A lifetime of focus on the mission, a conversation with Tommy Thomas

By Johanna Willett | Oct 21, 2021

When he retires Jan. 31, 2022, Tommy Thomas will have served 30 years with the North American Mission Board, always with a focus on church planting in Arizona.

For about 40 years, Tommy Thomas has planted churches in Arizona, first as a pastor; then as a church planting missionary and director of evangelism and missions for what is now the River Valley Mission Network; and now as a church planting catalyst serving northern Arizona through the North American Mission Board.

During that time, he estimates he has planted about 40 churches. These are faith communities now growing in smaller cities and towns, serving a range of people from individuals recovering from addiction to Navajo and Hopi tribal members. Over the years, Thomas has served cowboys, prisoners, bikers and more.

Here are excerpts from a conversation Thomas had with Portraits about how the mission has mattered most in his own ministry. Comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Portraits: In your day-to-day as a church planting missionary, what are you doing? What does your job entail?

Thomas: We’re involved in planting many churches in different places to reach different people. My role is basically to find those places where God is at work … where He has spoken to people about planting new churches in their area and to go work with that situation. … It’s just engaging people who are in place, walking through the doors that God is opening and letting God shape the church the way He desires.

Portraits: Over the course of your ministry, what are some of the most significant lessons you have learned?

Thomas: I would say it’s all about the walk — your individual call, your individual walk. The most exciting part of ministry is when you can minister from the overflow of what God is doing in your own walk. I love the verse from Colossians 2:6-7 where it talks about being rooted, being established and overflowing.
It’s the difference between trying to do something for God and letting God do something great in and through you. In ministry, we want to do good things for God, and that’s well-intentioned, but we probably sometimes miss the great things God wants to do in and through us. When you’re ministering out of the overflow, I think you’re much more in tune with that.

Portraits: How have you seen this theme of Mission Matters Most play out in your own ministry?

Thomas: There are a lot of things in ministry and church planting that matter to us, and they’re all good things. But it really is about the mission — that mission of being on a journey with the Lord God and being used in different places to do very unique things and seeing God work in very unique ways.

Portraits: Why is it so important for Christians and Arizona Southern Baptists to stay focused on the mission?

Thomas: When we’re on mission together and we’re connecting with what God is doing in the world — whether it’s our home, community or world — the focus is going to stay outward. And churches that are not connected that way will slowly turn inward. … It’s always been about bringing your church to people.

Portraits: Over the course of your ministry, how have you seen cooperation among Arizona Southern Baptists help fulfill the Great Commission?

Thomas: Well, every chance I get, I try to thank churches for praying and help them realize … that when they give to the Cooperative Program, a very significant portion of that goes to helping plant new churches. … It’s really important to make that connection that when they pray, when they give, they are really doing something very personal and very powerful. And whenever they hear about a new church, whether it’s in their own community or miles away, they’ve had a part in that.

Next Steps

  • Continue to pursue your own walk with Christ so that you can serve others out of the overflow.
  • Ask God to show you open doors in your own community and look for ways you can be outward-focused, partner with others and take the gospel to people.
  • Give cheerfully to your church, and as it gives through the Cooperative Program, you have a part in planting churches, sharing the gospel and much more in Arizona and around the world.

Johanna Willett, a freelance writer living in Tucson, is a member of Mountain View Baptist Church, Tucson.

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