Testing the boundaries of outreach evangelism.
Yes, to Heal the Abused
In our quest to find the broken hearted and ostracized of life we called upon other ministries that function primarily outside the walls of the church to present the gospel hope of Jesus Christ. We found astonishing evidence that a loving presences of evangelistic workers makes a difference in getting the gospel outside to a dyeing world. I had an interesting event happen in my life in a “Crack House In Perris Ca., I went to deliver some packages and was overcome with remorse and a strong unction to pray for those in that trailer and it reshaped my life and introduced me to the Help Mate I now have in my life.
An out-of-the-way topless bar and club off the highway was a regular Thursday evening destination for Anne Polencheck and her outreach partner. Every two weeks the women faithfully toted gift bags of handmade cards, homemade cookies, earrings, and lotion to the bar and club. With a word of kindness, a prayer, or a hug, they hoped to share Christ’s compassion with women who worked there.
Polencheck, a former software engineer, leads New Name, a ministry to strip clubs, bars, massage parlors, and so-called spas in the western suburbs of Chicago. Volunteers pray together and regularly visit venues. It’s a slow-going ministry that emulates Jesus leaving the safety of the fold to seek the one lost sheep. Often the workers are busy with customers or simply aren’t interested in chatting.
One week, Polencheck met Debbie, a 20-something who recognized the “church ladies” from their previous visits. “I’m seven months pregnant. I need a new job,” she said. After their visit, Debbie stepped outside and prayed: “God, if you’re real, can you help me?”
When Polencheck and her ministry partner returned one week later, they handed Debbie a flier for Refuge for Women, a Kentucky residential program for those choosing to leave sexual exploitation. It usually had a wait list, but it had one opening.
Debbie’s plea came after years of despair. Her childhood was marked by sexual abuse that started when she was 5. At age 9, Debbie was placed in foster care after she showed up at school black and blue from violent beatings. Twenty times, she was shuffled in and out of foster homes in part due to her anger-driven rebellion.
The wounded girl grew to become a broken woman who numbed her pain with alcohol and drugs. Her husband, an abusive drug addict, introduced her to strip clubs. She began exotic dancing and using more drugs. Debbie’s horrific background is not unusual for women working in strip clubs. About 90 percent of women who have received care at Refuge were sexually abused as children.
“Jesus would want us to look at these women as our sisters,” says Ked Frank, director and cofounder of Refuge. “They’re living out of pain and trauma, and our hearts should be broken for them.” At the residential facility, Debbie found family in seven other women with similar experiences as well as a church community and mentors who listened, prayed, and encouraged her.
Before graduating the yearlong program, Debbie gave birth to a healthy baby girl, accepted Christ, and was baptized. She now leads worship at her church and mentors teenagers in the youth group. Debbie holds a job as she raises her 2-year-old daughter and volunteers at Refuge, hoping to help other women who bear the invisible chains of abuse and exploitation.
“God is at work, and his presence is found in the clubs,” Frank says.
So, would Jesus hang out with people in a strip club? I believe he’s been doing just that.
Jesus unconditionally loves us all, including club owners, dancers, and customers. He is still calling us to leave the safety of our church walls and extend a hand of hope to a broken man or woman.
No, He Wouldn’t
In 1896, Charles Sheldon, a Congregational minister in Kansas, wrote In His Steps, a novel that became an all-time bestseller and spawned the ubiquitous phrase, “What Would Jesus Do?”
Back then it was an open question—as Sheldon makes clear—whether Jesus would condone hanging out at a boxing match. Today, we’re wondering if we can give reasons why Jesus wouldn’t hang out at a strip club. Times have changed.
Initially, I assumed this must be a trick question. Are there Christians who ponder, “What Would Jesus Do?” and think, “Jesus would probably be hanging out at a bar where people go to watch women undress”?
It’s hard for me to believe there are Christians who think Jesus would hang out in a strip club. Are we talking about the Jesus who had a high opinion of women and a low view of lust? Hanging out at a strip club doesn’t sound like something he would do.
But since the question is being asked, I assume there are people who think he would. I have to assume they think that since Jesus ate with sinners, he’d have no problem eating at a buffet next to a stripper pole.
Jesus did sit and eat with sinners (Mark 2:16–17). In Luke 15, we again find the oft-quoted claim made by the Pharisees: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” What is often left out is the lengthy reply Jesus gave. After hearing their charges, Jesus tells three parables—about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a prodigal son. Each of these stories has the same theme: rejoicing over the repentance of sinners. It’s possible, even likely, that some who ate with Jesus—such as during the feeding of the 5,000, or at Simon the Pharisee’s house—left unrepentant. But there is no evidence that Jesus ever ate with sinners or even spent significant time “hanging out” with them without calling them to turn from their sin.
There is no place in Scripture where Jesus was uncritically present when sin was occurring or when an action that mocked God was taking place. In fact, in the most famous example of Jesus witnessing an act where sin was taking place and God was being mocked—a scene recorded in all four Gospels—he made a whip of cords and drove sinners from the temple. Do we think this Jesus would unreservedly hang out in a place where men and women were mocking the dignity of the human body?
I wonder if what many people want to know is not whether Jesus would hang out at a strip club, but whether he’d have an issue if they hung out there. For those people, I’d recommend meditating on the words of Matthew 5:28–29.
Yes, to Shine in the Dark
Strip club? Crack house? Porn convention? Casino? Fill in the blank, and every response of mine is an absolute yes—Jesus would hang out in these places. Here’s why: There is no context, environment, or event that Jesus would choose not to be in.
Our limitations on where he might go are based on not fully understanding the desperate need for Christ in these godforsaken places. There are an estimated 400,000 strippers working in nearly 4,000 clubs in the United States. As followers of Christ, we should hang out in these places too.
In January 2002, Craig Gross and Mike Foster launched a ministry at a Las Vegas porn convention. The organization, XXXchurch.com, is devoted to being the presence of Christ at these events. There, volunteers have handed out thousands of Bibles with the words “Jesus loves porn stars” on the cover. I was taught about the deep and lavish grace of God not by a seminary professor but by the sex industry. In our moments of pride, we say that “those sinful people” have nothing to offer us, that we are there to save them. But a great desire of God is to ruin our spiritual pride. (If you don’t believe this, go to an AA meeting.)
Fear is the core reason why many of us would say “no” to Jesus hanging out in a strip club. Fill in the blank of what you might be afraid of happening: it might look bad; it wouldn’t be very productive to do ministry in that environment; people would be dragged down into a life of sin; someone would have to explain our actions to religious people.
I am sympathetic to these fears and their power. But such comments expose the smallness of our religion. A Christian leader once said to me, “Don’t blame the dark for being dark. Blame the light for not shining in the dark.”
God is the God of “yes” and the God of “go.” We have made our faith too heavy and our walk burdensome and scary. We are so great at making the gospel complex that we forget about the simplicity of Jesus. He is not held down by manmade restraints, restrictions, or rules. He easily strolls into the space of need and the lives that are desperate for healing.
Here is my purely marketing move: If I were acting as brand consultant for Jesus, I would tell him to go to the strip club. No place is off-limits to the gospel. In Luke 5:32 Jesus proclaims, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
Everyone is looking for attention and trying to get their message out. Do you want to stand out? Then do what other teachers, religious leaders, and followers refuse to do. In my opinion, light shines the brightest in the darkest places—places like the neighborhood strip club.
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