Erin Stevens never imagined what God had in store for her at the end of her 21-day fast for a new church building. Instead of money or land, she got a command from God to "go feed the strippers." Wife of Tennessee pastor Todd Stevens, and mother of three young boys, Erin was bewildered. However, in obedience she began taking meals and gifts to a local strip club. Since then her life has never been the same. She is now the head of Nashville Strip Church and coauthor of How to Pick Up a Stripper and Other Acts of Kindness. Erin talked with TCW about her unique approach to ministry.
What exactly do you do in this ministry, and why is it effective?
I go to the strip club every two weeks. I bring a meal, nice gifts, and my business card with my contact information and directions to our church if the women ever want to visit. But I never go in with a Bible or a gospel tract—I just go in to love those girls unconditionally. That speaks volumes to them because they're in an industry where they're showered with money. The men often buy them jewelry, or handbags, or shoes. But they're drawn to me because my gifts don't have any strings attached. I've had three girls come out of the industry, and now they go back to love their friends and show them life is possible outside the club. One of these girls said, "For the first time in my life, I believe Jesus would have hung out with someone like me."
How do you love strippers without glossing over the reality of sin?
I invite them to church. My job in the club is just to love them and be there for them. I minister to them by talking about their kids, parents, and school. In traditional evangelism we were taught to "pray the prayer" and "seal the deal." Although that's the ultimate step we're working toward, not everybody is there at the same time. So I encourage my girls through these acts of kindness to just take one step closer to Jesus. One of the girls comes to church and sits in her car during the service. Her child comes in, but she just sits out there because she's not ready yet. Someday her next step will be to come in to a service. And we'll be so glad when she does.
Congratulations on your book! What prompted you and your husband to write it?
I think Katie probably prompted that. She's entering the Police Academy, just led a Bible study in our church, and as we speak, has a Vacation Bible School in her backyard. This is a girl who was a stripper 14 months ago—now look where she's come! But the book is really about our church's principles of ministry. It teaches everyday people a different way to look at evangelism and outreach: doing acts of kindness and meeting needs. The effectiveness you can have in the kingdom by doing those two things is amazing.
How did God prepare you for this ministry?
He put me in a church for six years where Todd and our leaders taught the same message I convey in my ministry: Nobody is beyond the grace of God. No matter what you've done, who you've done it with, or how many times you've done it, God still sees you as 100 percent forgivable. That's a message the world needs to hear.
In what ways have you had to rely on God in your ministry?
I rely on him for everything. I have no funding. So every penny I give these girls comes from outside support. That's huge. I take gifts every two weeks (makeup, scarves, hats, and so on) that are donated, and so far I have not run out. It's getting kind of slim, but I know God's going to provide.
There's an idea floating around that women who create ministries like yours are empowered by God more than the ordinary person. How would you encourage women to get involved when they feel overwhelmed by the radicalness of ministries like yours?
I bathe it in prayer. I think I'm on my 16th prayer journal. I ask, God, how are you going to use me today? Show me the opportunity. It doesn't have to be strippers or prostitutes. It can be anybody. I've gone to a Laundromat and put quarters in all of the machines. I've helped people with the detergent; I folded their clothes and loved on their kids while they did laundry. So I encourage women who may feel overwhelmed and think, Well, I can't start a stripper ministry or reach out to drug addicts and prostitutes, to just reach out to neighbors. People respond to kindness.
How would you describe "servant evangelism?"
Servant evangelism for me is practical kindness. It is going out and serving other people and loving people where they are as they are. It's encouraging them to take the next step toward Jesus Christ—whatever that looks like. It's about sowing seeds. When I go to that club every two weeks, I'm sowing seeds. And that's servant evangelism, loving people with no judgment or condemnation.
What are the top three things you'd recommend our readers to remember when it comes to outreach in general?
First, remember that God died for all people. I always like to talk about the shepherd that had a hundred sheep and one went missing. He left those 99 to look for that 1 because even a 1 percent loss was not acceptable to Jesus.
Second, remember no one has gone too far that God's grace can't reach him or her.
Third, remember to pray to be used. Don't just be a sit-in-pew Christian. Watch where God is working and join him—whatever that looks like.
How has this ministry impacted your church and family?
Our church has totally embraced it from day one. They've helped one girl furnish her whole house, and they've given another everything she needs to have her baby. In my family I have three boys who are 14, 11, and 8. For the first several months, I didn't tell them what I was doing. But as word started to get out, we sat the boys down and said, "Mommy loves on strippers." We explained what that was to the boys. Now we pray together before I go. They also help me pack the goody bags that I take to the clubs. It's amazing how they have rallied behind me. They're not ashamed of me; they're totally supportive. It has been a huge blessing to my family.
Todd said that he's seen you love more unconditionally, and I think that's something we all aspire to. How did that happen?
The turning point for me was when we started taking gifts. I was given Mary Kay kits that were worth $150 apiece, and I had 25. At the time I had no other gifts to take the women since it was the first donation that came in. I wanted to spread the gifts out because I didn't know when I was going to get more gifts like them. But I felt the Lord say, "Erin, I gave you an extravagant gift. Now you give an extravagant gift. You give it all tonight." I'll never forget that I argued with him. I said, "These girls are not worth it. They won't appreciate this gift." He just said, "You didn't appreciate my gift either." That's the moment it changed for me. It was also the night I met Katie. She came up to me with tears and said, "I've been a life-long user of Mary Kay. I know how much these are. Why did you do this?" I said, "Because you're valuable to God and you're valuable to me." And it was that day, and that night, that I changed forever.
Karis Lee is studying at Wheaton College and is an editorial intern with Today's Christian Woman.