I vividly remember the first time I walked into Nacogdoches First Church of the Nazarene. Located in the pine thickets of East Texas, the building was dark and had no signage. Once inside, I was greeted by an aged “Home Interiors” look; the building was cluttered with artificial trees and flowers that brought to mind an era long past. We found that the church congregation was aging and quickly declining in numbers, a Spanish congregation was meeting in the same building as a completely separate group without any unity or fellowship between the two congregations, the facility needed a tremendous amount of work, and the whole place was badly in need of fresh vision.
To be honest, I wrestled with my call to Nacogdoches First. All of this stood like a dark cloud of fear over my family and me. But God broke through that wall of fear blocking my vision. What was missing in this church was a passion for the spreading of the gospel message! Now, six years later, we have seen this message come to life in a way that would give the oldest town in Texas a glimpse into true heart holiness.
Preparing for God to Work
A fresh unleashing of the gospel at what is now known as Nac Naz began in the summer of 2012. Following six months of sharing God’s love with the members, partnering with them, attending their events, getting to know them, visiting in their homes, and learning the deep-woven threads of the church’s rich history, we were ready for God to unleash a new vision, mission, and plan. This sparked the first year’s mission, centered on one main theme: preparing ourselves for what was not yet present in the church.
We started by hiring two college students to work in an empty nursery, so when God answered our prayers for a thriving children’s ministry, we would be ready. We began the arduous process of making our building user friendly.
We reviewed every area of the church so we were prepared to weave new visitors into the ministry. My wife and I also took time to get to know the hearts of those who had labored in love for this small Nazarene church all their lives. We discovered that they also desired the church to become a place where their kids and grandkids would want to attend. They understood that though many of our methods would adjust, the message of heart holiness would remain. The mission and vision remained intact and the sermons remained focused on the doctrine of holiness.
The next step was getting outside of our walls. This church had a reputation of being argumentative, dissension-oriented, and judgmental. We needed to let the community know who we were now.
Instead of simply recruiting people to come on Sundays, we began to invest in the community of Nacogdoches and meet people where they were. We passed out free water to workers on the street, we took sweets to the nurses and doctors at the local hospital, we dropped candy off at the police station and fire houses, and we passed out simple blessings outside local grocery stores. During the summer that first year, we rallied our people for a weeklong mission trip in our own community called “Commission Unto Nac.”
Other creative outreach ideas emerged among our members, from mowing lawns to painting at the local park. We wanted to serve in the name of Jesus. We began to challenge our people to share the gospel everywhere they went, allowing Jesus to prompt us toward an obedient response. That’s what the first year or two was about: preparing our church for what God wanted to do and letting the community know who we are by blessing, with no expectation of return.
It wasn’t always easy. At times the first year here felt as though my family and I were standing alone in those pine thickets, with torn clothes and broken hearts. But in those moments, an encouraging card, a conversation from the community, or a visitor with kids would serve as reminders that the Holy Spirit was at work. Many pastors have asked me, “How did it all turn around?” The best answer I can give is that we tried to stay open and teachable before the Lord in the midst of the rumblings.
Through it all, my wife and I also felt it was really important that we never asked our people to serve in a way or do something that we weren’t willing to do, too. Our willingness to be led and to work in a variety of areas seemed to give permission and encouragement for our church members to be involved and lead. Soon, we were able to leave things in their hands and move on to the next goal. A domino effect had begun.
Growing and Learning Through Change
We learned two big lessons early on. The first is that unleashing the gospel does not mean that everything should change just for change’s sake. It is all about God’s timing.
Second, people need to understand the “why” behind what we do. If change isn’t shared in a transparent way, it can be more dangerous than staying the same.
As God led us in new ways, our ministry began creating a new buzz within the community. This meant that the next year we needed to focus on logistics and organization. We looked at things like insurance plans, debt reduction, and ways to use our property for outside sources of income. This again required transparency in showing the congregation that efforts were being made behind the scenes to use funds properly, while we were staying true to the mission God had given us. By shoring up the use of church funds and holding to the utmost integrity, we put the church on a path to be able to afford the big plans God had just around the corner.
After this year of logistics, we focused on strengthening our church leadership. This involved providing extensive leadership training, as well as introducing a book each year that the board would work through together during our board meeting devotional time. Each board member was assigned a ministry area. We also created a follow-up team for guests. We were intentional about integrating the previous year’s vision of intentionality and fiscal responsibility.
Of course, there were difficult decisions along the way. For instance, we chose to close the elementary school that had been a ministry of the church for many years. Although it was rough, the Lord has since turned that space into a large, thriving, self-supporting Christian preschool. There were also people who, for one reason or another, felt the need to leave our church. Even in those instances, however, we sensed an affirmation of God’s leadership, and some of those who left early on have come back and reconciled.
Nac Naz had begun to live out the gospel. New people were encountering the love of Jesus Christ. The once divided English and Spanish congregations were participating in unity, and a multi-cultural, multi-generational community had begun to form. The more our people saw it working and growing, the more it became infectious. They wanted to share and love and invite others, too.
The Biggest Dream So Far
During our fourth year of ministry here, the Lord gave us the biggest vision so far: a plan to completely renovate our children’s wing and a large, unused atrium, converting the space into an indoor/outdoor clubhouse and play area that would be open as a ministry to the public. This was only possible because God had moved us from a congregation with no children under the age of eight to a church with nurseries and a children’s area filled to capacity. Our congregation now included young families as well as old, and our youth center was filled with teens.
So, we began the construction of the Nac Naz Kids Clubhouse: a safe, air-conditioned, coffee-filled, indoor/outdoor play space that serves the families of Nacogdoches of all faiths, all nationalities, and all orientations. In July alone, 80 families that do not come to the church came the Clubhouse. God is continuously using it as a funnel into our church and is blessing us with new families through this ministry.
The last couple of years the Lord has been faithful to continue to lead us. We recently presented the people with the theme “Join the Movement.” This was to help the people of Nac Naz recognize that the movement of God is for all people and that the kingdom of God is for everyone. We began to examine what it meant to really be like Jesus: to love with His grace, to extend His mercy, and to walk alongside the hurting. Nac Naz is a place where you come to worship a holy God with others who have been transformed by Him. No matter who comes through the doors of Nac Naz, we pray they experience the transforming love of Jesus. God is constantly overhauling our programs to better fit this expanding vision.
We recently started a ministry to a state university in our town, built a coffee bar that supports an entire community in Rwanda, and created a Christian bookstore where our people and the community can find Christian and holiness materials. The Lord also directed us to lead two services, a traditional service and a contemporary service, which allowed us to not only seat more people and grow our base, but to also become a comfortable home to other ethnicities and to bridge generational gaps.
Along the way, we remind each other that God enjoys creating new and fresh things, but His message remains consistent. Our greatest desire at Nacogdoches First is to stay true to the holiness message and love people right where they are. We are willing to wait on God’s voice and direction, and we are open to stepping out in faith, trusting that God can do great things.