I want to talk about this because it… because I…
I don’t want to talk about it.
It would be so much easier not to broach this subject, not to stir these waters. I wish I could close my laptop right now and go about my evening, all calm and quiet and kid-free, as ALL FOUR of our children are asleep and it’s not yet 8 pm (which is, let’s just say it, a miracle of God). I would so much rather crack open a new book, or Netflix Gilmore Girls for the twelfth time (can you say REBOOT *praise hands*).
The thing is, I have heaps of friends to potentially offend with this post.
And not just any friends. Friends whom I love and respect and admire. You, reading this, are more than likely one of them. I have been gifted with incredible friendships in all of my circles—church, MOPS, seminary, social media—and fully recognize that I am surrounded by some of the most kind-hearted, whip-smart, talented, passionate, amazing women this world has ever seen. You cherish Jesus, you love your families fiercely, and you teach me so much about the Gospel every single day. You have prayed me through some dark postpartum days; supported me through an adoption that knocked the breath out of me countless times; brought me meals, watched my kids, let me cry and vent and process. You have stayed my friend when I wasn’t being a very good one to you back, and I fully recognize what a gift that is. The last thing in the world I want to do, is hurt you.
Please hear my heart. Please don’t forget this as you continue reading. Please reread this last paragraph if you get the urge to wring my neck in a few minutes.
There’s just this nagging feeling in my gut, and it won’t let me close my laptop. The Holy Spirit won’t let me go on this one, so I’m diving into this out of concern for my sisters in Christ. I believe this is too important an issue, affecting too many women, for me to sit on my hands and say nothing.
So here I go.
Over the last few years I have been increasingly curious about all these business opportunities I’ve seen my friends join and promote on Facebook. Because that’s where it began for me, curiosity: “where’d she get those cute tote bags?” and “I wonder if those oils actually work?” and of course “DANG she’s lost a lot of weight, how on earth did she do that?” But because my husband is currently in seminary, and because we have several small children, and because I’m currently staying at home with them full-time (a true blessing that I am grateful for)… money is TIGHT. I’m talking Spanx, ladies. So I never signed up for anything, never bought any nails or candles, because no matter how cute they were or how persuasive my friend was, if I could barely afford diapers for my babies that week, I sure as heck couldn’t afford a manicure (even if it did promise to last for weeks!). I’m just being honest here.
Over time, I admit, my curiosity grew into annoyance. My Facebook feed became flooded with pictures of neon lettering over products and hefty claims, even promises, that drew out my inner skeptic. I just wanted to see how their Christmas was, ya know? Wanted to check up on those cute kids of theirs, or see if they’d graduated yet. What I didn’t want was another thing to say “no” to.
Then I discovered the “unfollow” button. Cue sunbeams shining through the clouds accompanied by angelic harmonies here. I could keep all my friends and even stalk check up on them when I wanted to, without any bother to them or me. Simple. Harmless. Click. Done.
Except it wasn’t “done.”
I still got private messages and invites to groups and parties on a weekly, sometimes daily basis. And I couldn’t shake my questions about MLMs (Multi-Level Marketing, or Network Marketing, which I’ll just refer to as MLMs from now on for simplicity’s sake). How did they really work? I casually Google-d around a little and got massively conflicting info. Were my friends actually making money, or was it just a hobby? I asked a few and got generally positive, but always vague, responses. Was I missing something here? Was I missing out by not joining in? Was my skepticism unfounded?
One dear friend and I talked about it for hours one trip this summer, just two girls pro and con-ing the night away, swapping stories and our limited understandings. One of her friends had recently made legitimately large amounts of money after signing up and becoming a distributor through her chosen company, one that specialized in health products including supplements that my friend had personally tried and liked. “That’s it,” I thought, “I’ve got to get to the bottom of this. I’m tired of being confused.”
So I started researching. I read huge chunks of books full of business terms I could barely comprehend. I listened to hour-long podcasts of conversations between finance experts. I stayed up late digging through dozens of articles and documents on websites both proclaiming the “opportunities” and the “dangers” of MLMs, respectively. I even posted a status on my personal Facebook page in order to test my theories and better understand my MLM-loving friends’ points of view. And in order not to leave a stone unturned, I specifically did research on the MLM that had most intrigued me personally, and on supplements and probiotics and gut flora and immune systems, even talking to my doctor and getting her take on the whole thing.
I’ve listed my strongest sources at the end of this post, but here’s the bottom line of what I’ve found:
- Less than 1% of MLM participants make a profit. That means over 99% end up losing money instead of making it. This doesn’t even factor in the number of hours worked and effectively wasted by lack of compensation.
- This is because MLMs are inherently flawed by design to purposefully over-hire salespeople, who then attempt to recruit even more salespeople, all selling the same products to a quickly over-saturated market. They are designed to exploit vulnerable people to become buyers and distributors so that those in the far upper tiers make the money while those in the bottom tiers work with little to no success… because most likely, by the time they sign up, the market is well past the point of over-saturation (in other words, people have long since heard about the product and are no longer interested).
- And in order to keep over-saturation at bay, MLM companies continue to formulate new products for the express purpose of stirring up new interest and keeping their lower-tiered distributors from leaving. Most of the new products are unnecessary, untested, and/or overpriced, but people keep buying because of the newness factor and loud-but-unsupported claims and promises.
Now, I do not have a business degree, and I am no expert, not by any stretch of the imagination. I’m not pretending for one second that I have all the answers. But this fundamentally flawed business model, as limited as my understanding of it is, deeply concerns me, especially as a Christian woman. Especially as a friend to so many Christian women who have signed up to be a part of this business model, who are investing precious time and money. And while MLMs tend to target women’s emotions, Scripture is clear that the Lord desperately wants us to use the minds He’s given us to make wise decisions to please Him.
“Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance,” Proverbs 1:5
“Be sober-minded; be watchful.” 1 Peter 5:8
“Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.” Ephesians 5:8-10
These are just a few of many, many instances in Scripture where we are told, commanded even to be wise. To be prudent. To be discerning, constantly learning, ever humble in our search for the truth in all things.
So instead of rattling off answers I do not have, may I ask you some questions instead? May I simply challenge you to think about this, really research and dig for yourself, perhaps for the first time? Whether you’ve been a part of an MLM for years or have never even really heard or thought about them, I believe you’re reading this for a reason.
As a Christian woman, is being a part of this MLM…
…a wise investment of your time? Whether you’re a distributor, consumer, or have just been invited to a Facebook party to learn about a product, have you prayed about whether it’s something God wants you to spend your time on? As women today our time fills up so stinkin’ quickly with the many relationships and responsibilities we juggle. And as Christian women, our time is God’s, ultimately—so we should carefully consider every invitation, activity, and opportunity that comes our way.
…a wise investment of your money? Again, all that we own is the Lord’s. Scripture says we are merely stewards of everything He’s given us, including our money (Psalm 24:1-2). Have you researched whether or not the MLM product you’re already involved in or are interested in is worth the financial investment? Have you weighed whether it’s worth the financial risk? Have you asked God whether or not He’d prefer that money to go elsewhere? Perhaps you’ve found yourself wishing you could help a ministry, help fund a mission opportunity, help support a family member or friend in need, but are unable to do so currently due to the portion of your budget that goes toward the MLM. Or have you asked yourself if the product is all that it claims to be? Have you distinguished between your needs vs. desires?
…worth the risk of potential alienation of others? Have you thought about how many friends might have “unfollowed” you since you began network marketing, or will if you join? Are you willing to risk friendships because they feel you value their money and their network more than you value them? Have you thought about whether or not your involvement could potentially hinder your witness for Christ? Is it worth the risk of potentially alienating others when 99% won’t ever see a profit?
…worth the temptations it brings? Have you found yourself mentally spending the money you’ve been promised to make before you’ve actually gotten a paycheck? Have you found yourself simply concerned with yourself more? Have you experienced any guilt or doubts along the way? Have you gotten to the root of those feelings? Have you found yourself finding your identity in the MLM more so than in Christ? Are you making sacrifices for the MLM that you think you’ll regret?
…the best way I can help support my family financially? I know from experience how hard it can be when times are tight. Have you prayed about whether or not God actually wants you to help support your family? Have you asked Him whether instead He may want to grow your faith and teach you full reliance on Him to provide? If you know you do need to help support your family, is joining an MLM the best way to do that? Is it the most dependable, immediate source of income you could be bringing in? Is it income you can be proud of?
For me, personally, the answer is no; MLMs and the products they sell are not a wise investment of my money or my time; they are not worth the risk of alienating others, or the temptations they would bring me; and in this current season God has made it abundantly clear to us that my husband’s income, while modest, is sufficient for us to live on. I don’t believe MLMs represent an honorable business model. The vast majority of the products they market are unnecessary to my life, and the few that I would be interested in, I have found equivalents to elsewhere that suit me just fine.
After months of research and prayer, questions and confusion, I am grateful to finally have clarity and peace concerning my own decision not to join any MLM.
I am concerned, however, for my sisters in Christ. I am broken-hearted for the regret some of them have over what they’ve sacrificed. I am discouraged when I think of all their good intentions ending in frustration and waste. Yet I believe we are a brilliant, talented, wise generation of women that God has incredible plans for, and that He works all things for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28).
I genuinely hope you have clarity and peace concerning these things as well, whatever your conclusions. I pray you pursue wisdom and truth above all.
- Summary of MLM business model and list of 500+ evaluated MLMs: http://www.mlm-thetruth.com/list-mlms-evaluated/
- Federal Trade Commission article urging entrepreneurs to look at the facts: https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/blogs/business-blog/2014/05/entrepreneurs-when-it-comes-pyramid-schemes-dont-be-denial
- FTC Consumer Information standards and resources regarding MLMs: http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0065-multilevel-marketing
- Petition to Congress members just last month (October 2015), urging them to reconsider their participation in MLMs: http://pyramidschemealert.org/were-congress-members-misled-about-difference-between-direct-selling-and-mlm/
- Excellent podcast on MLMs, for those who prefer to listen than read: http://theartofcharm.com/podcast-episodes/robert-fitzpatrick-mlm-doesnt-work-episode-247/
- Lengthy but thorough discussion of the business and ethical concerns regarding MLMs: http://www.vandruff.com/mlm.html
About the Author
I am a disciple of Christ, wife to a handsome M.Div. student who loves to preach, and momma to four 5-and-under precious, feisty kiddos who each have their own hashtag on my instagram (#nerdalert). The hubs and I actually met as MKs in Moscow, Russia, and the six years I spent living overseas in Europe and Asia gave me an unquenchable love of traveling, as well as a fierce desire to live my life looking at people through His eyes and loving them with His compassion. In this season of life my days are spent quizzing my husband with Greek flashcards, playing dress-up with my kids as a stay-at-home mom, cooking homemade meals for starving seminary students as dorm mom, and helping lead the MOPS group at my church in Fort Worth, Texas. In between I read a lot of books, take a lot of pictures, and constantly rearrange our furniture.