How to Lead A Parade

What I call my “New Orleans Sermon” goes like this: In order to start a parade (a movement of some kind that catches on and makes a lasting difference), four things should be kept in mind:

–someone has to be first. This is the person of vision.

–someone has to follow. Getting people to buy into your vision is not a simple thing.

–parades tend to fizzle. So they must be constantly renewed.

–the object is to finish strong. The leader must keep his eye on the prize, and not be sidetracked, deterred or detoured.

Let’s focus on the first of these: “In starting a parade, someone has to be first.”

I’m thinking of a number of movements (that is, parades) that make our point.

Global Maritime Ministries, a work with seafarers and port workers for the New Orleans riverfront, grew out of the vision of John Vandercook nearly 50 years ago.

Baptist Crossroads Ministries, building homes for the poor of the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, grew out of a vision of David Crosby, pastor of the FBC of N.O. I was sitting beside him the very moment that happened.

The Southern Baptist Convention’s “Disaster Relief Ministry,” which is led and administered through our North American Mission Board, got its start through Bob somebody-or-other who directed the Baptist Men’s work for the BGCT (Baptist General Convention of Texas) in the 1960s. Today, the SBC DR work has 1,000 units all across the country, ready to respond to emergencies in a moment.

And another, which is not a religious work but which we all treasure and which makes the point very well, is the Adopt-a-Highway program. It got its start in Tyler, Texas, one day in 1984 when a DOT engineer named James Evans grew concerned over trash blowing out of the pickup in front of him. Today, that program is in 49 states and a number of foreign countries.

You want to start a parade? You have an idea for a movement that could make a real difference in people’s lives? Excellent. Good for you. Let’s talk about that.

But first, let me tell you about Harlan Proctor.

These days, Harlan is a career military man in Charlotte, NC. But in the late 1980s he was a teenager in the First Baptist Church in that city and I was his pastor. When the student minister took a big group to Atlanta to see a Braves’ baseball game, the youth returned buzzing with what Harlan had done.

“He spent the entire game trying to get the wave going around the stadium,” they laughed. Harlan said, “The game was almost over, but it finally made the circle. It was a great moment.” They laughed again.

I said, “Harlan, you are a real leader!”

Beginning a wave in a stadium is an apt illustration of what it means to start a parade, a movement of any kind.

The wave-starter-person knows what he wants to accomplish and is willing to stand up and get everyone’s attention. He urges those closest to him to buy into his plan. He tries again and again, only to see the wave die out after going a few yards. But he stays at it, sometimes to the chagrin of the people around him. But in time, the wave makes the circuit of the arena. He has done it.

To this day, Harlan has no idea who won that game. He probably thinks he did, and we’re not telling him any different.

The best I can figure, here is the process by which a person becomes a parade-starter, not for a stadium wave but for the kind of movement that really matters in our world.

One: it begins with a BURDEN.

You see a situation that bothers you. The thought of it keeps you from sleeping at night. It could be the litter on the highways, the foreign visitors to your seaport, the ramshackled housing of poor people, or the unsaved of your community.

Your burden might be the ignorance of Christians concerning the Bible, the divisions within Christianity, the lack of maturity of God’s people, the lack of real leadership in America, or the mounting national debt of this country.

The rundown trailer park you pass on your way to the office every morning is in bad shape. One day you notice a dozen children in front, waiting on the school bus. You wonder if anyone is doing anything to minister to those kids.

It bothers you.

Good. That’s how it all starts.

“Is it nothing to you who pass by?” is the cry of those who hurt but are ignored by the priest and Levite. (That’s a reference to the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10.)

The Old Testament prophets would sometimes begin their message with: “The burden of the Lord.” That was a dead giveaway that this would not be a sweet little devotional with cute stories and a poem or two. This was heavy stuff.

Two: God gives you a VISION.

Something happens and you begin to see what could happen. You have a plan.

In a George Bernard Shaw play, a character says, “Some see things as they are and ask ‘why;’ I see things that never were and ask ‘why not.'” That’s vision.

James Evans was burdened that the pickup truck was dropping litter everywhere. Thoughts of the millions of dollars devoted to cleaning up trash on the highways pained him. Then he had an idea: what if clubs and schools and churches adopted segments of the highway and kept them clean? At that moment, the worldwide phenomenon that became the adopt-a-highway program was conceived.

John Vandercook was burdened for the thousands of ship crewmembers who travel to ports in the USA from all over the world, often from countries closed to missionaries. He grieved that they came so close to us but rarely had contact with Americans and never with the gospel. Then one day, while he stood on the levee staring at the traffic on the river, a ship docked in front of him. A man got off, walked over to him, and said, “Sir, I’m a Christian. Could you tell me where I could go to church tonight?” That was the moment Global Maritime Ministries was conceived.

David Crosby has had a burden for New Orleans for two decades, since he was a seminary student and a city reporter for the Times-Picayune in the mid-1970s. Seeing what he calls the “dark under-belly” of the city had scarred his soul. In 1996, the Lord led him from Texas back to pastor the FBC-NO. In 2004, in a breakfast meeting with pastors, the mayor of our city said, “The key to breaking the cycle of poverty is home ownership.” That was the moment. When we walked out of the Blue Room of the Fairmont Hotel that morning, David said, “Joe, we need to build some houses for poor people.” The Baptist Crossroads was conceived. (The website is

It begins with a burden.

It continues with a vision.

It culminates in a call.

James Evans had the burden and the vision, but could not get the program going for some reason. That’s when TxDOT public relations officer Billy Black stepped in. He bought into Evans’ vision and received the call himself to take the lead. Black made it happen. The Tyler Civitan Club became the first organization to sponsor a segment of the highway in 1985. According to Wikipedia, Billy Black kept fine-tuning the adopt-a-highway plan and came up with innovations such as the reflective vests still in use.

When I became a student at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in 1964, I heard of a ministry called the New Orleans Seaman’s Service. Students were volunteering to drive their automobiles to the docks and bring crew members to church services. John Vandercook’s vision was being shared by more and more people. No one questioned that it was John’s call from God, and he made it happen. Today, Global Maritime Ministries is one of the first and largest of its type anywhere in the country. It’s website is

One way I know when the Lord is working on something in my life is that things begin to occur all around me on the same subject. Two conversations in the last 24 hours bear this out.

Last night, Carol told me of her attempts to build the fellowship in her small church. She said, “I fear if we don’t get something going soon, we’re going to die.” Her plan was a program by which members would do acts of love anonymously for one another.

She had given the program to the pastor. She never wanted to run ahead of the minister or do anything he did not approve of, she stressed to me. And yet, when the minister presented it to the church, for some reason it just didn’t connect with the members. She was puzzled.

I said, “Because it was your vision, not his.”

She had the burden for the missing fellowship in the church, the vision for what to do, and the call to do something about it. The pastor did not. It was her ministry to make happen.

A better approach would have been to present the plan to the pastor and ask him to choose one of the following options: to veto it, to take ownership of it, or to approve it with Carol taking the lead.

“Nine pastors out of ten will take the third option,” I assured her. “Unless it’s a nutty idea to begin with.” Which it wasn’t.

She liked that.

This morning, Judy, a friend who attends a small church in another state, told me what happened when she approached her pastor with an idea for sending cards with prayers to shut-ins and inactives.

“Brother Bill told me he loves the idea, and gave me the church logo to imprint on the cards.”

Judy has received the “full speed ahead” from the pastor, and she is excited. The burden, the vision, and the call were given to her. Now, the pastor has given her the ministry.

In New Orleans, we have two kinds of parades. We have the formal kind, such as Mardi Gras or St. Patrick’s Day or “Italian Heritage.” These are planned for months and are big deals.

Then, there are the informal parades which seem to arise spontaneously. Someone steps into his street and begins blowing a horn as he walks up and down the block. Soon, someone else comes out with a horn or tamborine. Another will emerge waving a scarf and dancing. They walk to the next block and pick up a few more for what they call a “second line.” Soon, they head to the French Quarter, making music, dancing in the streets, spreading joy. It’s one of the things that has made New Orleans unique among modern American cities.

In starting a parade–a movement–someone has to be first.

That takes a combination of nerve, vision, and determination.

The payoff is the joy erupting in the hearts of citizens and tourists when the parade passes. Some will even step off the curb and join in.

That’s the most fun of all.

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