while being able to afford living expenses. MLMs do not discriminate amongst those they target.

The idea that very few people ever actually see success in the form of a steady income despite these promises leads me to my next point.

Issue #2: MLMs encourage deceptive recruiting practices

Of the deceptive behaviors exhibited by MLMs, this is arguably the most disappointing: That people actively get involved with these businesses, experience little to no success, and continue to recruit friends and family on the same empty promises they were guaranteed — despite knowing it’s unlikely they’ll ever achieve success.

The Bible has strong words for those who take advantage of others to achieve success, and even stronger words for those who know it’s wrong and continue doing it.

Issue #3: MLMs promote consumerism

MLMs typically sell unique products that aren’t generally considered necessities. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with this, but rather the questionable marketing practices deployed to convince people to buy these products out as if they were a “need” rather than a “want”.

One marketing tactic comes in the form of advertising the life-altering benefits of a product and why a person might need it to live a fulfilled life. Another involves constantly promoting items using limited-availability sales techniques, prompting customers to act quickly and respond before missing out on “once in a lifetime” opportunities (also known as “fear of missing out” marketing). These businesses know they aren’t selling essential products but market them as if they are.

(Many non-MLM businesses partake in this as well, but it doesn’t make it any less wrong.)

Issue #4: MLMs use deception to sell their products

In some cases, MLMs rely on deceptive claims to boost product sales. The most common example of this is the claim that certain essential oils have healing properties and can provide medical relief outside of therapeutic and anxiety-relief settings, despite not having unbiased research and/or evidence to support it.

Consider the label of the essential oil bottle photographed below. At first glance, a customer is likely to think this particular oil is able to treat, heal, or cure Lyme disease or symptoms of Lyme disease. But upon further inspection, notice the bottle never actually states the oil is a cure or even a treatment for the symptoms of Lyme disease. Its only claim is to “restore natural wellness” in the fine print at the bottom (whatever that means).

Issue #5: MLMs ruin credibility

Lastly, MLMs encourage people to behave in ways that ruin their credibility across their personal and social networks (and sometimes beyond). The Bible calls Christians to be a light in the world and let their actions serve as proof of the faith they hold so tightly. Now imagine the effectiveness of a Christian who sparks a conversation with an old friend or acquaintance they haven’t spoken with in months or even years — only to follow it up with a sales pitch after two minutes of small talk.

If people in a Christian’s network feel more like an outlet for their sales pitches than actual relationships, they cannot and will not be an effective witness to the world.

So why aren’t we talking about this as a church and society?

As mentioned earlier, the pitfalls of MLMs — and these five issues in particular— are rarely addressed within the church, much less society. I don’t doubt that there aren’t private conversations between Christians that I’m just not privy to, but these businesses are too common amongst church-goers to believe they’re actually being addressed in any significant form or fashion.

While I’m not an expert on the topic, I have a few hunches as to why this might be. They include but certainly aren’t limited to:

  1. Money holds more influence than it should. We witness Jesus flipping over the tables of money changers inside the temple in two of the four gospels. If it’s happened before, it’s likely that it will and has happened again today. If this isn’t the case, why are we seeing such a prominent rise in followers of the prosperity gospel?
  2. People fear confrontation. I’ll admit that while I’ve always had strong feelings about these businesses, I’ve never personally confronted anyone involved in one. It isn’t easy, and sometimes it doesn’t feel like it’s worth the hassle of potentially losing a friendship over. But the Bible calls us to hold each other accountable, so we’ll need to determine how to do it with grace, compassion, and understanding — regardless of the outcome.
  3. Many people believe the claims being made about certain products. Misinformation is easily spread, especially through social media. At times it has become difficult for people to parse through the various claims being made about certain products, and they fall prey to the aforementioned marketing tactics.
  4. Someone close to them is involved. It’s hard to confront people when we think they’re doing something wrong, but it’s even harder to condemn something when someone close to us is caught up in it. The fear of getting hurt or losing someone close to us often outweighs the desire to stand up for what is right.
  5. They think it’s okay. Many people are either okay with the practices of these businesses or believe they’re worth it for the quality of the product being offered.

Conclusion: A call to action

If I’m not well-versed enough to accurately pinpoint the reasons why these businesses are so prominent amongst Christians, I’m certainly also not an expert in how to address them. But I do believe in the authority of the Bible and that the guidance it has for us as Christians can be applied in these situations.

Knowing this, below are some biblically-sound principles and advice I believe Christians should consider if (and hopefully when) convicted to begin addressing these issues.

  1. Love your neighbor. No one should ever be the recipient of hatred for engaging in these types of business practices. Whether they’re aware of the issues outlined above or not, everyone deserves to be treated with love and respect. If someone is confronted and continues to stay involved, they do not deserve any less love than the person who is not involved.
  2. Remember all have sinned. The book of Philippians reminds us not to do anything out of rivalry or conceit, but instead humility. In the same way, recognize that many people are drawn to MLMs out of necessity and are not lesser people for it.
  3. Prepare a list of alternatives. If the average MLM associate earns $0.70/hour, then any minimum wage job will be a better alternative. Unfortunately, society has conditioned people to look down on many jobs that pay minimum wage. Help them find other opportunities for income and encourage them to seek comfort in the joy God finds in hard work, regardless of how glamorous the job may be.
  4. Approach with a spirit of gentleness. Because involvement in MLMs often stems from a desire for financial stability, it may be a sensitive topic for some. Remain gentle and appeal to biblical concerns while gently rebuking the worldly ones.
  5. Seek guidance from church leadership. If you aren’t comfortable having the conversation yourself or don’t know what to say, seek guidance from a pastor, elder, or mentor at your church. Ignoring the issue because you’re uncomfortable addressing it is the enemy of progress.
  6. Pray. Regardless of how difficult the situation might be, pray. Pray for the strength, wisdom, and courage to do the right thing, and for the humility to exhibit grace in every action you take.

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