Matt Barnes isn't joking when he says he loves elected officials.
The unofficial pastor for the Indiana General Assembly and state government may be in a minority these days. Who else loves politicians?
Yet Barnes claims divine sanction. "God loves people," he explained. "Politicians are people. God loves politicians. So I do too."
For some members of the Indiana Legislature, Barnes has become an informal pastor, leading Bible studies and providing a trusted ear in pastoral matters.
To churches throughout Indiana, Barnes has become an advocate of prayer for government. As he preaches or teaches as a guest, he reminds congregations of the apostle Paul's admonition to pray for all who are in authority:
"Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence" (1 Timothy 2:1-2).
Sometimes he has some fun training pastors in how to love lawmakers. Arranging for a large group of pastors to hand out Bibles to members of the General Assembly last year, he led them in a unison chant: "I love politicians."
Working to his advantage in his growing personal ministry in government is the fact that he has no political ax to grind.
"He stays away from political issues and focuses on the personal needs of each legislator," said state Sen. Scott Schneider, an Indianapolis Republican. "He's not a lobbyist or a public policy advocate."
Freshman Sen. Jim Banks, a northeast Indiana Republican, noted a rare trait in Barnes: "In politics there are always walls. You don't know who to trust. You're cautious about what you talk about. Matt's taken politics out of it. He brings a non-threatening approach because he is genuine."
Barnes has no official office or government appointment. The son of a southern Indiana pastor, he was working at Home Depot in 2004 when he was 27 while he assisted his father in pastoral ministry. He and his wife, Miriam, have three young children.
He volunteered to lead a ministry of prayer for state government, and State Sen. Dennis Kruse and former Indiana Secretary of State Ed Simcox, who led an informal Bible study for legislators, realized that Barnes could boost their part-time efforts.
"People used to come to me and ask me to pray for them," Kruse recalled. "He now has churches and people helping him. He can activate 100 people to pray."
When he first met Barnes, Simcox wondered if he was too good to be true. "I was a bit suspicious-what's Matt's deal? Who sent him?" Simcox said. "Matt showed himself to be very authentic. What he said was what he turned out to be. He didn't come in with any political agenda. He came in wanting to be a servant."
Barnes looks beyond party labels. "He's very genuine," says Rep. Peggy Welch, a Democrat from Bloomington. "He keeps confidences. He's not asking for anything. The Lord has opened doors for him because of his humble spirit."
His ministry is part of Capitol Commission, a national organization of ministers active in state legislatures, and Barnes' financial support comes from churches and individuals, not the state government.
He stays out of church-state controversy partly because no one objects to a spiritual Good Samaritan. He also doesn't want government financial support because Christians should pray for government in response to divine command, not for financial reward.
Barnes also sets a good biblical example of church-state cooperation for larger public purposes, in the spirit of Jeremiah 29:7, when Jeremiah instructed the Israelites in exile to seek the welfare of a pagan land. Church-state conflicts tend to attract more headlines, but the church and state can help each other when they follow their biblical assignments and respect their distinct yet not necessarily separate purposes and spheres.
And citizens don't have to love their politicians, but they should pray for them. Some love and an occasional word of encouragement would be welcome as well, following the pastoral example of Matt Barnes.