Evangelical pastor Rick Warren moderated a forum with John McCain and Barack Obama. A coalition of groups including Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, and the American Family Association will hold its annual Values Voters Summit just weeks before the November election. And every year or so another magazine lists the most influential evangelical groups or leaders.
But it could be that one Christian group having lasting impact on the political life in this country-and its leaders-is one most evangelicals have never heard of. California-based Capitol Ministries began when Ralph Drollinger started leading a Bible study for state legislators in Sacramento. The ground rules were simple: legislators only, and check your party affiliation at the door. These meetings would not be discussions about legislation, or even what Scripture says about legislation. They were focused on disciple-making.
"We are about changing hearts, not laws," said Sean Wallentine, vice president of ministry growth and operations for Capitol Ministries. "What some call 'moralizing culture' is a good thing," Wallentine said. "But the Great Commission says to make disciples. . . . If the heart of a politician is truly transformed, we don't have to lobby them to make moral laws."
A now infamous marketing campaign proclaims, "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." Some political operatives twisted that line: "What happens in California doesn't stay in California-it spreads to the rest of the country." So it has been with Capitol Ministries. The model that Drollinger pioneered in Sacramento is now operating in 19 states. Each state has a state director who usually leads one Bible study a week for legislators, and one that is open to staff and other state employees.
These Bible studies often lead to one-on-one counseling situations. In addition, Capitol Ministries organizes a "Pastors' Day at the Capitol" during the legislative session-not a lobbying event, but a "ministry event," Wallentine said. "We want pastors to become comfortable having their own relationships and ministries with these influential men and women. Again, not for the purpose of brokering influence, but to help them grow in their faith."
North Carolina Rep. Ruth Samuelson attends a weekly Bible study led by Capitol Ministries' state director Jim Young and said being in a room where there are only other legislators gives all a reason to be more candid and transparent. "As elected officials, almost everywhere we go, we're held up, or on display, or expected to take the lead," she said. "In these Bible studies, the field is level. It's also one of the few events that Republicans and Democrats attend together."
Capitol Ministries' $1.8 million annual budget is still small when compared to Campus Crusade and Focus on the Family, but it represents a 10-fold growth in the past decade. Capitol Ministries will begin work in North Dakota and Arizona in January, and this year had its first overseas expansion, developing a presence in Argentina's capitol, Buenos Aires. "The Great Commission says to go into all the world," Wallentine said. "Eventually, by God's grace, we intend to do just that."
Marbled halls of state capitols are a target-rich environment for ministry to leaders. Here are the numbers in 50 states:
Legislative support staff: 34,189
Governors & cabinet-level leaders: 971
Supreme Court justices: 326