Tommy Barnett, global pastor of Dream City Church in Phoenix, Arizona, doesn’t have many regrets. But if pressed, there are two things the 82-year-old pastor wishes he would’ve done differently over the course of his decades-long ministry.
“I don’t live in the past; I live in the future,” he told The Christian Post. "But there are two specific things I would do over if given the chance to do my life all over again: I would dream bigger dreams and I would take bigger risks. Every dream I have, God fulfilled. Every risk I took, God did exceedingly abundantly above all that I could ask for or could ever think.”
It’s this kind of tremendous faith and boldness that has made Barnett one of the most influential pastors of today.
Barnett, who also serves as chancellor of Southeastern University, entered the ministry at just 16 years old. He became the pastor of Phoenix First Assembly (now Dream City Church) in 1979. Under his leadership, the church quickly became one of the largest Assembly of God churches in the U.S., with an average weekly attendance of over 16,000.
Now led by Barnett’s son, Luke, the church has become known as “The Church with a Heart” because of its more than 260 ministry outreaches.
In his autobiography, What If?: My Story of Believing God for More… Always More. In it, Barnett looks back over a lifetime of walking with God, being directed by the Spirit, and boldly taking risks to reach more people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He shares the story of his life’s journey to highlight the power of living in obedience to the call of God.
The title, he told CP, is “not one of regret, but one of opportunity.”
“God speaks through different people in different ways, visions, dreams, and various things,” Barnett said. “God speaks to me through opportunities. In other words, when presented with an opportunity, I say, ‘That could be Godand I’m going to go down that road because if I don't go down that road, I'll never know if God was in it or not.
“I went down that road and God blessed it and opened another opportunity and road, and another and another. It’s looking at opportunities that God opened up and with those opportunities come miracles.”
Barnett’s ministry extends far beyond the four walls of the church. In 1994, the pastor and his son, Matthew, felt God calling them to open The Dream Center in Los Angeles, an inner-city church and outreach center that touches the lives of 50,000 people each month.
Now, nearly 26 years after its founding, the Dream Center Network consists of more than 150 centers helping individuals and communities across the globe.
Matthew shared with CP how, growing up, his father would take him and his siblings into the inner city every week to pick up homeless individuals and bring them to church.
“My father is very successful and visionary, but he’s got a lot of patience when it comes to the calling God gives him,” Matthew said. “He would pick people up before church and take them to eat after. Watching my father’s kindness and compassion influenced my own ministry deeply.”
Matthew recounted another formative ministry moment when 200 wealthy church members approached his father and told him, ‘Our church is influential. We’ve noticed you busing homeless people into our balcony and it’s affecting our church. We’re beyond that now.’”
“Basically, they were saying, ‘you’ll lose our financial support if you keep bringing homeless people here.' My dad said, ‘I love each and every one of you guys but there’s no way I’m going to stop bringing those people in from the street.’ Unsurprisingly, many of those men never came back to the church.”
Tommy Barnett told CP his approach to ministry was influenced heavily by his own father, an evangelist and pastor who first started the “bus ministry” concept.
“He had a Sunday School bus and would take people from all over Kansas City to church,” Barnett recalled. “He influenced my life greatly. He took me to hospitals with him to visit dying people. He brought me along as he ministered to the poor and sick. He showed me what it meant to be the hands and feet of Jesus. He was my hero.”
When his father died, Barnett said the sense of loss he felt was “overwhelming.”
“The man that taught me how to run buses was gone. The man I called up every week after services, my prayer partner, the one who shared in my joys and sorrows,” he said. “Most of the things I did were because of my father. One day I sat there weeping, asking, ‘Who will help me now?’”
Amid his grief, he felt the Holy Spirit speak to him.
“Now, I’m not one who hears voices,” he clarified. “The Holy Spirit speaks to me through impressions. He impressed upon my heart and said, ‘If you just let me, I’d like to rejoice with you when you rejoice, celebrate victories, be there, and weep with you in your sorrow. I’d like to be the one that one would help you build your church and give you creative ideas. If you’d let me, I’d like to be your prayer partner.’”
That moment, Barnett said, forever changed his prayer life and the course of his ministry.
“I made the Holy Spirit my prayer partner,” he said. “What that means is, before I go to the Father in prayer, I take my petitions to the Holy Spirit. He filters them out for me, and once my silly requests have been filtered out, I go to God with what I really need. Often, I don’t even know what I need, but the Holy Spirit breaks in with groanings and tells the Father exactly what I need, things I didn’t even know I desired, things that weren’t even my vision, yet brought more joy to me than things that were natural to me.
“The Holy Spirit is given to us for our personal prayer lives to commune with the Father because we know not what to ask for, but the Holy Spirit does. Over my years of ministry, that's the most important thing I've learned about the Holy Spirit.”
Barnett, who currently resides in Phoenix with his wife, Marja, told CP that he doesn’t think much about the legacy he’ll leave behind. “I just feel you do your best and when you're gone, God raises people up in your kids to carry on your ministry. But life goes on. Ultimately it’s about bringing Him glory.”
But according to Matthew Barnett, his father’s legacy is one of humility, perseverance and boundless faith.
“My father taught me to enjoy every victory and not beat yourself up over the losses,” he said. “He taught me to make a bigger deal over victories than defeats. He celebrates everything, from the little offering someone gives to the kind words someone says. He’s never caught up in the excitement of big or showy events but takes joy in serving others well.”