How Not to Do Multi-Level Marketing

Photo by Raphael Lovaski on Unsplash

“I just want to paint my nails and have it not smudge within seconds,” I lamented to a friend recently. Vanity aside, smudging is something I face regularly. I’ve tried several different solutions—each to no avail. But I like having painted nails. See my dilemma?

My friend then began telling me about a product that might work in my season of life—mom with three kids under three, freelance writer working on a book, and wife of a businessman who often travels. In that week alone, she was one of three people I encountered who were part of direct-selling or multi-level marketing.

Opinions on these types of businesses range from complete disdain to full support and participation. Because of my limited experience, I’m more neutral. I’ve benefited from family and friends involved in them. I like Mary Kay makeup because it saves me time and energy. I use my Thirty-One bag as my diaper bag. And I tell anyone who will listen about the Pampered Chef wooden spoons I got as a wedding gift.

But I also feel discomfort when my social media feeds are filled with all manner of products being sold by my friends. Sometimes I just want to see a friend’s new baby or remodeled kitchen, or hear about her new job, instead of some new product destined to change my life.

Direct-selling and multi-level marketing as means of work is not the problem. Work is a good thing; it’s a gift from God and part of who we are as his image bearers. In some cases, these types of businesses allow a mom to contribute financially to the family and also stay home with the kids. But all work, including direct-selling and multi-level marketing, is marred by sin. Our sinful hearts find ways to distort and misuse even work done with the best of intentions.

To be clear, not all direct-selling is multi-level marketing. Some choose to sell their product in isolation from a larger network; others sell with a larger team, recruiting friends and family to their business. Although each presents its own challenges, some general principles that apply to both multi-level marketing and direct-selling.

So here are three ways not to engage in such ventures:

1. Sideline Your Church

I have another friend who’s familiar with the world of multi-level marketing. Her mom sold Premier jewelry for years, advancing in the company and contributing significantly to her family’s income. When my friend and her sister began their careers in multi-level marketing, their mom encouraged them to keep the local church separate from their business. This can be a real struggle when your customer base is your church directory or when “potential recruits” are sitting across from you in small group.

Of course, this temptation isn’t limited to this type of work. On Sunday mornings the financial planner can get bombarded with questions about retirement accounts, and the doctor seen as ever ready to diagnose and treat our ailments free of charge. On the flipside, the makeup consultant can view her Bible study friends as potential clients, bringing samples every week.

All of these scenarios replace the local church gathering with our personal agendas. The church is for the people of God to gather together around the preached Word, prayer, and the sacraments. It’s where we leave our agendas at the door and gather together as one body to worship the risen Christ.

2. Use Your Neighbor

“When everyone is competing for business, or when your business reaches a point that you need to start pushing your network of people to buy your product, that’s when it’s time to step back,” my friend remarked, reflecting on her reasons for leaving multi-level marketing. Though she’d seen significant success up to that point, she’d exhausted her resources and didn’t want to use her relationships. While she knew her product wasn’t for everyone, she saw it help women directly, and that motivated her to continue selling. Work for her wasn’t about her own benefit but about her customers’ well-being. It was about loving her neighbor.

The temptation in all work—not just direct-selling and multi-level marketing—is to make it about our glory, our personal fulfillment, our growing bank account. But that’s not how God views it. Our work is about his glory and our neighbor’s good.

If you adopt the world’s mentality on work, direct-selling and multi-level marketing become all about you and your business. But it doesn’t have to be. When my friend told me about her nail product, for example, she didn’t enter my home ready to sell her product. Instead she heard my story, understood my need, and attempted to meet that need—even if my need was vain! She was embodying the idea that her work is a way to love her neighbor by meeting her needs.

In addition to seeing your product as a way to love your neighbor, caring for the people who work underneath you (and above you) is also a way to love your neighbor. It’s tempting to see dollar signs when another joins your team, or to only think in terms of your bank account expanding. But if you’re part of a multi-level marketing team, your work is benefiting the people you sell to, and the people you sell with.

3. Focus on the Cash

In her years of multi-level marketing my friend (as well as her mom and sister) saw a real shift in her colleagues’ lives as money began rolling into their bank accounts. This is a struggle for anyone paid for work. As financial security rises, so does lust for more.

There is a unique temptation, though, in the multi-level marketing world. A woman can go from being a stay-at-home mom with no source of income to a multi-level marketing success with cash flowing in by the fistful. It’s easy to put a premium on the work that brings financial contribution rather than on the work that’s bringing a familial contribution. It feels like you’re doing something that matters when you’re bringing home the bacon. But all work matters, whether you’re frying the bacon or making the money that allows you to buy it. Work is a means of contribution to society, regardless of the dollar sign attached to it.

With millions of people involved in multi-level marketing and direct-selling, this way of working and making money isn’t going anywhere. Instead of writing off the idea completely, we—as Christians who believe all work has value—can provide a different way of thinking about it that doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Whether your job is selling beauty products out of your home or something else entirely, the motive for our work remains the same—loving our neighbor. We are the vehicle through which God loves our world, our family and friends, and this is our focus in work—even if that work is helping a mom figure out a way to keep her nail polish from smudging.

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