He Dares to Give Love

by | Feb 28, 2003 | Charisma Archive

No other church leader in America has inspired grass-roots evangelism like Tommy Barnett. But he’s too busy caring for lost people to keep track of his success.
The campus of Phoenix First Assembly of God nestles up against a cactus-dotted Arizona hillside, looking, as one person says, more like a resort than a church. On a Sunday morning, golf carts zip people up to the sanctuary past well-groomed desert landscaping. A brand-new child-care “village” teems with kids, and a new area for older youth looks like an Olympic-style plaza.

White buses, including several for wheelchair-users, bring hundreds of people from faraway neighborhoods to the large sanctuary. Inside, it rises two balconies high over a sprawling main floor, and heart-pounding praise music fills the room.

Then pastor Tommy Barnett takes the pulpit, as he does here nearly every Sunday morning. “Everybody who’s glad they’ve come to Phoenix First, say a good amen,” he says. With that he launches into a sermon on how to be a miracle, and his energy makes him seem decades younger than his 65 years.

It’s only mild exaggeration to say that the charismatic wing of the body of Christ is divided into the haves and the haven’ts–those who have experienced Tommy Barnett and those who haven’t; those who have attended his pastors school and those who haven’t; those who have been to the Dream Center in Los Angeles and those who haven’t; those who have found a new vision for their lives at one of these places and those who haven’t.

He’s a Dream-Weaver

For those who know only Barnett’s name, it may come as a surprise that he is arguably the most influential pastor in America today. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other pastors claim him as their own pastor. His ideas have radically changed how charismatic churches and ministers–from T.D. Jakes to Jim Bakker–carry out ministry.

Barnett and men he has trained lead three of the largest churches in the Assemblies of God (AG). He founded the Dream Center in Los Angeles–a massive inner-city social ministry and church housed in the former Queen of Angels Hospital–and inspired the opening of almost 200 other similar centers in the United States and Europe.

Bill Wilson of Metro Ministries in Brooklyn, New York–who started the nationally successful Sidewalk Sunday School ministry–learned from Barnett while working as a church-bus driver in Iowa. The AG’s Master’s Commission, born at Phoenix First, has become the leading ministry for young people wanting to give a year or two of their lives to radical missions training.

“I think Barnett is one of the most inspirational men I have ever known,” says Bishop T.D. Jakes, pastor of the 28,000-member Potter’s House church in Dallas. “He has–by his presence, his preaching and his persona–the ability to motivate others to reach for their dreams.”

“He’s the greatest man of God I’ve ever met,” says Larry Kerychuk, who was on staff at Phoenix First, co-founded Master’s Commission and led a Christian athletes conference for 18 years. “He makes everybody comfortable in his presence, from the inner-city kid to the millionaire. Usually when you hang around someone long enough you get used to them, but I’ve been with him for 23 years, and I’m more in awe of him now than I ever have been.”

That sentiment is common even among America’s highest-profile ministers. Many of them tapped into their lifelong purpose upon attending Barnett’s annual pastors school, which has become one of the most significant regularly held events in modern Christian history.

Barnett is, by his own acknowledgement, not a great scholar or theologian. There is no pomp about him. No handlers, bodyguards, silk suits, fancy cars. He flies economical Southwest Airlines. His office is decorated simply. Every Sunday he stands in the foyer of his 15,000-member church and shakes hands and hugs necks for an hour.

He’s of legal age to retire but has no plans to. He sold his dream property in Flagstaff, Arizona, and used the money to start the Los Angeles Dream Center. He gave up golf because he prefers spending time meditating on God. He still receives offers to pastor some of the largest churches in the country. (These invitations don’t attract him, although he has considered going to London, where, he says, “Someone could build the greatest church in the world.”)

He comes from strong ministry roots and admired his father as an innovator. As a boy, he rode the church bus into poor neighborhoods to fetch the “forgotten” children of Kansas City, Kansas, and bring them to church. At 16, fueled by a passion to do something great for God, he preached weekend revivals in several states.

At 17 he dropped out of Bible school, believing it was delaying his ministry calling. Soon he was preaching in the largest churches of the day. He got married, took a church in Davenport, Iowa, that was beset by infighting and turned it into one of the fastest-growing churches in America. Country music star Johnny Cash once headlined an outreach event at the church.

During this time his threefold calling became clear to him: to build a soul-winning church, to set a pattern of good works for others to follow and to inspire pastors to do great things for God. One year he convened a daylong pastors conference that was so successful it became an annual event.

The School of the Heart

Then, to his disbelief, God called him to Phoenix to a dimly lit church with shrinking attendance run by a discontented board. Barnett came reluctantly and began to build what would become, for a time, the largest church in America. He ran buses to poor neighborhoods, staged spectacular Easter and Christmas pageants, and performed illustrated sermons that rivaled the showmanship of Broadway. The pastors school, through word-of-mouth, became a bona fide phenomenon.

“The success of the pastors school has been a big surprise to me,” Barnett says. “I think it’s because we do stuff pastors can do. Not all pastors can be geniuses or great Bible scholars or orators, but they can all have character and do the work of the ministry.”

Indeed, the pastors school, which is now 25 years old and draws 14,000 people a year, is a dream-revving engine. First-timers expecting a stodgy series of cerebral sessions might think they instead have been roped by a circus clown.

The opening night’s parade of 200 ministries–a segment of the service when people march across the altar in a convoy that includes bikers on rumbling motorcycles, “holy rollers” in wheelchairs, and mentally retarded children who throw candy to the audience–is so shockingly different and moving that many pastors cry all the way through it. The atmosphere is pure fun–a zoo, as Barnett describes it.

When the parade ends–with the presence of a live elephant, swooping angels and a real caboose–the lights go down, and Barnett says: “You’re probably wondering how this all started. When I came here 23 years ago, I didn’t know what to do. But we started bringing kids on buses.”

Then, suddenly, 500 kids run down the aisles and fill the altar. Barnett interviews one or two and invites them to sing a song. They tell how they were saved from gang life and drugs.

The kids then clear the stage and Barnett says, “Then those kids grew up, and here’s what they became.” The curtain parts to reveal 300 Master’s Commission students singing: “I came to praise Him! I came to worship Him!”

By this time the atmosphere is electric. Barnett interviews mentally retarded children, athletes, bikers and people in wheelchairs who testify how their lives changed because of the extraordinary measures Phoenix First took in reaching out to them. For a finale, balloons fall from the ceiling, confetti cannons boom and streamers fly.

And it’s still just the first night.

“Every barrier gets broken down on opening night,” Barnett says of the school. “They expected to see a big ol’ sophisticated church, and what they see instead tears at their hearts.”

For the next few days Barnett, who personally teaches the sessions and has never turned the conference over to others, goes over the mechanics of holding big outreaches, pageants, turkey dinners for thousands of poor people, illustrated sermons and much more.

At one point he loads the attendees on buses and sends them out to bring people to church at night. When evening comes, video screens are set up outside to serve the overflow, everyone is served hot dogs and hot chocolate, and Barnett puts on an impressive illustrated sermon. It’s normal for 1,000 people to stream forward for salvation.

That kind of response so moved John Maxwell, the best-selling author of The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership–who was pastor of Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego when he first attended Barnett’s school–that he and his staff requested a room at the church where they could meet together after the service.

“We prayed there for a couple of hours, asking God to give us a passion for lost souls,” Maxwell says. “That night marked both the staff’s ministry and my ministry as we went back to San Diego with renewed passion.”

The school ends with pastors spending time alone on the mountainside, asking God to give them a dream, then writing it down and nailing it to the ground. Some people pray on the mountain all night.

One of the school’s biggest fans is Ted Haggard, pastor of 9,000-member New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“I go to megachurch pastors schools all the time–I’m a pastors school junkie,” Haggard says, “and Tommy Barnett’s is the only one I’ve ever been to–in all my life–where they talk about love. All the others talk about systems and programs and structures, but only Tommy’s school, exclusively, coaches people on how to love one another.”

At Haggard’s church the folding chairs they use to accommodate large crowds are nicknamed “Tommy Barnett chairs.” Haggard says it’s because Barnett’s name is synonymous with caring for people.

“He has the ability to stand in front of a large crowd and really care for each individual,” he says. “I’m in a world where religious charlatans use religious words, but behind the scenes they’re not genuine. Tommy is genuine. He’s the Mother Teresa of L.A. He helps people live a better life and causes them to be better on the inside.

“It’s Jesus in his heart that makes him act like that. People are confused about Christianity because there are not enough Tommy Barnetts around. If [Taliban fighter] John Walker Lindh had met him before he went overseas, he’d be a nice, Christian young man because that’s what he was looking for.”

Charles Nieman pastors the largest nondenominational church in El Paso, Texas–11,000-member Abundant Living Faith Center. Eight years ago he attended Barnett’s pastors school for the first time.

“It revolutionized my life,” Nieman says. “This is embarrassing, but my feeling was: I can’t learn anything over there. That’s AG. I’m Word of Faith. But my wife and I pulled onto the property, and it looked like a resort, not a church. We went in and almost couldn’t find a seat, it was so full.

“During the parade of ministries I broke down. It happens every time I go to pastors school. I lose it. Seeing all those people is like seeing the kingdom of God in action.”

Nieman says he learned more in a single session than in all the seminars he’d ever attended. And attendance at his church was already at 5,000 people. Today his congregation gives away literally tons of food and clothing, thousands of toys and blankets, and bus people to the sanctuary for services.

“Pastors school opened our eyes to things we never imagined doing,” he says. “We saw how Tommy opened doors for people to get involved. You know these things in your head, but it’s another thing to see it in manifestation, and it clicked in us. Tommy is my pastor. The impact he’s had on my life and church is immeasurable.”

Standing With the Fallen

Barnett inspires uncommon loyalty. Ten pastors on his staff have been with him 10 years or more.

At least four major ministries were born at Phoenix First: the National Association for Marriage Enrichment (a type of Promise Keepers for couples), Master’s Commission, Dream Center and a professional athletes conference. Each still operates from or has close ties with the church.

Barnett makes no effort to exert a strong hand over them. He has never copyrighted the names Master’s Commission or Dream Center.

“We have a philosophy,” Barnett says. “Whatever God gives us, we give it away because that makes us work harder to come up with something new. It keeps us on the cutting edge instead of sticking to the same old stuff.”

People urged him to take tighter control of the Los Angeles Dream Center, to make it an association with membership dues. Barnett did the opposite. He said anybody could use the name, and he waived registration fees to pastors school for other Dream Center staff around the country.

“Instead of them paying us to become a Dream Center, we bless them,” he says.

The Dream Center is perhaps the purest crystallization of Barnett’s ministry approach. At age 57 he wanted to start a church in Los Angeles but turned down invitations to begin one in affluent communities.

“I wanted to go where nobody else wanted to go,” he says.

He chose the most crime-ridden neighborhoods in Los Angeles and installed his son Matthew, then age 20, as co-pastor. This fit the elder Barnett’s belief in “downward mobility”–his commitment, as he describes it, to “gather all the hurting people that the world overlooked–the unwanted kids, the people who have failed.”

“I’ve learned there’s a blessing when you reach down to people nobody else wants,” he notes.

Within five years the Dream Center exploded in attendance and became a massive, full-service church reaching down-and-out people in every way imaginable–with tons of food a week, job training, an AIDS hospice, an elementary school and more ministries than can be named here.

“Tommy Barnett’s outreach to the inner city has been a model that we at The Potter’s House have used as a template to further our reach into inner-city evangelism,” Jakes says of his Dallas church.

The Dream Center, like Phoenix First, has become a vision incubator, breeding ministry entrepreneurs. Barnett calls it “loosing people,” and it often means putting ministry in the hands of people nobody else would touch. And, as his track record shows, it works.

Jack Wallace moved to Phoenix to learn ministry from Barnett in the 1980s. He was Tommy’s right-hand man for 10 years, but after extensive orthopedic surgeries Wallace struggled with an incipient addiction to prescription painkillers.

Personal conviction drove him to confess the dependency to Barnett and to the church. As a result, Wallace found himself persona non grata with some people in the church and the denomination.

“Some people ditched me because I’d fallen from grace,” Wallace says. “They stopped calling.”

But during his yearlong rehabilitation, Wallace says Barnett stuck close to him. When Wallace decided he was ready to pastor a church, Barnett championed him through several humiliating rejections.

Finally, Wallace took the helm of an almost dead church in Detroit, changed its name to Detroit World Outreach and in eight years has raised it from six attendees on Wednesday nights to more than 10,000 every weekend. It now is the largest food provider in Michigan, giving 5 million pounds of food a year (2,300 tractor-trailer loads). It buses 1,500 kids to church every Sunday–all part of the “find a need and fill it” approach that Wallace learned from Barnett.

“Working for Pastor Tommy was the greatest honor I’ve ever had,” Wallace says. “I value his friendship more than anything on the planet. You really have to be a mess before he’ll turn his back on you. You almost have to turn your back on him, and then he’ll still call you friend for a long time.”

Others have experienced Barnett’s loyalty. He and Billy Graham were the only two ministers to visit Jim Bakker during his first six months in prison, and Barnett and the Los Angeles Dream Center played a big part in Bakker’s after-prison restoration. Neither did he abandon his old friend Jimmy Swaggart after the Louisiana evangelist’s public fall.

“I love him to this day,” Barnett says.

There’s a good reason why Barnett would rather bank on uncertain people and stand with the disgraced than not.

“It’s worth it to trust people,” he says. “Some will make it, and some won’t, but you never know who unless you give them all a chance. A lot of the ministries at our church fail, but a lot of them rise up.”

For Barnett, that’s the stuff dreams–and reality–are made of.

The Preacher’s Kids

Tommy Barnett’s children say they respect the ministry today because their dad had right priorities.

Of all of Tommy Barnett’s accomplishments, he’s proudest of his three children–Kristie, Luke and Matthew–and his marriage to wife Marja. Interviews paint a portrait of a busy but devoted father.

“We always felt we were a huge priority,” says Kristie, who is married with children and sings on the worship team at Phoenix First Assembly of God where her dad is pastor. “Dad was very busy, but we had dinner as a family every night, and he took us to school every morning.”

All three children say their father came to every athletic game and practice when they were in school, even packing sermon notes to take to track meets and canceling preaching invitations to attend football games.

“That made us respect the ministry,” Kristie notes.

Luke, who pastors the thriving and progressive First Family Church in Whittier, California, admires his father’s passion for life, his integrity and his concern for people.

“I’ve watched his integrity in little things most people don’t know about,” Luke says. “He hand-writes a letter to everyone who writes him, and he’s never lost perspective that it’s about people. He knows people matter to God, so they matter to him. People tell me: ‘There’s something in his eyes. You can see the love of God oozing out of him.’

“My dad has an uncanny ability to let people know they’re the most important thing in his life right then. Sometimes this world beats people up so badly they don’t ever feel that way, but to look in your pastor’s eyes and know you’re the focus of his life–I’ve aspired to be like that.”

And Tommy Barnett’s passion for life, Luke says, is next to none. Recently when he and his dad were visiting together in Los Angeles, Tommy suggested they go for a jog–at midnight through Skid Row.

“He squeezes every ounce of energy out of life,” Luke says.

Matthew says the time spent with his dad as a boy helped him form his vision for the Dream Center. “We had a best-friend kind of relationship,” Matthew says. “Almost every night we’d go in the car to get ice cream or something.”

Both boys still call him every Monday morning to talk about how Sunday services went–the same thing Tommy did with his own father. During those conversations the lessons of ministry–dealing with various people and potential problems–get passed on.

“My dad’s a real peacemaker, which I learned from him,” Luke says. “He says that if you make an enemy, you’ll see him wherever you go, but you can’t make too many friends.”

Tommy never pressured his children to go into ministry.

“I never wanted to be anything but a mom, and he made me feel so good about that,” Kristie says. “He brags on me and tells me what a good job I do. Growing up I always wanted to raise my kids like he raised me.”

Spreading the Love Around

Tommy Barnett’s philosophy of giving to meet needs has produced models of successful outreach.

In Detroit, New York, Los Angeles and Phoenix, Tommy Barnett and his protégés lead some of America’s largest churches.

Bill Wilson, senior pastor and founder of Metro Ministries, a Sunday school ministry in Brooklyn, New York, that reaches 20,000 children a week, ran Barnett’s bus ministry in Davenport, Iowa, from 1975-1980 and says it was the catalyst that launched him into ministry in the nation’s largest city.

“Pastor Barnett invests in young men at critical times when they need someone to believe in them,” Wilson says. “He has a unique gift of seeing something and believing in people to such an extent that they see something in themselves that they wouldn’t have seen. He saw me when I was slugging it out in ministry as a 19-year-old kid, and he believed I was investable when a lot of other people didn’t.”

The pastors Barnett inspires innovate on the basic Barnett model, but the underlying idea–turning a church’s energies outward to love and serve the community–is the same. In Detroit, Jack Wallace started Fashion Share, where women in the church buy new outfits and put on a fashion show and a “shopping” spree for poor women. A thousand needy women, bused to the church from local shelters, get a fun day out and free clothes.

In Los Angeles, the Dream Center’s mix of good works and evangelism on a massive scale has become a beacon for churches around the world who want to be more effective in ministry. And other Barnett-inspired churches, such as the new St. Louis Dream Center, may become urban powerhouses.

How does Barnett teach others to grow churches of such size and influence? By teaching principles anyone can put into practice, Wilson says.

“Most big ministry guys can’t duplicate what they do because you can’t duplicate a personality. But you can duplicate principles,” Wilson explains. “Barnett does it differently. It’s not the Tommy Barnett show–he teaches biblical principles of outreach and compassion. Then average people say, ‘I can do that.’

“And they can. You take the principles and run with them.”

Real Ministers Clean Toilets

Tommy Barnett’s discipleship program, Master’s Commission, emphasizes servanthood as the foundation of true ministry.

One of the most far-reaching ministries born under Tommy Barnett’s leadership is Master’s Commission (MC), an intense, one- or two-year program that teaches radical servanthood and discipleship. The ministry began at Phoenix First Assembly of God in 1984 with 12 young people. Today there are about 150 groups and 2,400 students in the United States, with dozens of groups overseas.

The goal is to teach “a lifestyle of servant-ministry,” says Lloyd Zeigler, longtime director of the Phoenix and Los Angeles programs. Students don’t just lead worship and do outreach–they clean toilets, too.

“We believe in being a servant all the way through,” Zeigler adds.

Each local program is autonomous, though half are affiliated with the Phoenix-based network to maintain the “standards and heart” of the original program. In Illinois, Jeremy DeWeerdt started an MC at Rockford First Assembly in 1993. Today the program has about 180 students a year and works closely with the church’s 1,000-person youth ministry.

“Every MC is different,” DeWeerdt says. “There are core values, but the structure of the program should take on the personality of the church. For example, ours is geared toward training youth leaders.” The Rockford church even built on-campus apartments for its students to live in.

What separates an MC experience from a regular academic experience is the hands-on training, DeWeerdt says. In the morning, students spend time in prayer and worship. Then they go to a class for academics, and in the afternoon they put their training into practice on a street corner or at a public school. It adds up to “an incredible smorgasbord of experience and wisdom and teaching,” he says.

One student who attests to that is the reigning Mrs. America, Kristi Phillips, who became a Christian in her first year of college and joined the Rockford program.

“That first year with MC decided my walk with the Lord,” the on-fire graduate says. “It changed my life from the inside out. His Spirit grabbed hold of me.”

Kristi and husband Brian spent four years with MC programs and have been in full-time ministry since. Today, as Kristi serves out her Mrs. America term, she and Brian are praying about where God would send them–and hoping it will be to another MC program.

“Like most young girls, I went in very insecure, with low self-esteem, broken inside from immature mistakes I’d made,” Kristi says. “I grew so much in Master’s Commission. I had purpose in my life after that point, to live a Christian life and worship Him. I recommend it to any young person coming out of high school. God does amazing things in your life. You don’t even recognize yourself.”

The programs are set up to draw students by regions, but youths are sent to MC groups outside of their own regions to “get them out of their comfort zone,” DeWeerdt says. At the ministry’s annual conference in Phoenix, 6,000 students come together for a time of wild, glorious celebration and learning.

“You can’t have a ministry that grows without a pastor that believes in it,” Zeigler points out. “Master’s Commission was kind of pastor Barnett’s baby. It’s tied to his vision.”

Joel Kilpatrick is a Los Angeles-based writer and a frequent contributor to Charisma.


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