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I just ran across this multi-level marketing (MLM) industry website today. And I’ve got to laugh because it features one of the most powerful overlaps with Christianity that I’ve ever seen. I thought you’d get a kick out of it too. So today, please enjoy the forced optimism of MLMs as their industry declines!

The Venn Diagram of MLMs and Christianity Gets a New Entry

MLMs are harmful to almost all of their participants — but they’re harmful in a very familiar way. A while ago, I created a Venn diagram comparing MLMs to Christianity. It serves as a handy list of traits that MLMs share with Christianity. Here’s the updated version:

As you can tell from the column on the right, I’ve had to add a lot of stuff to it. Seriously, there’s almost no light shining between MLMs and Christianity, they’re so close together!

And now, we’ve got another entry for our list of overlapping traits:

Enormous optimism amid decline.

MLMs Are Definitely Suffering

For the past couple of years, I’ve encountered numerous stories online about how MLMs have been declining in popularity.

Seeking Alpha might be one of the better sites out there tracking MLMs’ decline. Their post from this past December offers a gold mine of information. There, we see that “direct selling” has been slowly declining as a percentage of all retail sales in the United States.

Direct sales is an umbrella term, while the MLM model nestles within that category. It means selling directly to consumers rather than through a store. According to Fundera, 94.2% of the members of the Direct Sales Association (DSA) were MLM participants (at least as of 2009).

For its own part, multi-level marketing itself means that participants sign up new recruits under themselves, while all recruits seek their very own recruits in similar fashion. Every participant makes a commission off of their recruits’ sales, as well as commissions from the actual products they purchase and sell. So there are many levels to MLMs’ strangely-pyramid-shaped business. The lucky participants near the top of this structure make the most, because they’ve typically got recruits and recruits-of-recruits numbering in the many thousands at least.

In 1992, MLMs’ sales languished around 1% of all retail sales. By 2002ish, MLMs hit their peak at about 1.24% of all retail sales (not counting cars). But as of 2019, they represented 0.84% of all sales.

As of 2020, about 6.2 million Americans were involved in “direct selling.” But that number is dropping with each new generation, especially as the anti-MLM community has publicized the extremely predatory nature of MLMs. One such site, the Talented Ladies Club, details MLMs’ decline here. In that post, they note that over the last 3 years, MLMs’ participants have experienced a 15% decline in sales — while even popular MLMs have declined even harder.

MLMs Should See “New Opportunity” Here!

So I got a major kick out of seeing these posts from Social Selling News. “Social selling” is yet another euphemism for MLMs, like “network marketing” and “direct sales.” Put this euphemism on the same shelf as all those Christians proclaiming that they’re now “followers of Jesus” rather than “Christians.”

Their entire anti-MLM tag is fun reading, as short as it is. But the real comedy gold comes from its “Publisher’s Notes” section. That’s where I found this December 1, 2020 opinion post:

PROLONGED ADVERSITY CREATES NEW OPPORTUNITY

Hooboy. I showed the post to Mr. Captain: “Does that sound like anybody we know?”

Because does it ever!

It’s the usual blahblah we see out of authoritarian Christians freaking out over their ongoing decline in membership and cultural power. Switch a few words around, and it could appear on Christianity Today as it is. For example, consider this first paragraph from the MLM site:

As is generally the case with adversity, especially prolonged adversity, new opportunities arise. Some of the situations we could not have forseen [sic] at this time last year have actually created positive outcomes for many companies in the channel, including increased sales and enrollments. [. . .]

But we are all learning to adapt and find our way. The sun still rises in the morning and sets in the evening, and will continue to do so. [Source]

Indeed, she points out a couple of recent features her site has covered. In particular, she praises how the MLM AdvoCare has fared since its massive restructuring. See, in July 2019 AdvoCare stopped paying commissions for recruits’ and in-network purchases. (In October that year, the FTC gave AdvoCare a hefty fine based on recruiters’ false income claims.) Instead, AdvoCare would only pay commissions for sales to outside customers. Since almost all MLMs’ sales consists of in-network purchases made by its own participants, that severely slashed all its participants’ income.

But don’t worry! AdvoCare is doing just great, thanks! (The article is behind a paywall. But Talented Ladies Club saw its leaders’ statements elsewhere and found them quite dishonest.)

Also here’s Longaberger, the basket maker turned MLM! They’re doing great! Totally!

MLMs will be doing great in 2021 and 2022! For real!

Stuff Christians Love: Pretending There’s Massive Opportunity Amid Massive Declines

Christians talk exactly this same way all the time. Consider this 2019 e-book by Barna Group, Reviving Evangelism:

Although the statistics of a quieted and declining Christian community are startling, the opportunity is now and the generation who can lead the charge is right here in our midst. [p. 8]

Fertile Soil: Real opportunities remain for evangelism, but effective faith-sharing today looks different from the past. [p. 17]

There is a unique opportunity for the US Church to return to its core identity during this time of transition. Against the backdrop of changing generations we see signs for optimism. [. . .] Seen rightly, our unprecedented challenges can become untapped opportunities. [p. 19]

[T]here remain significant gospel-sharing opportunities. . . [p. 42]

There are real opportunities for Christians who want to share the good news of Jesus. [p. 59]

On p. 64, Barna even compares this “opportunity” to the way a biome on Earth flourishes after a natural disaster like a forest fire. Really. That’s just like Christianity, y’all!

This Decline Will Turn Into Massive Success!

Someone earlier mentioned Slacktivist’s snarky term “the droves problem,” and that does indeed look like what MLMs — and Christianity — both face right now.

Both groups depend on marketing themselves with certain imagery and ideas. Their participants like to think of themselves as being part of the winning team. Success guaranteed. Work from home on your phone! You’re already on Facebook — why not get rich doing it? Don’t be like those dorks with J(ust)-O(ver)-B(roke)s!

Get yer money fer nothin’… and yer chicks fer free.

But now both of these groups have a problem.

They’re not winning.

People are leaving in drovesDROVES, I tells ya!

What we’re seeing out of both groups is simply the drastic desperation of buggy-whip manufacturers as automobiles became popular. Don’t leave now — success is just around the corner!

I always like having new stuff to add to my diagrams, so I’m right here for this party.


ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...