Pastor Tommy Barnett answers your questions about God, family and ministry.
He’s the leader of the what is known by many as “The Church with a Heart.” He’s the senior pastor of one of the fastest growing churches in America. He’s overseer of more than 245 outreach ministries. He’s Pastor Tommy Barnett, set-man of Phoenix First Assembly of God in Phoenix, Ariz.
With an average weekly attendance of over 15,000, Phoenix First could best be described as a soul-winning church. Indeed, Barnett has a passion for souls and he’s imparting that to his disciples. His church is committed to reaching the city, country and the world from its 75-acre headquarters. Barnett is also committed to reaching the next generation. His facilities include the Small World Village, a state-of-the-art, 33,800-square-foot facility for early childhood education.
Barnett has been building for decades, and he’s not done building yet. He’s not building alone, either. His strong discipleship training is breeding leaders who will carry the passion of Christ for decades to come. The Voice magazine caught up with Barnett to discuss his passions, his dreams, his ministry and his life.
THE VOICE: You’ve been preaching the Kingdom since you were 16 years old and you’ve got a passion to win souls, raise disciples and teams. Was there a turning point? Did God awaken in you a passion or a desire? Was there a significant moment that caused you to begin your ministry?
PASTOR TOMMY BARNETT: That’s a real easy question to answer because my dad was a pastor at a church in Kansas City. He was a very innovative man. He’s the man that started the Singing Christmas Tree. He and my mother developed the Living Lord Supper that is used all over the country. Many people felt that my dad started the “bus ministry.” He used to take me out to work the bus routes. I would go with him to the hospitals and actually watch people die. My dad was a great evangelistic preacher; he would give altar calls and sometimes they would sing the altar call songs for 45 minutes. Some things are taught and some things are caught. I caught it from my dad. He would reach out to the hurting. He reached out to the poor. His emphasis way back in the early days of Pentecost was still winning souls. He was influenced as much back then by the Fundamental Baptists. He was a Pentecostal filled with the Spirit but we’ve always had a passion for souls like the Baptists. We figure if you can put a Pentecostal anointing with a Baptist priority for souls, we can do great things. That’s where the influence came from.
THE VOICE: Now your son is continuing the work. That must be gratifying.
PASTOR TOMMY BARNETT: He’s in the same mode. We’re just reaching people for the Lord.
THE VOICE: You are the senior pastor of one of the largest and fastest growing churches in America. What are the opportunities and challenges that go along with this task?
PASTOR TOMMY BARNETT: Well, I think one of the biggest challenges is to remain relevant. I’ve been preaching now for 54 years and my church has more young people than it’s ever had. Sunday night is our largest night, which is surprising when other people have done away with Sunday night. We took a survey recently and found that 80 percent of the people in Sunday night crowd are 30 and under. Phoenix Magazine, a big magazine here in town, carried a front page article in which they listed the 10 hot spots after the sun goes down. They listed all the night clubs, but one of the 10 places they listed was our church.
The method is not sacred. The message is sacred. I’ve learned that I change through the age but I’m still an old-fashioned fundamental . When it comes to the method, I’m a liberal (I wash my mouth after I say that word). When it comes to outreach I’m a liberal. I’ll do everything in good taste when it comes to winning people to Jesus Christ because the method is not sacred, the message is. We have a Christmas pageant that draws about 120,000 people. We do it for about 14 nights. One building seats 7,000 and it’s filled every night. We have an altar call every night at the end of every pageant and we have about 3,000 people every night that raise their hands to accept Jesus Christ. I made up my mind that I’m always going to be relevant. I think I’m easier to change now than when I was a young man.
THE VOICE: You mentioned the pageant. I know you have an Easter celebration and other events. Why are events so important to effective ministry? Why does that work so well?
PASTOR TOMMY BARNETT: At Christmas time we give away 10,000 gifts. We have a big Christmas morning service. We have two of them. The first one at 9 a.m. is in English. The next service is in Spanish. We ask all our people to bring at least two gifts for a child. We invite all the kids and rent every bus we can in town. We pick the ones that get the bicycles. They are the ones that have been faithful during the year and the rule is that their parents have to come with them to take the bicycle home. Of course, our motive is to win their parents when they get to church. At the end of the service while the choir and orchestra plays and we sing Christmas carols, the 10,000 kids come down the aisle and we have a 40-foot Christmas tree with presents around it. When the parents come with their children, we give out about 300,000 cans of canned goods. Everyone who comes with their children gets a sack of groceries, presents, bicycles and we just bless them. I preach to people and that day shows how everyday of the year ought to be lived. The poor we have with us always.
We also have a Dream Center here in Phoenix where we feed, we clothe and we give shelter. It’s a day when we get up on that soapbox and tell the world that this is how we ought to live every day of the year. The second reason those big days are important is because we make new contacts. We have a big follow-up program called APEX and all the new people that are saved are contacted. The idea is that when we have a big day we go up and then we come back down. But every day we have a big day we go up a little higher. It’s like climbing a mountain. It’s like the stock market where it goes up and down but it’s always going up. So big days show us what it’s going to be like when we average that every Sunday. It tells us the problems and how many more workers we’re going to need. We figure to put on a regular service on a Sunday we need about 1,000 workers. For a special service we will need about 3,000 people. So it builds our vision for bigger and better things.
THE VOICE: You obviously have had teams and a focus on raising real spiritual sons and daughters who are faithful and loyal to that vision. How important are the teams? Could you do this without a team model?
PASTOR TOMMY BARNETT: There’s no way in the world. What we teach at our church is servant leadership. We don’t talk about volunteers anymore, because volunteers have the idea that you volunteer for something and then you quit. Servant leadership means forever. In our church we have a program called Fusion. It’s a Wednesday night service and we have 12 to 15 minutes of praise and worship, 10 minutes of preliminaries, 25 to 30 minutes of teachings, and then at 8:00 we break up in small groups of 12 to16. We have many of these servant leadership groups. In other words, if a person’s hobby is mountain climbing he has a mountain climbing group that he meets with. Some of them have boys in the service so they meet together and have prayer for their sons. We have bus ministry groups, and so on. This makes the church smaller because you know we have over 245 active ministries in our church.
THE VOICE: On an individual level what can a Christian do to prepare himself for the Master’s service? What does it take to really make a difference for Jesus?
PASTOR TOMMY BARNETT: The best way to prepare you is to get yourself in a good Bible aggressive evangelistic church. One that will disciple you. The only way I know how to explain discipleship is being with a group of people that are doing the work of God and watching the leader and emulating that person. In other words, make a list of things you see that work and do not work; things that you admire in about the quality of that person. Take the good points because everyone has good and bad, and build your life around somebody who has character and not talent. Talent always looks for talent to get the job done. Give me a person with character and he will search out the talent that he needs to help him, but character will always rise to the top. So I never choose a staff member that has talent. I go for character. That’s what discipleship is about, building character, faithfulness and the best way to get that burden is to get in a church and explore. If you don’t find it at the first church you go to another one, and one day something will click and you’ll be on your way.
THE VOICE: Discipleship is so important. Is discipleship any different today than it was 25 years ago?
PASTOR TOMMY BARNETT: The only difference I find is that you don’t have to get up and really preach to the young people, “Go do it.” You just have to say it one time and young people today are looking for a cause. All they want is someone to direct them and that’s why we have these 245 ministries. That’s why we have the Dream Center. It is as much for our own people as it is to help people. It used to be that you had to convince people, especially young people, and now all you have to do is say let’s do it and give them a job and they do it. Consequently, in my church it is younger than it’s ever been. Here I am a 69-year-old man and I have the youngest church ever. The reason why is because we’ve discipled these young people by turning them loose. We call the youth the future of tomorrow…no, they are the future of today. My music director is 19 years old. My front is full of high school, college and young married couples. I’m hiring young people on my staff because young people and women don’t have an ego like me. They want to serve God. They are easy to direct than any other people I’ve ever seen because they are not tainted with a lot of old ideas. They are looking for leadership from older people and they will break their necks to get there.
THE VOICE: What a revelation. That’s very interesting because so many people don’t want to give young people and young adults an opportunity because they say they’re not ready for it yet. And here you are giving them a platform for them to use their gifts.
PASTOR TOMMY BARNETT: In our church we told the young people that they are going to be prioritized and that’s why music in our church is more focused towards the young people. I told the older people in our church, “Look, I’m tired of singing those old songs. We need to be more unselfish. Let’s learn their songs. Let’s rock and roll a little bit. You can listen to your Gaither songs when you get home. Let’s love our young people enough that we will bury our own taste and prefer the young people.”
THE VOICE: In terms of equipping and releasing people into ministry, have you always had that revelation?
PASTOR TOMMY BARNETT: When I became pastor of the church I learned that we can’t hire everybody. Churches all over the country are finally coming into the revelation that we have to use people in the church. I saw that years ago so I called my church a permission-giving church. People go out and do something and then come back to the ministry leader and say “Look, this is what I’m doing and I’d like to get permission to do it under the umbrella of the church.” We then put them under the umbrella of our church. We give permission to every member of our church to go out and start a ministry and some will succeed and some will fail. Some that I thought would succeed failed and some that I thought would never make it they are the ones that rise up to become great people. It goes with the philosophy that we will give everybody an opportunity in our church and if they need correction we give correction. I’ve learned this: What you try to hold on to will get away from you and what you release will be loyal to you. In churches for years we’ve been taught that you’ve got to keep everything under your control or they’ll go and start a church. But if you help people reach their dreams they will love you for life.
THE VOICE: I’ve seen some statistics that some churches have cut back on outreach programs but yet you continue to increase on outreach programs. Should we be doing more to fulfill the Great Commission?
PASTOR TOMMY BARNETT: Josh McDowell came to the Dream Center. When he went through it he said to me teary-eyed, “Churches that are not involved in this kind of ministry are going to be obsolete in just a few years.” The churches that are not taking care of the social needs of the people are the churches that are going to lose out because they are hurting their own people. They’re missing a great blessing. Several years ago I came here and I thought “Lord, if I can just get your attention, then I know I will be blessed in this church.” And I thought “Lord, how can I get your attention?” I read in the Bible when a sparrow fell it got His attention. When a blade of hair fell it got His attention. The widow that put her coin in the offering got the attention of God. The suckling babies got the attention of God. I thought if I could get these people that nobody wants and bring them to my church, I would get His attention. I really believe that’s why God has blessed me through the years. Somebody will say, “Boy, you sure are a nice guy.” No, since I’m selfish. I want the blessings of the Lord and I learned that if I reach out to these people, I’m going to have the attention and the blessings of the Lord. I’ve kind of obligated God to help us and supply the needs in our church. I just think that people are missing out because God’s Church is not a waiting room for saints, it’s a hospital for the sick and this is what the Church has missed.
I’ve also learned a key principle – I need to enlarge my circle of love. Anybody that I shut out of my circle of love will hurt me and anybody that I include in my circle of love will never hurt me. So, I’m going to reach out to all kinds of people. Everybody knows that Jim Baker lived at the Dream Center for two years after he got out of prison. It’s the only place that he could go and that he felt accepted. He just was a servant there, no position. We loved him and God blessed us as we reached out to him. I had a fear because at that time he wasn’t very popular. The Lord said to me, “You’ve got murderers here. You’ve got former drug addicts here. You’ve got everybody here.” But there’s something wicked about us that we set some people out of our circle of love, like pastors that have failed. It doesn’t mean that you’re approving of them or that you’re trying to put them back in the pulpit. It means that you’re trying to restore them and put them on the right path. So, God spoke to me and said “Look, if you don’t take care of everybody, including fallen preachers, I’m not going to bless you.” I said “God, you drive a hard bargain.”
THE VOICE: What do you see as the challenges facing the Body of Christ today and how can we overcome them?
PASTOR TOMMY BARNETT: I was 16 when I started in the ministry. One of the things I saw in our churches was that everybody got excited about healing, prophesy, the gifts of the Spirit, the fruit of the Spirit and these things. But the least exciting to these people was wining souls and giving altar calls. At 16, I preached in the summer and went to school in the winter. At that time revivals would go on for two weeks and it was said you’ve wasted your investment if you didn’t bring the unsaved. By the end of the first week people started bringing unsaved people to the church. I believe one reason why people don’t bring the unsaved to the church is that they’re not sure that the pastor is going to make an effort to win them. Truly, everything in our service on Sunday morning is all pointed towards the unbeliever. I preach to the Christians but the last five minutes I turn to the unsaved.
On a typical Sunday there are 200 to 300 people saved. I don’t mean to sound like I’m blowing my own horn, but if there is anything that I contribute to the Body of Christ in my 30 years of Pastor Schools is that there are many churches I have turned into soul-winning churches. I think the challenge is to keep the message alive before the people that Jesus came to seek and to save that which is lost. The only thing that justifies a church is if they’re winning souls. If it’s not winning souls they should just shut the doors, sell it, and divide the profit among the members and just get out of the business because they have a club and not a church.
THE VOICE: What’s the most effective way to combat the rising antichrist assault against the Kingdom of God in America?
PASTOR TOMMY BARNETT: The way we’re going to change this culture is to build soul-winning churches that are relevant. They are not looked upon as nuts in the city. There’s so much that we do well, but we have to watch ourselves as preachers because when we preach we’re against everything. But we have healing, we have salvation, we have the gifts of the Spirit, we have the answers to the marriage problems and answers to the broken children lives. We have the answers. If we’re the great churches that have the answers to today’s problems, if we’re a church that reaches out and feeds and clothes and loves people, how can the world fight that kind of a church? The Dream Center is the darling of the media in L.A.
The Church is the answer if the Church would just be the Church. The Church should be problem-solving not the government. The Church should be great soul-winning, relevant, loving, caring people. You ever stop to think about why the little woman gets an abortion? It’s not because she doesn’t love her baby. I don’t believe that. It’s not because she doesn’t revere the sanctity of life. Maybe she would rather take a chance at getting the abortion, hoping God would forgive her than to not have an abortion and risk being taken out of the church’s circle of love. We decided that we’re going to include everybody. No, we’re not going to justify their sins because I preach the devil out of them every week. But we’re going to help them. We’re going to show them consequences of sin, but here’s the way out.
THE VOICE: What’s your view on the responsibilities in the relationships between spiritual fathers and sons?
PASTOR TOMMY BARNETT: You really can’t be a spiritual father to everybody that comes your way. In our Pastor’s School last year we had about 17,000 people on our final night in the largest auditorium. We had to turn thousands away. A lot of these men now consider me their pastor. That night Joyce Meyer was there as one of our guests and she told the people that I was her pastor. Brian Houston from Hillsong told the people I was his pastor and did a tribute. T.D. Jakes said that this ministry had changed his life. I have so many people writing asking me if I would be their spiritual father. The only way you can do it is by good example. Just live right. Give them values and good principles to live by. Go out and speak to them at their church when they ask you to. The greatest responsibility is to live right, think right, be positive, and show them how to be big people and forgive and never get bitter. It’s the principles you teach them and you can’t teach them without living them. You’ll get more out of people if you encourage them and inspire them to do great things for God.
THE VOICE: Is that how you helped transition your son Matthew into the ministry?
PASTOR TOMMY BARNETT: I’ll tell you what I did. I knew there were talents in that boy. I just encouraged him. I stood by him and then I released him. He learned by being in the home and just seeing ministry all his life. It goes back to the fact that some things are caught and not taught. That’s really our obligation to our spiritual sons. There’s no way I can give anyone the anointing. I just can’t impart the anointing. The anointing comes from God. I can give them my spirit. I’m going be positive; I’m going to be on top of things; I’m going help you; I’m going to stand; I’m going to be a man of integrity. That’s not the anointing. That’s the spirit that comes from you that builds great churches. The anointing has to come from God. I hear a lot of guys say I’m imparting the anointing on you. No, that anointing has to come from God.
THE VOICE: Of all the things that God has used you to accomplish and all the things that God has given you to do and told you to do, what surprises you the most?
PASTOR TOMMY BARNETT: Years ago I used to preach – and it’s a great principle which I believe in – that anything I ever accomplished I foresaw in my mind. I got a visual picture of it and then I got a word from God that it was His will. When I get a word from God and a visual picture, all the demons in hell can’t stop it. Everything you see on this campus, I saw in my mind before it happened. But you know what, today I’m seeing things that I never saw and things I never dreamed. The Bible says that He would do exceedingly abundantly above all that we can ask or think. In the last five years I’ve seen more people saved than I saw the entire 48 years before that. In the last five years I see more signs, wonders and miracles than I saw in all those other years put together. More money has come through my hands in the last five years – and I always add, by the way, that none of it stuck. It wasn’t for me. It was for the Kingdom of God. I’ve had 15 men give me $1 million or more for the cause of Jesus Christ. I call that the biggest surprise. All of that was exceeding abundantly above all that I was able to ask or think according to the power that is working within us. We all preach, and I still believe that you’ve got to see it, but if you would see it long enough, God will give you exceeding abundantly above all that you can ask or see.
THE VOICE: What was the shift? Was it just faithfulness over all the years doing what He asked you to do and something shifted?
PASTOR TOMMY BARNETT: I wrote a book called “Hidden Powers” and the premise of the book is this: You spend your life helping people fulfill their dreams and one day there’s a shift that takes place. That’s why it’s called “Hidden Powers.” I didn’t do it for that reason. I just wanted to help people. I found a principle 12 years ago when we started the Dream Center. I stood in the Pastor’s School and said, “We’re going to start,” and I received that first offering. Pastors came out of the woodwork to help me build the Dream Center. I mean it just shocked me. I spent 30 years having Pastor’s Schools all over the country, preaching one day a week to help them build their churches. One day they said, “Pastor we’re going to help you build your dreams.” We call it the Dream Center the church America built and it’s because of the dedicated pastors. I really believe it’s because I helped them reach their dreams. It’s the old principle of sowing and reaping.
THE VOICE: So what’s in your heart now? What’s next?
PASTOR TOMMY BARNETT: My dream now for the rest of my life is to help people reach their dreams. Almost 200 Dream Centers have spun off in the past 12 years. There are pastors who need advice and help. That’s why we have two pastor schools here and in L.A. The rest of my life is going to be helping them. I’m here I don’t know how much longer, but I have no plans to retire. The rest of my life is not going to be about building buildings, but building people. It surprises people, but I really don’t particularly like to preach. I like to see something done. I like to see something built. I like to see some program done. I like to see results. Preaching to me is like some old greasy wrench that I need to fix something with instead of a beautiful brush that you paint a masterpiece with. It’s a tool to get something done for God. I live a vicarious life. I live to see these young men all over the world that have come to our Pastor’s School. It’s a greater joy for me to sit back and just cheer for them than to do it myself anymore.
THE VOICE: What is the Spirit of God saying to you about the times that we’re in or where we’re headed?
PASTOR TOMMY BARNETT: Well, I’ll tell you this, and I’m a very positive guy and this sounds negative. But, America, and I listen to the talk programs and all I watch FOX News. To be honest with you, I’m so disappointed in the American people because we have raised a generation of fat cats. We’re indulgers. We want everything now. We want it quick. If we can’t get it quick enough from McDonald’s we go down the street to Arby’s. And that’s the way it is in the Church. If our nursery is not just perfect or if we feel like our kids are not getting the proper attention we just pull up and go to another church. We are raising a bunch of unfaithful children that don’t know about hanging in there through the good times and the bad times. That spirit that’s in the world. We lost the war in Vietnam not because of the lack of firepower but because the lack of willpower. And now we’re going to set and give up again in Iraq and we will fight the Muslims until Jesus comes. We’re going to fight them if we don’t have enough courage to put our resources together and go in there and win the battle. The reason right now we have that problem is because Abraham sinned and there was a time in the Bible where God told them to win the battle against their enemies and they didn’t so they fought them for the rest of their lives.
America is getting soft and that’s the thing that disturbs me about this generation. I’m going to say this and it sounds bad. But maybe the greatest thing – and I don’t want it to happen, I don’t want to go through it – that could happen to America is a depression or maybe a tragedy to wake us up to realize that we need God. History shows that there has never been a great revival to sweep a country when the country had prosperity. It was when they were in need. Start with the Welch revival and go around. It’s when the place was in need when they called upon God.
But we’re like the Church in the Bible who has need of nothing and we have raised a bunch of spoiled soft Americans that have no fight left in them and that bothers me about America. I love America. That’s why I spend all my time in America while others are going around the world. God has put a burden on me for America. I love my country but I’m concerned about my people. So I will spend the rest of my life kicking their tails and trying to get them involved in doing something for God.
The hope all over the world is men of God who will stand in the pulpit as the most powerful force. The Church is the force, but if we accept homosexuality as being okay, if we give into abortion, if we give into drinking…The answer is in the house of God. That’s why the Bible says that judgment starts in the house of God.