Todd & Erin Stevens’ Unique Stripper Ministry
Stepping Out To Extend God’s Love Led To Unique Ministry For Todd & Erin Stevens
Written by Kelli Gillespie
Todd and Erin Stevens aren’t your typical husband-wife pastor team. They think-outside-the-box, practice what they preach, and are using creative ways to show God’s love to their Mt. Juliet community in Tennessee, which even includes a ministry to strippers. You read correctly, this duo took a step of faith and listened to where the Lord wanted to use them most and started a church-plant (now Friendship Community Church), wrote a book called, How to Pick Up a Stripper and Other Acts of Kindness, and they continue to exude love to those who may have felt it the least. Risen sat down with the couple in Nashville to learn more about how they operate together, the power of not judging others, and the wide impact they are having across the state of Tennessee.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine in Nashville, Tennessee
Risen Magazine: What were you backgrounds like growing up and how do they complement each other as you lead a church and serve together today?
Erin Stevens: We both grew up in Nashville. We met at Tennessee Technological University, and although we had known each other for several years, we started dating while we were getting our MBAs. We were study buddies. After that we both got jobs with a big textile manufacturer in South Carolina. We went from college, got married, and then moved out to Greenville, South Carolina, for seven years. Then when we had our first born, Elijah, (now 14), we moved back to Nashville because our parents are here.
Todd experienced his call to ministry when we were in South Carolina, so when we moved back to Nashville, he went to seminary school. By that point, he was in school full time, we had two kids, and he was working full time for Adidas – he was the electronic commerce director.
We love everything business and I always thought we would have our own business together. When Todd finished seminary school, to be honest, I wasn’t in any hurry for him to go into ministry because I knew it would cut his salary in half. But when he graduated we said, “We’re going to do this.” And we realized our calling wasn’t to an established church but rather to start a church plant.
Todd Stevens: That was something I really learned in seminary. I thought I would pastor a small church like I grew up in and maybe help them get into the twentieth century. I learned about the idea of church planting. The only way I knew new churches got started was that somebody got mad and left. I didn’t know there was a healthy, productive way to do it. At that point, I was [working] part-time at a church and the pastor really affirmed, and encouraged, that he could see that [church planting] in us. The church gave us funding to get started, they gave us about three families to kind of be our launch team for the first couple of years, and we were off and running. We’ve grown from about 30 to 1,000 in seven years.
Risen Magazine: You’re the pastors at Friendship Community Church in Tennessee where your congregation is known for bringing creative ways to show God’s love to the community. What does this mean?
Erin Stevens: We like to say, “We’re showing God’s love in practical ways with no strings attached.” When we started the church we did a demographic study in our suburban area and we found that 82 percent of people in this area didn’t go to any church – which you would think the Bible Belt [area of the country] would not be like that.
Todd Stevens: But we also found that a bunch of people used to go to church. You didn’t run into very many people that had never been to church – everybody had some point in their life when they used to go to church – so there is a reason they are not there anymore. That is what led us down this path of reaching out in practical ways. Jesus said we’ll be known as His followers by how we love one another. And so we’ve always been about finding ways to meet needs, and through acts of kindness demonstrate love to people and build that reputation.
Erin Stevens: So we can say 75-80 percent of our first-time guests were not in any church when they found us. Which is unbelievable because most churches just pass around the church people. We are actually reaching the people we set out to reach; the people far away from God.
Risen Magazine: And you are thinking-outside-the-box when it comes to ministry as well. How did the idea for your stripper ministry come about?
Erin Stevens: In October of 2012, I embarked on a 21-day fast. I had never fasted before but I was so desperate for us to get a piece of land, or a building for our church, for this impact center we wanted to build to meet the needs of the entire community. We had kids meeting in hallways and we were just busting our seams as a church. So I’m praying about this center because I know it’s God’s will, and as I went further and further into the fast, God just started breaking my heart for lost people. He started revealing to me that the homosexual, the Muslim, the stripper, and the porn star – they are not the enemy, they are the mission field; they are who we are called to love, not boycott. So out of that fast, I really felt the Lord place on my heart to go feed the strippers.
Todd Stevens: Erin called one of the club managers from one of the strip clubs we knew that advertised big within the area and told him what she wanted to do and that she was a pastor’s wife, and she wasn’t going to bring Bibles, she just wanted to come love on the girls. And he said, “Can you come next Thursday?” So she was off and running.
Erin Stevens: I’ve been going ever since. I go every two weeks. And I always take food and gifts. The first time I met Katie [see Katie’s story in the box inset] was when this lady at the church donated thousands of dollars of cosmetics. I had these Mary Kay TimeWise Ultimate Miracle sets that were roughly $150 dollars; and I had 25 of them.
Todd Stevens: One girl comes back after they had looked at the gifts and dumped all the makeup out on the bar and said basically, “I know how much this costs and I cannot afford it anymore. Why did you give us something so extravagant?” Erin was able to say, with integrity, “Because you are valuable to God, and you are valuable to me.” And the girl was crying, and that girl was Katie. The next few weeks she showed up at church, and within a few more weeks she made the decision to turn her life over to Christ and was baptized soon after. (Read more about ex-stripper Katie)
Erin Stevens: We had three ex-dancers at church on Sunday, and two current dancers. I believe it’s because we always want to meet people right where they are and invite them to take the next step. I don’t go down there judging, or to preach, but they know that if they ever want to leave the industry, they have my card and they can call me. I never ask them to do that, but they know if they ever get to a point where they want to make a life change, or they want me to help them find another job, or even just someone to talk to, they can call me. And it’s my cell phone number on the card. I had one girl call me two weeks ago at 5:00 a.m. from the emergency room – she had fallen off the pole and had a concussion – so I do a little bit of everything. If they call, I go.
Todd Stevens: What I think is interesting is this simple meal and gift stands out to girls who are being showered with money. It stands out because it’s something being offered with no strings attached, from somebody that is not demanding anything from them or requiring them to be different, but just simply loving them. That is powerful, and that is the love of Christ.
Risen Magazine: Together, you authored a book titled, How to Pick Up a Stripper and Other Acts of Kindness. What was the process like and what are other examples of ways people can connect?
Todd Stevens: For us, it was the process of clarifying and boiling it down to the basic principles and seeing how they can be applied in any situation. The book is about how you can show Christ’s love to anybody – whether it’s a stranger you just met, somebody you are married to, or a close friend. It’s about how meeting needs, and through acts of kindness, you can connect with anybody in a credible way. It was about thinking through what we are doing, and what the church is already doing, and capturing those stories.
We have individuals and small groups displaying acts of kindness. We had one small group that went into a laundromat and paid for everybody’s laundry that was there, helped fold the clothes, and they were taking care of kids that were running around. It was such an effective way that the manager asked if they could come back on a regular basis.
Erin Stevens: We are doing something in the community as a church at least every three weeks, but individually we are doing something all the time. Katie went for months when she didn’t have any money but bought the people’s food behind her in the drive-thru every time she went through a drive-thru. That’s a hard generosity. We also use these cards that say, “This is a simple way of showing that God loves you. Let me know if I can be of further service to you.”
Risen Magazine: And do you stay long enough to see their reactions? How do people handle the generous act?
Todd Stevens: The church’s contact information is printed on the card so I get to hear a lot of the stories because the person getting blessed will call the church. It’s amazing how that connects with people. We had a lady call me a couple weeks ago about how someone from the church paid for her breakfast through a drive-thru and she cried all the way to work. I don’t know what all she was going through, but it just resonates with people to experience the love.
Erin Stevens: One time I had a lady that I bought food for at McDonald’s and she chased me down. I always pull off kind of fast, but the boys [the Stevens’ kids] love it. They are like, “Oh Mom, she’s got the card. She’s realizing you did it!” Giving me a play-by-play. But this one lady actually chased me down, she was honking, and pulled up beside me and said, “You have no idea what that meant. It has been the worst morning.” I’ve never been chased down but that one time… but who doesn’t like a meal being bought for them?
Risen Magazine: For some people this concept may seem really natural but for other it would be pushing them out of their comfort zone. What advice could you give people to maybe face the fear and take a step in faith?
Todd Stevens: I get scared every single time. I’m a natural introvert so I have to remind myself every time they are going to like this. No one is going to be upset with their lunch being bought for them. I’ve got to push myself to develop that reputation that Jesus said I am supposed to have as His follower; to be known for love. I can’t just convince people I am loving on the inside, and then never express or show it. Love is a choice I make that has to show itself outwardly.
If you step out and start showing people God’s love, the worst thing that could happen is exactly what God intended to happen. If that’s the worst thing, then I don’t have a whole lot to lose. It might not be real comfortable for me, but guess what? Jesus wasn’t comfortable on the cross either. So I can sacrifice a little pride, or discomfort, for the sake of demonstrating His love to somebody else.
We like to say, “We’re showing God’s love in practical ways with no strings attached.”
Risen Magazine: Through planting the church and reaching the community, meeting needs, and displaying love, how have you seen your faith grow or shift?
Erin Stevens: It’s been amazing. We both grew up in very conservative homes so our church is just so different than most traditional churches in our area, which has been a paradigm shift for us.
Todd Stevens: And now both of our parents attend our church which has been unusual too.
Erin Stevens: And they are very supportive of the ministry to the strippers. I went and bought clothes for a girl that has come out of the industry and is now going to our church. She wrote me a week ago and said, “I want to get some modest clothing.” I was like, “I’m there with my Kohl’s card – we’re going shopping!” And I took my mom with me, and she helped pay for the clothes and said it was the highlight of her day.
Exclusive Interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Fall 2014