Provision for the Vision: Taking Risks and Boldly Finding Hurts and Healing – Meet Pastor Tommy Barnett
From his God-given passion is to find a need and fill it or find a hurt and heal it, to “Johnny Cash and The World’s Biggest Sunday School” to a six-thousand-pound green popsicle and Dream Centers being established all over the world, Tommy Barnett is an inspiration. He felt God’s calling at a young age and was speaking at revivals in his teens. Directed by the Spirit and boldly taking risks to reach more people with the gospel of Jesus Christ, he has seen God do amazing things. Barnett shares some of his favorite stories in his book, What If?: My Story of Believing God for More… Always More. Risen sat down with this senior pastor of one of the fastest growing churches in America to hear firsthand how his life of ministry continues to change the world.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: You have said that throughout your life you’ve sensed God’s clear call to find a need and fill it, to find a hurt and heal it…. that in many cases, the only way a person will open their hearts to the message of Jesus is by receiving tangible expressions of love. Can you share some specific ways you have approached this?
Tommy Barnett: I think that any church, or organization, or any life can be changed if they get their focus onto something that is bigger and better and something that will alleviate human suffering. So that’s the way I built the entire ministry. When I started as a young pastor in Phoenix, Arizona, I looked around and we had a little church that was running less than 100 people and the total income, the entire budget of the church for the year was $20,000 dollars. I had nothing but an old bus that my dad gave me and I saw children everywhere. Nobody was taking them to church on Sunday. Nobody seemed to take interest and they were running the streets. And I said, “You know what? There’s a need there.” We ran that old bus and the first Sunday morning I was there, we doubled our attendance and somebody said, “Well look, let’s get another bus, and another and another.” Until that little old church grew to 4,000 people. We had 47 buses. We found that need and we filled it. And of course, that opened up another need. The parents needed God. They needed to come and they begin to find Christ as their personal savior. Nobody will lack getting their eyes off themself if they just look around them. I’ve often said that nobody has the right to live a life of self-pity when there’s so much hurt that is all around us. And the very answer to their problem is just find the need, find a hurt, and focus on helping that person. And when they turn around their own focus will completely change.
Now, I know it’s a long answer but I got one other little story to tell you. There’s a lady that came in for counseling in my office and I said, “What’s wrong with you?” She said, “Well, I’m depressed. Can you help me?” I said, “Oh yeah, I can. I want you to go home and here’s your homework. I want you to bake some cookies and I want you to take them down to the old folks home and I want you to pass them out to those people.” She said, “Well, how’s that going to help my depression?” I said, “Well, just try it.” She got mad, got up, stomped out and said, “You’re not helping me.” I saw her in the church and she’d be coming one direction, turn around and go the other. But one day I came around the corner and ran smack into her. She couldn’t avoid me. I said, “Well, how are you doing?” She said, “Fine.” I said, “How’s your nervous breakdown coming?” And she said, “I canceled it.” I said, “What did you do?” She said, “I baked some cookies and I took them to the old folks home and it just changed my life.” So I truly believe that sometimes people just need to bake some cookies.
I believe that everyone has something they can do in their life that could literally change the world… I try to put it where everybody knows they’re a potential miracle waiting to happen.
RM: In addition to being a pastor and leading a church, you have been instrumental in offering a Pastors & Leaders School (now the Dream Conference) to tell pastors how to get people saved and keep them in church. What are some of the ways you encourage these pastors?
TB: First of all, I think we made them feel that they can do it. Years ago, I was invited to speak at the National Black Pastors Conference in Washington, D.C. Now I was the only non-black on the program and I said to the monitor, “Why in the world did you invite me? Everybody knows these black preachers are the greatest preachers in the world. You just set me up for failure.” I often say, I feel like a pygmy among these mighty, mighty giants. Why did you invite me? He said, “Well, we invited you because you got a black heart.” I took that as a great compliment and so I just gave it all I had. I gave it all I had preaching to those great people.
Little did I realize that sitting in that audience was a young man about to quit the ministry. He ran less than 100 in his attendance. I have a sermon that I preach, that I probably am known more for than any other sermon, entitled The Miracle in the House. In the message, I point out that everything that we need to build a great church is right there in their congregation. The think tank, the creativity, the seed for the money. It’s right there in that house. I said, “There’s a miracle in the house.” He later told me that he got so excited he thought he was going to have a heart attack and he said, “God, if you just get me out of this place alive, I want to be the miracle that is in this house.” He went home, his little church exploded. And then he got on national television and preached and literally stirred the nation. Several years later he invited me to speak at his own pastor’s conference. He had over 8,000 pastors that were there. He told that story and he said, “I made up my mind that if I ever had my own conference, Pastor Barnett would come and speak.” You might’ve heard of him, his name is T.D. Jakes.
Sitting right there in that service was a young man that I said, there’s a miracle in this house, you can do it. And I believe that every time we get up to speak, there’s a miracle out there. I believe that everyone has something they can do in their life that could literally change the world. They could be at a place at a certain time, there could be a certain event that they accidentally fell into, but I believe that everybody in their lifetime will have one time at least that they have a chance to do something that could change the world. And so I try to put it where everybody knows they’re a potential miracle waiting to happen.
RM: Very powerful and encouraging. Your father Hershel was an evangelist and you’ve expressed he had a profound influence on your life. How specifically did he impact the way you approach ministry?
TB: He always told me that I could do it and he put me in places that I was uncomfortable. Matter of fact, I was, believe it or not, kind of shy when I was a kid and felt a little bit inferior in life, and all the guys were bigger than me and even the girls were bigger than me. But I had a dad, he put me in sports and, he had me playing the organ in our church when I was 13 years of age. Now I could do it, but I wasn’t the best in the world. But he put me in uncomfortable situations that, when I did succeed, built confidence in me.
I had a father, and a mother, who always told me that I could do it, and they filled me with a positive attitude that it could be done. And I think that that’s really what a pastor does. He puts the possibility where they all can reach it. A lot of people in life, God speaks to them in different ways. I know some people say that they’ve had a vision, a dream, or they’ve heard a voice. Now, God has never spoken to me that way in my lifetime. I’m not against it. But the way that God has always spoken to me is that he opened up an opportunity, and I looked at that opportunity and said, “You know, that could be God. I’m not sure if it is or isn’t.” And I’ll never really know until I go down that trail. So, I said to myself, What if?” Of course, that’s what the book is about, what if that could be God? I’m going to go see if it is. Now there are a lot of ways you can determine if it was God. Sometimes if it is of God, He provides provision for that vision. And so when I’ve gone down that trail, wow, sometimes it was God, oftentimes it wasn’t. But everything that God has done in my life, he opened up the possibility and I asked myself the question, what if I went down that trail? And that’s what my dad did. He wanted me to explore the possibilities of God using me in my life.
…the way that God has always spoken to me is that he opened up an opportunity, and I looked at that opportunity and said, “You know, that could be God. I’m not sure if it is or isn’t.” And I’ll never really know until I go down that trail. So, I said to myself, What if?”
RM: And subsequently, because of that, you spent years traveling the country and holding revivals. Do you have one that stands out above others and why?
TB: Well, I have been an evangelist for over 60 years, and of course I became a pastor for 48 years. I was still an evangelist then because I truly believe with all of my heart that our mission is to win the lost. That’s why Jesus came, to win the lost. And if you don’t have a church or ministry that’s winning people to Christ, if you’re a pastor, you should just sell the church and divide the profits up among the ministry because you really don’t have a church. You have a club. We were called, Jesus came for one reason, to seek and to save that which is lost.
To answer your question, when I was just a young man, I held a revival in Elmira, New York. The revival was supposed to go two weeks and God blessed it in such a way that we went seven weeks and I even closed it down because I had an appointment at another church that I’d already postponed several weeks because this one was extended. But that night I couldn’t sleep and the pastor couldn’t sleep. And the next morning he knocked on my door and said, “I think we have missed God, we closed the meeting too soon.” I said, “You know what, God spoke to me the same way. I think we should have gone longer.” So we got on the radio and said, we should have continued, we’re going to begin again and two days later we started and we had a nine week revival. Then I went to the next revival and that was supposed to go 10 days and it went five weeks. And every night we just threw out the net for souls and we saw hundreds of people accept Christ as their personal savior.
RM: Throughout your years of ministry, you have had some unconventional events to attract people to a revival or church service. Some other pastors have even criticized you for only being interested in how many people you could get, questioning your methods. Events such as hosting the world’s largest popsicle to draw children to Sunday School (making it into the Guiness Book of World Records) and holding the World’s Greatest Sunday School with Johnny Cash (stadium of 30,000 people) are just two examples. Can you share (for our readers) how you responded to the criticism and the how you got Johnny to come?!!
TB: Well, first of all, I try to live my life by principles, by a Bible philosophy. And I truly believe that the method is not sacred, the message is what’s sacred, and I’ll do anything I can, in good taste, to get unsaved people to come to church because every one of these promotions had a hook on the end, it had an altar call, it an invitation to accept Jesus Christ as your Savior. I was encouraged when I read a book about the life of [Charles] Spurgeon, did you know he was criticized for that? One day in his sermon he brought a monkey to church to illustrate an important point in his sermon. They had cartoons of him as a carnival barker. He had a bus ministry. He ran horses and buggies to pick up little children for church. I was often criticized for that too, “Pastor, you ran all those buses to church picking up little kids,” and they called it the numbers game. Saying all I was concerned about was over 3,000 people that I brought on my buses alone. Well, I said to them, “First of all, I am number conscious. Every person that I get in church, I have a chance to win them to Jesus Christ.” The world has got their eyes upon the masses. They’re concerned how many they get to the night clubs, to the rock concerts, on and on. I’m trying to get everybody I can in a house of God that I can win. And I say to them that Jesus was number conscious. He spoke of the three beloved disciples, the 12 disciples, the 120 in the upper room. He talked about the 3,000 were added to the church in one day. Matter of fact, one day Jesus handed out 5,000 fish sandwiches and the Bible said the only reason some of the people followed Jesus were because of the loaves and the fish that he fed them. So, I want to do what Jesus did. I will do everything I can to get people to the house of God. And it’s kind of strange now, the same people that used to criticize that, they now call me the Father of the Faith. Criticism goes away through the years if you just keep doing what God’s called you to do. Keep wanting souls. And while at that time we used some extreme measures, later on we built a hospital called the Dream Center to reach out to hurting people. Still using the same principle, people need to be helped, but we didn’t just build that Dream Center only to heal people, we built it to get them to find Jesus Christ as their personal Savior.
I truly believe that the method is not sacred, the message is what’s sacred…
RM: Yeah, I want to talk to you about the Dream Center. You must be so proud that all of your children are serving in ministries. You had that birth of the Dream Center in Los Angeles, that’s under the leadership of your son, Matthew. And then the church you started in Phoenix, Dream City Church, is under the leadership of your son, Luke, and your daughter, Kristie, is a speaker and a leader gifted to minister to women. Share how they all developed a heart for ministry and expand on how Matthew came to you and wanted to buy a hospital but at firt you weren’t so sure.
TB: First of all, we always taught our people that the Christian people, they have faults, they have failures, but they’re truly the best people in the world. Yeah, they make mistakes, but they’re just people and we taught our children to love God’s people. Keep your eyes upon them. We never magnified the failure of the people, we just magnified the fact that God uses people to accomplish His purpose in life. And people are vessels that we can pour into and be blessed. If there wasn’t hurt in the world, we wouldn’t have the joy of being blessed like we are. Of course we wish there weren’t any hurts, but we look at every hurt as a blessing, as a need that we can pour into their life. So, we actually went to LA, my son and I, to build a church. That’s why we went. We wanted to build a church, and we were given a little church called Bethel Temple, which was the first church that came out of Azusa Street Revival. And that little place began to grow, but it didn’t grow easy. At first it was hard to get anybody to come to church, but we just kept loving people, we kept reaching out, and we kept going on the streets. We found out it was easy to get people to saved, people were eager to accept Christ, but we couldn’t keep them. They went back to the drugs, back to the pimps and back to the old lifestyle. We realized we had to get them away from that. So we had about 12 houses that this little church had bought over the years and rented out. We emptied them out and we put these people that got saved in there along with someone in each house to disciple them. Well soon, all the houses were filled and Matthew said, “We got to find a bigger place.” And then we found the Queen of Angels hospital, the oldest hospital in Los Angeles. Most of the people in L.A. were born in that hospital. It’s sixteen stories high, 1400 rooms, and 400,000 square feet. It’s a miracle in itself. And, how we bought that building is miraculous too. We started bringing the people that we won to Christ, putting them in there, discipling them and today, it is filled with over 900 people living at the Dream Center.
People coming out of drugs and alcohol and human trafficking. We have the largest human trafficking ministry in America, and probably in the world. We have 250 beds, just beds, for human trafficking people. And it all came out of that dream. Now, when we went there, we didn’t go to build a Dream Center. We weren’t even trained in cross culture evangelism. We went to build a church, but we found out before we could build a church, we had to build the people. We found out the people, they were really the church and the Dream Center just evolved out of that. We didn’t know how to do it, but we found a need and we filled it, and we learned as we went. So, you don’t have to be an authority on the situation. You can learn as you go.