Todd Stevens is the pastor of Friendship Community Church, which is one of the fastest growing churches in America. Friendship is known for finding creative ways to show God’s love, in part because of Todd’s wife, Erin, who is the founder of Nashville Strip Church, a ministry reaching out to the employees of local strip clubs.
The Stevens’ story—the story of Friendship Church and its unique ministry—is chronicled in their new book, How to Pick Up a Stripper and Other Acts of Kindness (Thomas Nelson, June 2014). The book, co-authored by the couple, is written in first person by Todd.
Todd and Erin have three sons and live near Nashville.
Let’s talk about the title of the book. It’s, perhaps, not a title you’d expect to see on a Christian bookstore shelf. Who first suggested it?
We thought of the title within 60 seconds of being asked to write a book. Over the past few years, we’ve been increasingly focused on demonstrating God’s love for the people with whom we have the least in common. We often describe Friendship Community Church as “the island of misfit toys,” like the one illustrated in the old Rudolph cartoon, because we’ve got people from every background imaginable. At some point, we each bumped into Jesus when someone cared enough to show us God’s love. The book title is grounded in the Nashville Strip Church ministry we launched, which typifies our approach to reaching out with acts of kindness and by meeting needs in a practical way with no strings attached.
Please tell us more about the ministry—and how it came about.
A couple of years ago, God impressed on Erin’s heart to find some way to show His love for a group of people we had never focused on before: the employees of strip clubs. When she first told me, I wasn’t sure whether I should pretend I didn’t know strip clubs existed or what. She got started by taking home-cooked meals, and then later gifts. Our goal is always to simply meet people where they are and lovingly invite them to take the next step forward in their relationship with God, whatever that step might be. For most people I’ve known, the simplest way to connect with them was by either meeting a need or doing some act of kindness. The starting point for us, though, has to be love for the person.
The results have been phenomenal. Not only have we seen a number of dancers surrender their lives to Christ, but we’ve also seen their spouses and children be touched by God’s love and radically changed. Just this weekend, we had the privilege of baptizing the son of a former dancer, and another is hosting a backyard Vacation Bible School this summer. It made my day a couple of weeks ago when a former dancer said, “For the first time I feel like Jesus would want to hang out with someone like me.”
When a couple of articles were written about the Nashville Strip Church ministry, the reporters were always stunned to learn that this seemingly “new” idea was based on biblical principles. On top of that, they were surprised to learn how we were implementing these very same concepts to reach many other types of people—from families of kids with special needs, to employees at fast-food restaurants, to co-workers. Our book unpacks the biblical principles behind this type of outreach and distills them into practical steps that anyone can take to begin showing God’s love to their community with no strings attached. Besides telling the story of Nashville Strip Church, it includes many other stories that illustrate these ideas in action and demonstrate how people are being impacted by servant evangelism and kindness outreach.
God sometimes sends us down an unexpected path in life, one that ultimately blesses us more than our original plan. Would it be fair to say that your work at Nashville Strip Church has been a “Divine Detour”?
“Divine detour” is the perfect way to describe it. As a pastor’s wife, Erin didn’t initially set out to develop a circle of friends made up of exotic dancers, bouncers, and club managers. But those are exactly the types of people that Jesus hung out with. The religious leaders of His day grumbled about the fact that He hung out with prostitutes and ate in the homes of tax collectors. Jesus answered them with a story about a shepherd with a hundred sheep who lost one. Rather than deciding that a one percent loss was acceptable, the shepherd left the ninety-nine behind and went to where the lost sheep was. When he found it, he carried it home and celebrated.
As Christians we would never say this out loud, but when we refuse to go certain places to reach certain people, we are deciding in our hearts that those people are acceptable losses. It’s a reflection of the fact that we don’t truly value and love them. We want to show people God’s love when they least expect it and probably feel that they least deserve it. This journey has definitely been a divine detour for us, and I hope we stay detoured for the rest of our lives.
How has the journey changed your church membership?
We recently challenged everyone in our church to set aside $5 per week to either meet a need or do an act of kindness. We’ve had hundreds of stories pour in as they’ve begun to do it. The one thing nobody has said yet is, “I couldn’t find anyone to serve or to treat with kindness.” So this tells me that the opportunities are out there. We just have to be intentional about looking for them.
For the last few years, our church has been sold out to doing whatever it takes to build a reputation for loving people in our community better than anyone else. Jesus said that we’d be known as His followers primarily by how we demonstrate love for others, so we’ve focused on expressing God’s love in practical ways by meeting needs and doing acts of kindness.
One of my favorite ways is to simply pay for a stranger’s lunch each day. I explain to the person that it’s something I do to simply show God’s love in a practical way with no strings attached. I’ve yet to have anyone be offended when I buy their lunch.
The book is entertaining, as well as inspirational and motivational. What do you hope will be the most important takeaway for your readers?
As followers of Jesus, we need to ask ourselves: what business are we in? Are we in the teaching business? Are we marketing a message? Are we in the self-help arena? A lot of times we seem to operate as if we think we’re primarily in one of those fields. But Jesus said we’re supposed to be known primarily for how we love. So that means we should be regularly asking ourselves the simple question: “what is the most loving thing to do in this situation?” My hope is that people will get that clarity of focus from this book.
A few fun questions…
In the book, you relate a number of family stories. Please tell us more about your family.
We have three boys and they make us laugh every day. Their interests are all over the board—track, drawing, birdwatching, swimming, eating buffalo chicken wings, pretending to be spies. They seem to enjoy just about everything except cleaning up their rooms.
What’s your favorite family getaway?
Right now our favorite getaway is our backyard. We moved to a house with a pool last summer, so now the kids practically live in the water and Erin sits by the pool and reads. I have really gotten into flower gardening back there, even though that is probably a chick thing. There is a rule that every guy can like at least one chick thing, so please don’t take away my man card.
I’m a dog lover. Please tell us about your family pets, if any.
We actually don’t have any pets at this moment, although there is a rabbit that has taken up residence at our house and a flock of turkeys that is in our front yard every morning.
Thank you, Pastor Stevens! It’s nice to have you as a guest at DivineDetour.
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