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Book excerpt: Dream Center's Tommy Barnett about going for broke

This is an adaptation from Tommy Barnett’s newly released autobiography (Feb. 4, 2020), "What If?"

'What If' by Tommy Barnett
"What If" by Tommy Barnett

I’ve never agreed with the church “experts” who advise pastors who have just come to a church to tread lightly so they could gradually bring the congregation around to their new ideas and new programs.

There’s a different method I prefer: Go in and shoot all your big guns, let everyone know exactly where you’re going, and most importantly, start leading people to Christ. You’re probably going to lose some people who don’t want anything to change, but that’s fine. You’ll replace them with people eager to join you in your mission. Old wineskins can’t hold new wine. I hate to say this, but a lot of church people don’t really want new people coming in. They feel threatened (or at least uncomfortable) around people they don’t know, especially if those people don’t look like them.

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In Davenport, we had to do something immediately to let people know what kind of church God wanted to build. The most important word in that sentence is “we.” I assumed they had called me because they wanted to do big things for God at Westside Assemblies of God.

My dad had given me an old International Harvester school bus that he didn’t dare use anymore. The engine barely ran, and when it did, it was hard to keep the bus going straight because its steering was so bad. I named our bus “She Needs”: she needed tires, she needed gas, she needed a paint job, she needed a complete overhaul.

I wasn’t sure what I would do with it, so I just parked it out behind the church. On my second Sunday as pastor, a lady introduced herself and shared something that caught my attention. “Pastor, I’ve been saved for only a few months, and I don’t know if I’m supposed to do this, but I’ve been going out every week knocking on doors in my neighborhood leading people to Christ. I’ve got so many of them now, but I don’t know how to get them to church because a lot of them don’t have cars. When I told some of the people at church about it, they told me just to let them find their own church. I don’t want to make anyone angry, but I’d sure like to get them involved in our church.” I couldn’t believe my ears. I told her, “Sister, you’re exactly who I’m looking for. I’m going to give you a bus!”

The lady, her husband, and I walked behind the church and got into that dilapidated old bus. I got it started and showed her how to put it in gear. Then I had her drive it around the block. I confess that I was a little nervous as she worked that stubborn clutch and jerked forward every time we started into an intersection. She didn’t mind that the bus was a dinosaur — she literally beamed as she sat behind the wheel. She was a tiny lady, barely tall enough to see over the steering wheel.

On the first Sunday of our new bus ministry, she picked up more than sixty people and brought them to church. The bus only held forty-eight, so many of them had to stand in the aisle. You should have seen the looks on the faces of the regular attenders as those sixty strangers marched into our little church and found a place to sit. I preached to a standing-room-only audience, and when I gave the altar call, twenty of the bus riders came forward and accepted Christ. I was thrilled, but I was in the minority. We lost a few families that Sunday. I never like losing anyone, but God has called us to fulfill the Great Commission and win the lost, no matter the cost.

A young deacon and his wife approached me after church that day. They understood what had happened. The deacon said, “Pastor, I’m so happy that we’re reaching out to the lost. I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to buy you another bus!” I told the deacon, “That’s great, but who’s going to drive it?” He and his wife looked at each other and shrugged their shoulders. He turned to me and smiled, “Well, I guess we could.”

He bought another old bus. It turned out to be another She Needs. We called it “He Needs.” In less than two weeks, that bus was full. By now, we had moved into our new building, and soon we bought a third bus. Then another. And another. We kept buying more buses, picking up more people who needed Jesus, and rejoicing when they accepted Christ.

These are the sort of miracles that can happen when you step out into the unknown. If you start small, chances are you’ll depend on your own strength for your ministry. But if you dream big, and you’re not afraid to ruffle a few feathers, God will show up in mighty ways.

Pastor Tommy Barnett is the Global Pastor of one of the largest Assembly of God churches in the U.S., Dream City Church in Phoenix, Arizona. The church has become known as “The Church with a Heart” because of its more than 260 ministry outreaches. In 1994, he and his son Matthew co-founded The Dream Center in Los Angeles, an inner-city church and outreach center that touches the lives of 50,000 people each month. Pastor Barnett is also the Chancellor of Southeastern University.

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