From MLM To The Freedom Of The Christian

The most intense religious meetingI ever attended, including prayer meetings with Pentecostals, was not supposed to be a religious event at all.  

The Meeting

I went with the fellow whom the Lord had used to lead me to Christ. He was the first person to invite me to trust Christ. I had been to worship services on Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and even Wednesdays. Then there was youth group and even Campus Life and the high school prayer group. It was the typical, hyper-busy evangelical lifestyle in the 1970s. 

That event was a multilevel marketing (MLM) meeting in someone’s nicely appointed basement. You would recognize the name of the company. The goal of the evening was to get us to sign up to sell product and, even more important than that, to recruit others to sell product. In those years I was pitched at least two other multi-level marketing “opportunities.” If I would work hard and learn to sell, I too could become independently wealthy. 

The meeting leader made an impassioned plea and the temperature in the room reached a fever pitch. I had already resisted many “invitations” to come forward but the pull of this call to invite MLM into my heart was almost more than I could bear. I broke into a sweat. More than once I felt myself  “almost persuaded.” When we left, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. I escaped without obligating myself to buy product, sell product, or recruit others to do the same.

A Lateral Step

There was a natural relationship between the vision of discipleship I had learned and MLM. It was a lateral step because the vision of Christian discipleship I learned early in my Christian life was, in essence, a version of MLM. The goal of the Christian was to win others to Christ so that they could win others to Christ. In this period I learned the phrase, “each one, reach one.” It was warfare and we were encouraged to be ruthless. Anyone next to us at stoplight could be a target for an evangelistic pitch. Truth be told, it was years before I could stand silently next to a stranger at a crosswalk without feeling guilty because I had failed to evangelize them. Every-member evangelism and every-member ministry were regarded as unquestionable truths.

A Different Paradigm

I broke out of my pragmatic, MLM, EMM bubble by reading John Stott’s Basic Christianity. Then I read J. I. Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God and then Packer’s Knowing God. I learned that there was an alternative to the entrepreneurial, pragmatic model I had learned. It was a more churchly way to think about Christian discipleship. 

Decades later I know that the MLM approach to discipleship was taught was rooted not in historic Christianity and not in Scripture. It was a miniaturized version of an approach to evangelism and “church growth” developed by a renegade Presbyterian minister named Charles Grandison Finney. He had developed, in effect, an evangelism machine. The evangelist put in the raw material (potential Christians) into the machine, turned the crank (i.e., used the correct procedure) and out would come the desired product: a convert. Rinse and repeat. 

In fact, if we read the New Testament in its original context, according to the intent of the human authors (and bearing in mind the overarching intent of the Holy Spirit), we see very few clear, unequivocal, intentional examples of lay-evangelism in Scripture. We see no examples of an MLM approach to discipleship and evangelism. 

What we do see in the Great Commission (Matt 28:18–20) is the ordination by the Lord of the visible, institutional church to make disciples through the preaching of the gospel and the use of the holy sacraments. The apostles used no high-pressure sales techniques. There was no expectation that Christian converts should immediately turn around and make converts. One of the implicit points of John’s narrative (ch. 9) about the man born blind is how delightfully unexpected and unusual it is for someone who hardly knows up from down to be enabled by the Holy Spirit to give witness to Christ and to his faith in Christ. 

Revivalism was always a detour from the great Christian tradition. Before the early eighteenth century revivalism was not the norm nor should it be considered the baseline now. The expectation of the historic Christian church (e.g., the Reformed churches) was that Christians would give witness to the faith (i.e., the objective facts of the gospel) and to their faith (i.e., their personal appropriation of Christ and the gospel by faith alone) but that should be a normal part of being made by gracious by the Spirit. There was no pressure for “each one” to “reach one.” Christians should conduct themselves as representatives of Christ and his Kingdom but they were not taught to regard themselves as sales reps. The church is not a MLM organization. It is more like an outpost of the Kingdom or a hospital than a multi-national sales headquarters. 

The ordinary Christian life is attending to the administration of the means of grace (preaching, sacraments, and prayer), to the communion of the saints, one’s family, to one’s vocation in the world, and to seeking to live out the Christian life by dying to sin (mortification) and to living to Christ (vivification) by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. The goal was to be a godly person and good neighbor but not the religious MLM salesperson of the month. 

If you have been living your Christian life under the law of the MLM model. Go. You are free to be an ordinary Christian. You are not the Holy Spirit and you need not try to do his work.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. Dr. Clark,

    As a Southern Baptist, it is difficult for me to think outside of the paradigm in which I was raised and am still taught. However, I truly appreciate what you are saying and believe there is much truth in it about being freed from the pressure to start Gospel conversations with every person we meet. So many of my Christian brothers and sisters (and myself) start sweating, figuratively, when personal evangelism is brought up as a topic in Sunday School or other Bible study environments, and I can now appreciate that it may not be the Holy Spirit convicting us to do more but to rest in Him instead. As a question, would you view the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-17) as a special apostolic calling and not one for the general layperson?

    Thank you for your blog. I feel it has profited me greatly.

  2. The pastor at my church preached a recent sermon on the parable of the sower account in Luke 8. I’m sad to say that was the first time in 40+ years of church attendance that I’d heard it preached that the “hundred-fold” in verse 8 was likely an indicator of the supernatural fecundity produced by the Holy Spirit rather than a numeric quota that each Christian must meet in terms of personal evangelism. As Jason mentioned – it’s hard to break out of the early mold into which we as believers have been cast, but I appreciate posts like this that help free us to be the evangelists that God (and not “MLM discipleship”) intends us to be. Thank you.

  3. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I used to hold to the MLM view of discipleship. This is best seen in the ministries of Dallas Willard and others. (And Dallas was an otherwise gracious individual). I started to see tensions in this view in that it really didn’t need the means of grace in order to work.

  4. Grant, Almighty God, that as thou wouldest have us to be ruled by the preaching of thy word, — O grant, that those who have to discharge this office may be really endued with thy celestial power, that they may not attempt any thing of themselves, but with all devotedness spend all their labors for thee and for our benefit, that through them we may be thus edified, so that thou mayest ever dwell among us, and that we through our whole life may become the habitation of thy Majesty, and that finally we may come to thy heavenly sanctuary, where thou daily invites us, as an entrance there has been once for all opened to us by the blood of thy only-begotten Son. Amen.
    Calvin (Micah 2)

  5. The same techniques appear to be employed in my session’s desire to plant a church. We don’t have any of the requisite things necessary to accomplish this so the session appears to be going to try to “boot strap” it. The pastor says that this is where God is leading us but I have yet to see one open door. The PCA seems really intent on pushing churches to do church plants but it seems manufactured rather than organic. In an of itself, a church plant is a good thing but without the involvement of the Holy Spirit I’m skeptical of the chances for success.

  6. This post is refreshing. As a congregation, we are regularly upbraided ( or maybe encouraged with) “Don’t you care that there are those in this town that will be eternally lost? Don’t you?” I’ve noticed little in the book of Acts that new converts were encouraged to reach out to their friends, as you said. However, l also noticed something in our study on Acts that l had never noticed before. Missing is the “John 3:16” approach to evangelism – in fact, the word “love” does not appear anywhere in Acts. Are we doing it all wrong, or is the contemporary message to be assumed, given that not all the gospel messages are recorded in their entirety?

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