You might not have come across the term 'multi-level marketing', but you have certainly had it inflicted on you. The term specifically refers to business structures where the seller is compensated not just for the sales they make, but the sales that your contacts make too - the 'downstream effects'. This will be familiar to most people through networks like Amway or Tupperware, where people involved try to both sell their products to friends and convince them to become sellers, too. Multi-level marketing has been challenged, both morally and legally, for the way in which may sometimes be used to exploit small operators to generate profit. My own concern however, and the focus of this article, is not so much the 'multi-level' aspect as the 'marketing' strategies employed, particularly the implicit concept of using existing social networks to drive sales.

Does this sound familiar to you? Have you heard any of these lines recently?

“It's been ages since we've caught up! Why don't you come over on Thursday and have coffee? There's a few others coming, too…”
“Why buy your washing powder/toothpaste/cups/nappies from the supermarket when I can get them for you instead?”
“I think it would be really good for you to be able to work from home and spend more time with the kids. I can bring everything you need over to help you get set up…”

These conversations are at the core of the marketing strategies for these organisations. They are based around the idea of selling products to people you already know. Of course, there is no intrinsic reason why this has to be the case - you can stand on the street corner and sell Tupperware to passers-by, or go door-to-door. These organisations, though, actively promote the idea of using your networks as an efficient and effective sales strategy. For Christians, this often means that church friends and family feature high on the list of those who might be approached or recruited.

Actually, some of these organisations, or individuals involved, openly claim to promote Christian values. One of the most frequently touted is the ability to work from home, amongst your friends and family. The argument made to me by a number of people is that selling these products amongst your social networks means that you can earn money while spending time with your friends. As your network grows, you even meet more people, and might even get some chances to talk about the gospel - a win-win situation, right?

The problem with this line of argument is that converting your friends and family into potential customers can be deeply and systemically damaging to your relationships. Multi-level marketing organisations are successful because they exploit the power of pre-existing relationships - the mixture of love and care and guilt and pressure that comes when a friend asks a favour. This means that they are good at selling products, but the cost is in weakened relationships. If your business relies on spending time with people who buy from you, what happens to your friends who don't want or can't afford what you are selling? There is a clear conflict of interests in this situation - if you continue to spend time with them the business suffers but if you continue to pressure them to buy your relationship suffers.

The fascinating and tragic thing about these strategies is that they rely on an imbalance in the priorities in your relationships. You (as the seller) must place your business over your relationships, because you have to be willing to exploit the relationship for a sale. If you are willing to routinely use your relationships as a tool in order to sell more bath products, there is at least some sense in which you are prioritising the sale. At the least, you are willing trade off one against the other - you will risk imposing on or damaging the relationship in order to increase your changes of selling your products.

Your friend/customer, however, has to do exactly the opposite. When you impose on your friendship with them in order to sell something, the pressure they feel is to buy in order to preserve or promote relationship. In doing so, they place priority your friendship above the financial exchange. They buy from you because the relationship may be damaged if they do not. In order for the transaction to work, they have to think the relationship is more important than the sale, while you have to think it is less important.

As for selling products as an evangelistic strategy, I would argue that starting a relationship in such a conflicted and unbalanced way is poorly conducive to the real message of salvation found the gospel. It certainly betrays a poor appreciation of the central importance of relationships found in the Christian faith; reducing Christian community to a sales network does not speak highly of the transformational power of Christ.

Not everyone selling these products carries these strategies out to their extremes, of course. Plenty of people sell Tupperware or Amway products casually and only where there is a real need, such as within their own households. These people, however, will never be 'franchisee of the month' or be considered successful business people. The multi-level marketing strategy demands persistent and committed pressure to be applied to your personal relationships. It demands that all relationships be seen as potential sales targets, and it is this requirement for the commercialisation and exploitation of relationships that makes it so damaging and insidious.

Perhaps fittingly, I happen to object to multi-level marketing on multiple levels. The other major problem this strategy brings with it is a promotion of consumerism through implicitly prioritising buying and selling over relationships. Want to support me reaching my potential? Want to prove you love me? Buy a Tupperware container. There is nothing new about marketing creating a need where none was there before - all marketing at some level has to create a need for their product. What is curious about these strategies, though, is that they do not need to create a need for the product at all; instead, they create a motivation to buy. Friends don't have to be convinced that they really need a new cleaning product or biscuit container but instead that they need to buy something, anything, from you.

I admit I object to these things because they irk me personally. I dislike my friends trying to convert my wife and I to their new religion. However, I believe that as Christians, there are more principled reasons why we should be careful about our involvement with and support for these approaches. The two reasons I have outlined here, the exploitation and degradation of relationships and the promotion of consumerism, lead me most strongly to object to these strategies.

Is this unreasonably harsh? Is involvement in these groups harmless? Maybe, and I'm sure many people have examples of them working well. The way I see it, however, our Christian communities are critically important and need to be defended. The gospel we preach is one that involves the creation of a genuinely transforming community of believers. If these strategies involve, or even rely on, exploiting this community for financial gain, or creating communities that are complicated by financial entanglements, then they are dangerous and divisive and risk watering down the message we have been given.

So, no, I will not come to your Tupperware party.

Justin Denholm is a medical doctor specialising in infectious diseases, and the Coordinator of the Centre for Applied Christian Ethics at Ridley Melbourne. His two young children mean that his house is well supplied with unbreakable kitchenware.