Tommy Barnett is running out of time. "I'm dying while I'm preaching," the pastor of Phoenix First Assembly tells his congregation at a recent Sunday morning service. "I'm going to take my life and squeeze it like a washrag--squeeze every last drop out of it for the glory of God."
Don't let the seemingly somber words fool you. Barnett, who celebrates 50 years of ministry this October, is just as optimistic and energetic as he's always been--maybe more so. But these days there's an urgency about him that's hard to ignore.
"As you get older, you realize that what you're going to do, you need to do now," he told Ministries Today in a recent interview. "Imagine if one day I drove by this church and thought to myself: 'What if I'd given it my best? What if I'd given my money or my time or sacrificed some things to make it the focus of my life?'"
Instead, Barnett says he's "cranked it up" even more since he turned 50 years old--cutting out vacation days to help his son Matthew at the Dream Center in Los Angeles and turning in his country club membership. "They don't mow the grass where I hit the ball, anyway," he adds.
And he's seen dramatic results, particularly in the last four years. "Blessings are overtaking me," Barnett says with a bewildered smile. "More money has come through these hands for the work of the Lord; I've seen more people saved, more miracles and more signs and wonders than in the previous 46 years."
After a quick ride around the church campus in one of its covered golf carts, one would assume that the mastermind behind it all would be a little younger--a little more radical than the wiry 66-year-old who says his preaching is the same as it was when he started 50 years ago.
A building dedicated to youth ministry boasts a high-tech auditorium, a gymnasium and a Starbucks--the first church-based franchise in the United States.
The newly opened children's ministry pavilion features glass walls that can be retracted like garage doors to expand seating into an outdoor amphitheater.
Halfway up the rocky mountainside behind the church, ground is being broken for a prayer chapel and gardens.
While he still describes his sermons as a "greasy wrench" rather than a "masterpiece" ("I'm not preaching to impress. I'm preaching to fix something in our lives."), Barnett has refocused other areas of his ministry to adapt to changing times.
"I used to be very, very regimented," he says sheepishly. "Hymns only, ties and suits, no applauding in the church." He can't put his finger on it, but Barnett admits that over the years, something shifted.
"I'm more open to change than I've ever been in my life," he says. "I'm going to do whatever it takes--if it's in good taste--to reach people."
Barnett recalls being one of the first pastors to trade in hymnals for projection screens and high-tech gadgetry. "The preacher's responsible for this change," he says. And while many pastors would resort to cajoling to bring their congregations into the 21st century, Barnett used a different approach:
"'We like the old hymns, and we'll still use them,' I told the church. 'But let's quit being selfish. We've been singing these songs all our lives--they were once new to us. I'm tired of them. I want to rock 'n' roll a little bit.'"
And rock they do. Even in the early Sunday service supposedly populated by the more "mature" members of Phoenix First, gray-headed worshipers sway and clap to the music as the teens in the Masters Commission choir belt out upbeat praise choruses.
Members aren't the only ones taking notice these days. Recently, Phoenix Magazine rated the church one of the top 10 hottest places to be on a Sunday night.
"I've made up my mind; I'm going to be relevant," Barnett says firmly. "The method's not sacred, but the message sure is."
Barnett's message is--and always has been--about reaching the lost. "We need to be soul-winning," he says. "If we don't watch it, we'll just become an entertaining place where we shout and sing and make people feel good."
While he has no problem with the seeker-sensitive church model, Barnett is concerned that some pastors may be putting on a good show but "flaking out" when it comes time for an altar call. "I don't want people to have a false salvation," he says. "Drifting into church, enjoying the fellowship and music but never having a conversion experience."
Barnett suggests that current signs of growth in the church could be nothing more than what he calls a "Constantine revival"--numerically large, but not built on genuine conversions.
Barnett's passion for souls reaches back to the 16 years he traveled as an evangelist before becoming pastor of Westside Assembly of God in Davenport, Iowa--a church he grew from 74 to 4,400 before he came to Phoenix First 25 years ago.
"I can win more souls as a pastor than I could as an evangelist," Barnett says. "Because I have a core of people around me to help."
This is the challenge he shares with the 7,000 pastors who attend his annual Pastor's School--Get a vision to reach the lost, and gather a group of dreamers around you to carry out the vision.
All but one of Barnett's staff came from within the church. "Most were businessmen who had a heart for God," he says. "I watched to see if they were the ones who came to the altar, served people, loved people."
While most would argue that Barnett has recruited some very gifted leaders to serve on his staff, talent is one of the last qualities on his checklist. "I look for loyal, positive people who love God," he says. "They may not be the most talented, but they have character."
Barnett's staff reflects his upbeat outlook on life and ministry, but he suspects that they have more potential for success than he did early in his own ministry. "Most of them have a better education than me, and they know how to use computers and technology," he says. "They're going to be able to go further than me, because they are a product of what they've seen and heard."
"We are a permission-giving church," Barnett says. "I want people to become great." As a result of this philosophy of releasing rather than closely guarding church ministries, many have outgrown the confines of Phoenix First and become national ministries--Athletes International, National Association of Marriage Enhancement (NAME) and Master's Commission, to name a few.
"A lot of pastors may feel threatened when a great ministry rises up in their church," Barnett says. "My joy is seeing these ministries become great--I live a vicarious life."
A LIST OF 'DON'TS'
More than what he has done, Barnett credits his success to what he hasn't done. "Don't just have a 'to do' list," he tells his congregation. "Have a 'don't do' list, as well. Knowing what is your business and what's not your business is the secret to an effective life."
In an age when some pastors' kids get more space on the police blotter than the honor roll, Barnett made it his business to put his family first. As a result, both of his sons, Luke and Matthew, are in full-time pastoral ministry, and his daughter, Kristie, and her husband are faithful members of Phoenix First.
Barnett admits that there are people who have reached the world, but lost their children. "But what about those who have reached the world and not lost their children?" he asks. "It is possible if you keep your priorities straight and include your family in the ministry."
"My kids always wanted to go to church," Barnett says. "It was never a question. They were there on Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night. But they knew that the rest of the week we were going to do things together. We played night and day when we weren't in church."
This doesn't mean that the family hasn't made significant sacrifices. Barnett recalls the Christmas morning when they were preparing to exchange gifts, and the phone rang with news that a church member had been in a car accident and was dying in the hospital.
"The kids were anticipating opening presents, but I said: 'Please understand that this is important. I'll be back.' They all said, 'OK, Daddy,' because our priorities were in the right place."
Some pastors argue that priorities should be arranged with God first, family second and ministry last, but Barnett sees it a different way.
"I say we put God-dash-people as the highest priority," he argues. "Jesus said that the only way you can feed, clothe or minister to Him is when you feed, clothe and minister to others."
A people-centered ministry has grown Phoenix First to a church of 15,000, but does Barnett ever want to get away from it all and trade his pulpit for a desk job?
"Every Monday morning I want to resign," he says with a smile. "But before I resign, I say, 'Lord, I'm going to have a cup of Starbucks coffee'--there are some mornings I have two. After the second cup, I'm ready to work one more week."
One would never imagine that the favorite pastime of a man who's made a life of caring for people is--of all things--spending time alone.
"If you love people you must spend time alone, alone with God studying and meditating," Barnett says. "Every time you go back before the people, they've got to know that you've been with God."
With the same effort he expends in making time for himself, Barnett labors to keep his connection to the people in his care, sometimes staying for hours after church services to give hugs, prayers and encouragement.
"Everyone in this church would probably say, 'Yeah, Pastor's my friend,'" Barnett says. "But I also have people in this church who've never shaken my hand, because they want me to be free to minister to new people."
"I do things to keep me loving people," he says, describing times he's driven into the projects, as well as into the neighborhoods of lonely millionaires.
"Even more than my message, they need to know that I love them," Barnett says. "And I need their love, too!"
Ministries Today: What is the oddest sermon you have ever preached?
Tommy Barnett: When the pope came to Phoenix about four years ago, I had our people hand out fliers saying, 'In honor of the pope's visit, the Catholic Church is invited to Phoenix First Assembly of God to hear the sermon, "Why I Love the Virgin Mary."' We had thousands of Catholics who came that day. My three points were No. 1: Although she was the mother of Christ, she knew she had to be born again. No. 2: She was filled with the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. No. 3: She said, 'Whatever my Son commands you to do, you do.' It was a very positive message to Catholics rather than a negative one.
Ministries Today: What is the saddest funeral you have ever performed?
Barnett: Years ago when we only had three or four wheelchair buses, we would pick people up in convalescent homes, and we always put them right on the front row. One Sunday, a woman hit one of our wheelchair buses and the accident killed two wheelchair people. I had to preach the funeral. We had several people go forward who gave money to buy new buses for the wheelchair ministry.
Ministries Today: What's the strangest thing that ever happened at a wedding you officiated?
Barnett: I had a visiting pastor pray over the couple getting married. He prayed so long that one of the bridesmaids passed out on the platform. She had to be carried out while he was praying.
Ministries Today: What's the most memorable altar call you've ever given?
Barnett: A man in my church who owned a huge business invited all of his top salesmen from France. He rewarded them by bringing them to Phoenix. On Sunday morning, he brought 2,000--all of them unsaved--to church. When I gave the altar call, 1,600 came to accept Christ.
Ministries Today: What does your wife think of your preaching?
Barnett: She's probably my biggest fan and encourager. Marja came over to America to be an airline stewardess in Scandinavia. While she was being trained, she came to one of my revivals and she got saved. I continued that revival for three months. At the end of the revival, I told her, 'Forget Scandinavian Airlines and come fly with me.' And she did.
Ministries Today: What advice do you have for pastors disillusioned and ready to throw in the towel?
Barnett: They've got to get a dream, focus on where they are going and not where they're at right now ... get their eye on the game and not the pain they're going through right now. When I get discouraged, I look at where I'm going, not where I'm at. The reward is so great that I can endure the pain.
Ministries Today: What's your biggest regret?
Barnett: If I had to do it over, I would start pastoring sooner than I did. I believe in the ministry; pastoring is where it's at. In pastoring, you can teach, evangelize, build and do a number of other things.
Ministries Today: Who is your favorite preacher?
Barnett: No. 1 is my father, Herschel W. Barnett, who pastored Victoria Tabernacle in Kansas City, Kansas, for 41 years. He's the one that really put the values in me for caring for hurting people. No. 2 is Jack Hyles, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana. He formed a lot of the character values that I believe in. He didn't like Pentecostals, but he liked me, and he always used our church as an example because our church was first a soul-winning church.
Leader to Leader
We e-mailed leaders around the world, asking them to comment on Tommy Barnett's influence on their ministries. No surprise--our inbox was flooded.
"I will never forget Tommy Barnett running up and down the stairs of the Dream Center ... talking while he was running, filled with excitement about what God had given him to do. ... I am deeply honored to call him my friend."
Bishop T.D. Jakes Sr., senior pastor, The Potter's House, Dallas
"Your ministry has been bold, purposeful and visionary ... a model of a holistic biblical mandate. A ministry that started through you and now carried by your son is caring, serving, restoring, redemptive and discipling."
Dr. Thomas Fortson, president, Promise Keepers, Denver
"As the son of Tommy Barnett, I never cease to be amazed at the selflessness of my father. He has given every part of himself to make life better for others. ... He has left his mark in a small churches, big churches, the streets of Los Angeles, among the poor and needy, and his family."
Matthew Barnett, director, The Dream Center, Los Angeles
"His belief in me, his advice, his wisdom, his vision has affected me and our church. The things we have learned from Pastor Barnett have caused our church to grow and to be more effective in making a difference in our city."
Charles Nieman, senior pastor, Abundant Living Faith Center, El Paso, Texas
"We are very honored to know Pastor Barnett over these many years and to have him as a member of our board. His ministry ideas have been extremely creative and innovative in the body of Christ, and we are greatly blessed by his tremendous gifts."
David Yonggi Cho, senior pastor, Yoido Full Gospel Church, Seoul, South Korea
"Tommy Barnett stepped into my life when it felt like the whole world had walked out. ... He helped put me back in ministry, led my wife to Christ, provided training for her in Master's Commission and because of his wonderful bus ministry, we have five children."
Jim Bakker, host, The Jim Bakker Show, Branson, Mo.
"What a joy you have been and are to the body of Christ. The church you established in Phoenix is outstanding, and the countless number of souls you have touched is phenomenal. I predict the best is yet to come."
Oral Roberts, founder, Oral Roberts University, Tulsa, Okla.
"Few Christian leaders have motivated church workers to love the lost, serve human need and evangelize souls as Tommy Barnett has. ... He manifests consistency of godliness, tirelessness in labor and a self-sacrificing sincerity as a shepherd to the flock of God."
Jack Hayford, founder, The Church on the Way, Van Nuys, Calif.
"For 20 years Tommy Barnett has impacted my life and ministry in a tremendous way. He is 'Mr. Passion.' I am indebted for the spiritual deposit he has placed in my life."
John C. Maxwell, founder, The INJOY Group, Atlanta
Matthew Green is associate editor for Ministries Today magazine.