It all started with a conversation between two members at First United Methodist Church in Nacogdoches. “How do we move forward as a church?” they asked.

More than a year later, the discussion has turned into a church-wide, laity-led discipleship and outreach movement called FirstForward. While a number of congregations in the Texas Annual Conference were discerning denominational affiliation in 2022, First Nacogdoches opted to stay UMC and consider how to proceed in ministry in the historic town.

Members Gary LaFour, an insurance broker, and Chris Hancock, who owns a marketing firm, took the opportunity to do some soul-searching. The two spent several months meeting over coffee, praying and seeking God’s guidance.

“In the fall of 2022, we heard Adam Hamilton speak in Lufkin and sometime after that, we picked up the phone and called his assistant,” Hancock said. “We were just two wandering souls from East Texas, but we asked if we could sit down and visit with Adam Hamilton and his assistant said, ‘How about January 18?’”

The men were more than a little surprised that Hamilton, the pastor of the largest United Methodist Church in the United States, would carve out time to meet with them. “We went up (to Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City) and we spent an afternoon with him and key people from his church and got a firehose version of what they do up there,” Hancock said.

LaFour said Hamilton gave them a bag of things to take home including a coffee mug and a copy of his book The Walk: Five Essential Practices of the Christian Faith.  “The book contained a lot of things we were asking questions about and the five spiritual practices he was espousing became a cornerstone of what we are trying to do here (in Nacogdoches),” LaFour said.

These practices – worship, study, service, giving and sharing – would eventually become the foundation of renewed purpose for the membership.

Hancock said that about the same time as the Resurrection visit, seventy-five First Nacogdoches members gathered for a Saturday church retreat. Using Will Willimon’s book “Don’t Look Back” as a theme, it became clear the church was ready to move forward and much of what came out of the retreat matched up remarkably to what LaFour and Hancock had witnessed in Kansas City. Soon after the retreat, Hancock and LaFour presented their vision to the Board of Stewards, and a team of lay leaders and clergy was named and charged with fleshing out what would become FirstForward.

That team was tasked with developing the Church’s Purpose: “To build a vibrant, Christ-centered community where ALL are becoming more deeply committed Christians”.  Then came the Vision Statement: “To share God’s love by touching hearts, changing lives and transforming our community and finally the development of their Journey Statement: “To love, serve and grow in our relationship with God, TOGETHER”.

The team also adopted the Five Spiritual Practices set out in Hamilton’s book, and dubbed them “The First Five”.  These five spiritual practices, along with the Purpose, Vision and Journey Statements, became the cornerstones against which the church would measure itself.

The church was introduced to FirstForward in June and a new team was drafted to bring life and action to their plan.  The five members of the FirstForward Team lead teams devoted to Worship Excellence, Congregational Care, Community Service, Programming, and Facilities and Administration.

FirstForward officially launched in September with a large event in the church’s family life center that included sign-up tables for a variety of ministries both inside and outside the church. Teams were formed to go out in the community and work with schools, feed the hungry and help the unemployed find jobs.

“We had these connections previously, but all of a sudden, what may have been 4-5 people involved in a local ministry, now became 25 or 30 people,” LaFour said. “We saw increases in interest, involvement and engagement.”

“It’s remarkable what our FirstForward team has taken on,” said Hancock.  “This isn’t superficial.  It’s hard work.  We meet every Wednesday at noon, bring our own lunches, and spend the middle of the day together as a team.” Hancock and LaFour continue to meet at least every Tuesday for coffee to discuss what’s working and what could use some work, as well as set the agenda for that week’s meeting with the team, as well as their weekly meeting with their Pastor, Andrew Hook.

To spiritually strengthen First Nacogdoches members as they go out and do God’s work, FirstForward began the Daily First Five, which is a daily emailed “devotional” that includes scripture, a teaching prepared by a church member, and a reflection and prayer written by a church member along, with a reminder of the church’s Journey Statement.

“We said right up front, this is not about growing the church or improving church finances, but about doing what God has called us to do as His church,” said Hancock. “We have stood firm in that belief and the church has responded to it.”

LaFour said FirstForward is ultimately about one thing: “The way we do life as Christians. It’s about changing who we are as people and about changing the behavior of our church.”