Multigeneration Ministry Legacy
Tommy Barnett entered the ministry at age 16 and shaped some great ministries, including Phoenix First Assembly (now Dream City Church), a highly influential annual pastors’ conference, and the Dream Center in Los Angeles, co-founded with son Matthew. Today, Tommy’s three children lead ministries of their own as they carry the family legacy into the next generation.
“God has been gracious to give Marja and me wonderful children,” says Tommy, 81. “We know it’s the grace of God.”
Luke W. Barnett, 50, pastored AG churches in Ohio and Southern California before moving back to Phoenix to support his father’s ministry. When Tommy experienced a heart problem in 2011 that sidelined him for six months, Luke led the church in the interim, and it became clear that a transition was afoot.
“I kept hearing reports that God was blessing Luke and the church,” Tommy says. “The Lord impressed on my heart that it was time.”
In 2013, Luke officially became the senior pastor. Under his leadership, Dream City Church has grown to 20,000 adherents and added seven large multisite campuses in less than five years. It also started Dream City College in partnership with Southeastern University to train up leaders for churches from within.
“My dad was always the same person at home as in the pulpit,” Luke says. “My dad would never ask people in the church to do things he wouldn’t do himself.”
Tommy’s daughter, Kristie K. Sexton-Barnett, 51, also lives in Phoenix and chairs a human trafficking project called the Stop Traffic Walk, which benefits the Phoenix Dream Center and StreetLight USA. Phoenix Dream Center has become a national leader in rescuing and restoring sex-trafficked women by using groundbreaking techniques that increase successful outcomes.
Kristie speaks several times a year at Dream City Church and other churches and women’s events. Tommy calls her “the best speaker of all of us.”
“We had a really good family upbringing,” Kristie says. “My dad and mom gave us a lot of quality time. They were very engaged, very present.”
Kristie’s husband and children are entrepreneurs and serve at the church in various ways.
“My dad didn’t make Christianity a bunch of do’s and don’ts, but a character issue,” Kristie says. “He built a family on integrity. Ministry was about loving God and loving people, celebrating people, serving, giving back.”
Matthew, the youngest Barnett, began preaching at 16 and went to Los Angeles at 20 to take leadership of a small, Filipino congregation. That grew to become the internationally known Dream Center, which has given rise to more than 200 other Dream Centers worldwide. Headquartered in a converted hospital downtown, the Dream Center houses 800 full-time residents in its drug and rehabilitation program, homeless shelter, homeless veterans shelter, domestic violence shelter, and human trafficking wing. The ministry feeds 30,000 people each week on campus and remotely with mobile trucks. Six thousand mostly young people travel to the Dream Center to volunteer every year.
“The Dream Center has had more impact than we fathomed,” says Matthew, 45. “It still has that entrepreneurial spirit in that we see a need and take it on. There’s a perfect balance between spontaneity and order.”
What Matthew learned from his father still fuels his approach to ministry today.
“What impresses me about my dad’s ministry is his ability to celebrate little victories in the midst of going after bigger things,” Matthew says. “He can rejoice over one person’s life change as much as preaching to thousands. What called me to ministry was watching him and his love for the one.”
One household rule in particular always remained in force: no talking negatively about people in the church.
“He always said, ‘God’s people are flawed, but they are the best people in the world,’” Matthew says.
The Barnett family legacy began with Tommy’s father, Hershel W. Barnett, who built one of the largest AG churches in his day, Victoria Tabernacle (now Village West Family Church in Kansas City, Kansas), pioneering a bus ministry in poor neighborhoods. As a young boy, Tommy rode the church bus routes with his father.
“He loved poor and hurting people,” Tommy says. “I think I caught that from him.”
After ministering as an evangelist, Tommy took the helm of Westside Assembly of God in Davenport, Iowa, and it grew to 4,000 adherents before he accepted an invitation to lead Phoenix First Assembly in Arizona. The church rapidly grew from 250 to 15,000. Its pastors and leaders school, the Dream Conference, has drawn more than 200,000 attendees in three decades.
Today, under Luke’s leadership, the church is continuing to innovate in areas such as Christian education, human trafficking, intercessory prayer, ministry to single moms, and “microsite” campuses.
The Dream Center in Los Angeles began in 1994 as an effort to rescue people from gangs, drugs, pimps, and traffickers, Tommy says. “Before we could build a church we had to build the people.”
Matthew says his dad’s example taught him not to be in a hurry to get results.
“I realized that success isn’t what you accomplish overnight, but is about loving one person at a time,” Matthew says. “The roots of longevity that my dad carried put in my heart that I didn’t have to solve every problem immediately, but I could put roots down.”
Though Tommy never graduated from college, he served as chancellor of Grand Canyon University for two years, and is now chancellor of Southeastern University, which named its ministry school the Barnett College of Ministry and Theology.
Far from retiring, Tommy now preaches to thousands each month in places as far-flung as South Africa, Indonesia, and Siberia. Last year he went to every continent except Antarctica.
Photo: Matthew Barnett and his family