When LuLaRoe leggings showed up in my small community a few years ago, a farmer in our church dubbed them “tight britches.” Colorful and comfortable, the style quickly became de rigueur for women and girls in our area. But the trend took off for a much simpler reason too: network marketing.
Sometimes known as direct or multilevel marketing, network marketing leverages established social circles to sell directly to consumers through local representatives. Companies like LuLaRoe do particularly well in communities that have thick relational networks, which is likely why they flourish in churches, homeschooling co-ops, and mommy groups.
But despite its growing presence (and generating over $40 billion annually), network marketing rarely shows up in evangelical theologies of faith and work. We might address the toll it takes on relationships, how it affects women’s formation, or whether it makes good financial sense, but few of our conversations take multilevel marketing sales seriously as work. And if we don’t, we won’t take the motives, questions, and dilemmas of those involved in this work seriously either.
This was especially clear to me as I viewed the recent Amazon documentary LuLaRich, which chronicles the woes of the aforementioned apparel company. Following a meteoric rise, LuLaRoe became the object of a spate of lawsuits, claiming damages for everything from poorly crafted merchandise to an incentive program that looked a lot like a pyramid scheme. Independent representatives were left with mounting debt, and some even found their relationships and marriages—the very things that had propelled them into the work in the first place—collapsing.
While watching the docuseries, all I could think was, Why are we not talking more openly about this? Why is network marketing not a larger part of our conversations about vocation and calling?
Ironically, our silence in this regard does not mean that network marketing companies aren’t talking about their industry from a faith and work angle. Many have strong religious underpinnings and use the language of God and faith as freely as that of uplines and incentive checks. To press the point even further, network marketing actively recruits women who have eschewed the modern marketplace for a traditional role at home. LuLaRoe cofounder Mark Stidham puts it this way in the LuLaRich documentary:
If you want to create incredible wealth, identify an underutilized resource. And you know what? There is an underutilized resource of stay-at-home moms, and they have chosen to be a mother. And if you make that choice, you pay a price career-wise in our country right now. We have a lot of people of faith who have been attracted to this business.
In this respect, network marketing falls into the gap created by the idea of “separate spheres,” which suggests that human society has public and private faces. These spheres roughly equate to the traditional marketplace and the home. (And while men and women inhabit both, gender traditionalists believe that functionally, men’s primary place of influence, labor, and power is in the marketplace while women focus on the domestic realm.)
The result is an overly simplified vision of human flourishing that pits “work” and “home” against each other and sends many a modern worker in search of the elusive work-life balance.
Enter network marketing that promises to bridge the gap, empowering families (and women in particular) to regain a measure of agency and accomplishment. As pioneer network marketing company Amway promised in its early advertising, “We offer freedom. We offer rewards. We offer recognition, and we offer hope.”
But here’s the irony: Network marketing often relies on separate spheres itself. While the established marketplace rarely defers to workers’ private lives, network marketing recruits those who’ve stepped out of the public sphere for this very reason. It uses private relationships to sell the goods of companies who operate very much by traditional dynamics.
“Here we’ve got this army of women who are smart, passionate, beautiful, funny, educated, and want to do things,” Stidham continues in his LuLaRich interview. “And we want to give them … ‘Here, express all of that. Take your creativity, your passion, your excitement for life, and here’s a place that is pure meritocracy. Show up and do it.’”
In the end, the allure of network marketing is found in a point of pain—not the products or the strategy itself. And its draw would decrease dramatically if the established marketplace better aligned itself with the needs of workers.
This is why we must include it in the faith and work conversation. Women and men often enter network marketing looking for solutions to the dysfunction they encounter in traditional work environments. But if our conversations continue to center on the traditional marketplace, defining work as whatever happens there, we can easily overlook these workers and their legitimate concerns.
In this sense, the network marketing conversation offers us access to a larger one about the relationship between home and work and our public and private lives—a conversation we cannot expect either the traditional or alternative marketplace to prioritize.
But it’s more than this. While we continue to talk about c-suites, tech startups, and even the factory floor, women will continue to funnel through an industry that , statistically speaking, offers little if any profit for their labors. They’ll continue to believe that they can have “full-time pay for part-time work.” And those who might be called to other vocations will continue to think that selling leggings, handbags, and kitchenware is their best hope for a flourishing, productive life.
Thankfully, the Scripture offers us a richer vision for our vocation as humans: Our work has both private and public faces, as does our family life. Rather than work happening in a particular realm (the public sphere) and the family in another (private sphere), the two depend on each other in inextricable ways.
“Be fruitful and increase in number,” God tells the woman and man he’s created in his own image. “Fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28).
And with this, threads of public and private engagement, of family and dominion, intertwine. Men’s work cannot be separate from women’s work, nor can the work of building families be uncoupled from the call to rule over the earth. Pull one thread and you’ll unravel the whole.
This integrated vision of family and work is too often missing from our theologies of work, but we can change this by addressing the tensions that make network marketing attractive to so many. But that entails a broadened definition of work to include companies such as LuLaRoe.
We can offer workers and families a vision for an integrated life, not simply a balanced one. We can empower them to believe that they can resist demanding work environments of all kinds, and that does not make them bad workers. Rather, it might just make them better mothers, friends, and neighbors.
Women’s vocational dilemmas are worthy of our attention. We cannot cede them to companies who, at best, have mixed motives for developing them. In the end, Stidham is right: Women who have stepped out of the marketplace are an underdeveloped resource. They represent a world of talent, education, and possibility. And it’s past time we helped them find it.
Hannah Anderson is the author of Made for More, All That’s Good, and Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul.
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