I’m good at avoiding marketers, especially the clipboard-wielding variety who guard the grocery store entrance, but there’s one tribe of recruiters I can’t seem to evade: Christians in multilevel marketing (MLM). Masters of initiating friendly conversations, they’ve pitched to my wife and me in some uncanny locations: coffee shops, farmers markets, at lunch after church, even while coordinating an outreach event with a nonprofit.
Recruitment is integral to MLM. Existing members must build a large team (called the “downline”) because their salary comes from collective earnings. Recruitment isn’t intrinsically wrong, and sales is a respectable profession when done with integrity. But Christians should be careful and thoughtful about everything we do.
MLM in the Church
What concerns me is how Christians in MLM sometimes co-opt biblical lingo to justify questionable ideas and methods. They often use verbiage that projects MLM as not only admissible within the church, but beneficial.
Colossians 2:8 warns about hollow philosophies that pose as holy. As Randy Alcorn writes: “Often, the most effective appeals to the flesh are made under the guise of the Spirit.”
Like testing a $100 bill, every philosophy must be held up to the light (Scripture). Let’s examine some key talking points used to propagate MLM in the church, parsing the validity (or invalidity) of these ideas.
1. Love your family well.
A friend trying to recruit me into MLM presented this poignant picture: imagine being a husband who gives his wife the best of his attention (rather than the exhausted leftovers after work) and a father who drops off his kid on the first day of kindergarten (rather than missing key moments in his kid’s life). He then explained how the financial prosperity and flexible hours MLM provides could turn me into that kind of man.
Problem: The idea that traditional work hours deplete family health is reductionistic. If everyone believed this, we’d have no teachers, bank tellers, construction workers, grocers, and all the other (allegedly) sad saps stuck in the hamster wheel of “the man.” Workaholism is a problem, but the answer is balance, not retreat. God calls many of us to work standard hours, come home tired, and rely on his strength to serve our families well. It’s not easy, but it’s possible.
2. More money means more mission.
My friend further explained that this opportunity was the equivalent of a job that paid $200k per year (though evidence contradicts this). He sketched a hypothetical plan for my future: work lots now, accrue significant wealth, retire in your late 30s, then devote the rest of your life to full-time ministry without financially burdening the church.
Problem: It is wise to financially prepare for the future, but we’re not promised tomorrow, so it’s foolish to delay obedience today for any reason, in any measure (James 4:13–17; Prov. 23:4–5). For many Christians, the secular marketplace is their mission field, which means early retirement would hinder, not advance, their witness.
Equally problematic is the formula MLM prescribes for all participants: wealth + believer = increased generosity. This formula, while sometimes true, ignores Scripture’s explicit warnings about the heart’s tendency to misuse money (Deut. 8:10–18; Matt. 13:22; Luke 18:18–25; 1 Tim. 6:10). Some Christians are meant to be rich and extravagantly generous, but God’s mercy to many is living simply. A few proof texts about the benefits of extravagant wealth don’t quell its dangers.
3. You need purpose, calling, and meaning.
Christians in MLM often present themselves as life coaches who have “solved” the existential crises of life, as follows: Most people don’t know who they want to become, or how they’ll get there. I felt that way too, until I took ownership of my destiny. Are you unhappy, aimless, dissatisfied? MLM can help.
A few proof texts about the benefits of extravagant wealth don’t quell its dangers.
Problem: Can a workplace, team, or vocational decision add meaning to life? Yes, in some sense. But the worth, identity, and purpose Christ grants us dwarfs all other identities and missions. History proves the amnesia of God’s people, who routinely trade the mountain of God-given identity for the molehill of worldly success, but this demands we rehearse our gospel identity, not replace it.
4. You need better mentors.
Most multilevel marketers laud their “mentors” (usually a married couple with staggering financial accomplishments) then offer you access to these gurus if you jump through the required hoops.
Problem: Leveraging mentor access is manipulative. I know pastors whose congregations exceed 10,000 who could isolate in the name of self-importance, but to their credit they’ll schedule a meeting with anyone. Regular participation in a local church, where wisdom cross-pollinates through liturgy and life, is free to anyone. My best mentors have been elderly church members whose wisdom is more defined by perseverance than by their financial portfolio.
5. Recruiting builds relationships.
MLM communities position themselves as the antithesis of the cold, disconnected workplace, instead pitching themselves as family. One participant tearfully told me he baptized someone he recruited. MLM, it’s promised, is more than a job; it’s a warm community and a platform for discipleship.
Problem: It doesn’t take a distinguished sociologist to observe that recruitment burns as many (or more) relationships than it builds. For MLM to be profitable, aggressive recruiting is required, and the church, made up of relationally connected people, is a networking utopia. But at what cost? When a coffee invitation awkwardly shifts to recruitment, it’s frustrating and hurtful to realize there’s an endgame. The line between relationships and revenue shouldn’t be blurred. Motives are as shifty as the human heart (Jer. 17:9). Real discipleship can only happen with no strings attached (Luke 14:14).
Charity and Clarity
I’ve painted with an admittedly broad brush. When I meet Christian multilevel marketers (or should I say when they find me), I try to approach each participant with charity, as there are exceptions to the troublesome trends I’ve described. I’m confident some believers conduct their business with care and integrity.
For MLM to be profitable, aggressive recruiting is required, and the church, made up of relationally connected people, is a networking utopia. But at what cost?
Given MLM’s prevalence in the church, however, I encourage elders and pastors to be clear for their congregants on what type of recruitment (if any) is acceptable within the church. It’s probably wise to put it in writing. Once expectations are solidified, it’s easier to assess the maturity of those involved in MLM based on their willingness to submit to the elders and uphold community values.
Multilevel marketers can be quick to hitch their horse to the wagon of Christianity, but wisdom says pause, have honest conversations, then determine if you’re both pulling in the same direction.