In a recent email, a pastor friend posed the question to me: "What makes us [as a church body or organization] distinctive?"
There was a time when the United Pentecostal Church was distinctive for several things: standard of dress, lifestyle, abstinence from worldly things, the belief---and teaching---that water baptism in the name of Jesus was a necessary part of the formula for salvation, and, probably the most distinctive mark of all, the revelation---and empassioned preaching---of the fullness of the Godhead revealed in Jesus Christ. We were ridiculed, known only by our "rules" and for all the things that we "couldn't do".
Those days are gone, however. In recent years, in an attempt to be more socially acceptable, we have lessened our stance on certain issues, accepted things as normal behavior for a "new Christian", and some have even softened their position on the essentiality of baptism.
My response to my pastor friend was not popular with at least a couple of ministers whom he shared it with (with my knowledge, of course), but I didn't expect it would be.
I still believe it's the truth, however, and so I make no apologies for what I write.
Here is my response to his question:
This is probably not going to be the answer you expected to receive...
We no longer are distinctive.
For the very reasons that you have mentioned here, the UPCI has become yet another "religious movement" swallowed up in the vast maw of diversity that encompasses Christianity, Eastern religions, Science-based religions, etc. No one knows who we are anymore. What's worse, no one cares.
Why? Because there are no longer any lines of distinction. One of two things has happened over the past 20 years:
(1) What we have preached and stood for (or against; take your pick) for years, other denominations---or the public in general---has now picked up on and decided that we were right, or (2) what the other denominations---or the public in general---has been saying for years, we've picked up on and decided they were right.
Methodists speak in tongues, Baptists enjoy outward demonstrative worship, Catholics teach trying to live godly. Charismatic churches preach on faithful stewardship, paying tithes, abstaining from immoral lifestyles. (Their concept of what is immoral may be a bit weaker than ours, but as one of my bible college instructors used to say, "Believe it or not, even Charismatics have standards.")
Likewise, the UPCI has finally decided that "grace" is not such a bad word; that by teaching salvation is by grace is not equivolent with teaching that we can live however we want and we'll still get into heaven. "Personal relationship with Christ" is also not the bane of the UPCI; we're finally understanding (some, anyway) that "holiness" cannot be based on works simply for the works' sake. If our Christian experience is not built upon---and focused on----a relationship with God, striving to please Him in all that we do (or don't do), then our so-called "holiness" is shallow, vain, and meaningless.
Nor do I believe that it's because we "are the only ones who believe that Jehovah and Jesus are the one God". There are other monotheistic religious organizations that believe that Jesus Christ was the incarnation of the God of the Old Testament. They may not be as eloquent in their definition of it as some of our preachers are, and they might not emphasize it quite as strongly as we do, but the belief is there. They just haven't put it at the forefront of their image like the UPCI did for years.
Granted, there was a time when our insistence (rightly so, I might add) that Jesus' Name baptism was essential made us stand out a bit, but I believe that even those days are gone. There are other churches who, though they may not insist on Jesus' Name baptism, feel that baptism is a necessary step in salvation; and while they may not devoutly profess Jesus-Name to be the only true method, they no longer avoid it like the plague. I believe there are pastors and ministers in several denominations who feel that, if a baptismal "candidate" approaches them with "Jesus' Name" questions, they will baptize them that way. It's not just the Pentecostals who are blurring the lines.
We don't bear the fruit of the Spirit, so we're not recognizable. I have a "non-bearing Bartlett" pear tree in my back yard. Two of 'em, matter of fact. They provide shade, bloom for a couple weeks in early spring (they just lost the last of their beautiful white flowers), then turn a beautiful green. Not being a horticulturist, I had no idea what kind of trees they were. No fruit. Could've been maple, for all I knew. (I can tell the difference between a pine tree and an oak, but that's about it.) Without fruit, I never would've known what kind of trees these are. My father-in-law had to tell me.
Without fruit, how is the world supposed to know the difference between us and every other church on every other corner?
The next mark of distinction---and I do believe it will happen---that will separate us from the rest of the religious world is the one that separated the early church from the Jewish sect of Pharisees and Saducees.
Power with God.
Not "holiness". Not legalistic manuevers. Not even "Jesus' Name" or "Jesus everything" doctrine that we so proudly hail.
Power with God.
We proclaim ourselves to be apostolic, when the truth is, we are only apostolic in doctrine. We hide behind a facade of "onesies and twosies" getting the Holy Ghost, and someone getting healed of a headache, when God is looking for a church that will crucify their mortal flesh, walk in the Spirit, and allow Him to demonstrate that He still fills complete congregations with His Spirit, that He can still heal cancers, grow limbs, open blind eyes.
Like it or not, we are so hung up on these trivial little issues that we have completely lost our identity as the genuine Apostolic church. We're trying to hang our reputation---and we have tried it for years unsuccessfully---on one or two little differences, and prided ourselves for "having the Truth". (Insert angelic choir here.)
What the world needs is not another church, not another organization, not another Christian Coalition, nor another American Family Association.
They're not looking for another doctrine, another baptismal method, or more outward appearances to believe that we're different from everyone else. They're looking for a demonstration of the power and deliverance that God can offer.
Until we can offer them that, we have no distinction. We're just another face in the religious crowd, with nothing more to offer than any other religious denomination.