Learning from the Mummer Community

Front Row March/April 2013

John Greening March 6, 2013




I grew up in Philadelphia. My family lived in a parsonage at the corner of Tabor Road and Faunce Street. Among my several friends in the neighborhood, one had a father who was a mummer. He played the banjo in a band that performed every year in the world-famous Philadelphia Mummers Parade. If you haven’t seen a mummers’ performance, you can search Google to find one online. The mummers wear ornate costumes and strut in a New Orleans style on the streets of Philly each New Year’s Day.

As a boy, I came to realize the presence of an extensive mummer community. In various parts of the city, mummer clubs met to plan and practice performances and to host fund-raising events. Often the mummers tied their efforts to charitable causes. Though an intense competition took place among the clubs, they shared an underlying loyalty to the ideals and traditions of the mummers. The Mummers Parade is said to be one of the oldest immigrant festivities in the country.

Beyond the mummers’ showy trappings, these immigrants exhibited the meaning of coming together to form a community. According to Wikipedia, the term community is “derived from the Old French communité which is derived from the Latin communitas (cum, ‘with/together’ + munus, ‘gift’). . . . In human communities, intent, belief, resources, preferences, needs, risks, and a number of other conditions may be present and common, affecting the identity of the participants and their degree of cohesiveness.” Now catch this explanation: community is “a broad term for fellowship or organized society.” That sounds like church language. “Community usually refers to a social unit larger than a small village that shares common values. The term can also refer to the national community or international community.”

Wikipedia delineates, “Since the advent of the Internet, the concept of community has less geographical limitation, as people can now gather virtually in an online community and share common interests regardless of physical location. Prior to the internet, virtual communities (like social or academic organizations) were far more limited by the constraints of available communication and transportation technologies.”

The story line of God’s Word interweaves the idea of community. For example, a huge construction project brought people together to work on the tower of Babel, only to have the project end with God’s judgment and the dispersion of the coalition due to their misaligned priorities.

Later God chose the family of Abraham to be a community through which He would carry out His purposes. The family, which grew to become a nation, was united by the covenant promises of God, the tribal structure of family ties, the divinely revealed law, and the worship system and feasts occurring in the hub city of Jerusalem within the Promised Land. Periodically the sense of community was disrupted by internal conflict when members disregarded the uniting factors of God’s Word and His purposes.

In the New Testament, God initiated a new community in the church. This community was not formed of a single nationalistic group, but composed of the redeemed from every tongue, tribe, and nation, who by faith have received God’s sacrificial grace in the person and work of Christ. Together this church is the Body of Christ.

Individual churches functioned in community as they took form and began to grow. The parts of the body needed each other to exist. The people bound together because of God’s Word, His commission, and their mutual needs.

Churches of similar persuasion also functioned together in community. A friend recently sent me an article published in the January 2013 issue of the Baptist Quarterly that highlights church associational community. The article, written by Ian Birch, is titled “The Counsel and Help of One Another: The Origins and Concerns of Early Particular Baptist Churches in Association.”

It is ironic that Baptist churches identified in faith and practice as separatist, congregational, and independent recognized the benefit of community. It was in community that Baptist statements of belief were forged, such as the London, Philadelphia, and New Hampshire Confessions. Those confessions became the doctrinal standards by which churches formed and assessed community.

One association of Baptist churches issued a statement in 1652 on the value of community (written in an archaic form).

“True churches of Christ ought to acknowledge one another to be such and to hold a firme communion each with other in point of advice in things remaining doubtfull to any particular church or churches as also in giving and receiving in case of want and povertie of any particular church or churches and in consulting and consenting (as need shall require and as shall be most for the glory of God) to the joint carrying on of the worke of the Lord in common to the churches.”

The purpose of this interchurch community was seen in five primary actions:

Discipline: The group would hold pastors and churches accountable to God’s Word and a godly walk.

Love: The churches would demonstrate care for one another.

Prayer: The churches would pray for each other and for the prosperity of God’s work.

The mind of Christ: The community of churches sought God’s will regarding church practices.

Stand for truth: “By joining together under the banner of theological orthodoxy, represented by the Confessions, the early Baptists intended to show that they stood in the stream of historic, orthodox Christianity as true churches of Christ.”

The community I observed among the mummers in Philadelphia years ago foreshadowed the community that functions in a greater and eternally rewarding way within the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches. Every week I gather in person or online with pastors who are doctrinally aligned to think, talk, and pray about ministry. We seek to grow in our walk with God, our skill in doing ministry, and our friendship among like-minded colleagues. “What a fellowship!” Only starting a Baptist Mummers Club could top this. Anybody want to join?

John Greening is national representative of the GARBC.