Upper Room: A Church that Looks Like Heaven
By: Sherri Gragg
The Upper Room, Houston, a worship community that reflects the cities vibrant diversity is preparing for a move to the Heights. The Upper Room, is often referred to as "the church that looks like heaven.
What is the difference between significance and success?
The question is a deeply personal one for Upper Room Community Pastor, Christian Washington. “As a consultant, I had reached a certain level of success only to realize there was an emptiness,” Washington recalled.
Washington realized that his work as a lay leader, not his career, was the driving force getting him out of bed each morning. He determined to rechart the course of his life. “I began using my consulting skills to work with churches,” he said, “With the changing demographics of urban centers, so many churches have great facilities but find their congregations are dwindling. I found a bit of a niche in working with various denominations on how to make transitions in those places.”
Discovering Chapelwood UMC
Eventually, his consulting work led him to Chapelwood UMC where he set out to help the church establish a worship community targeting young adults who had grown up in the church only to abandon it after graduating college. One year into the process of establishing the Upper Room worship community at Chapelwood UMC, one of Washington’s mentors, Dr. Jim Jackson, challenged the young worship community to embrace a courageous vision for their future. “This is our chance to do something that looks like heaven,” Jackson told the congregation, “Invite everyone who doesn’t look like you and see if it will change.”
As the church embraced their greater purpose, so did Washington. He left his position as consultant to step into his calling as the pastor of Upper Room. For the past five years, he and his congregants have been faithfully working to build a faith community at Chapelwood UMC that looks like heaven and strives toward Christian significance instead of success.
According to Washington, Christian significance is the practice of living intentionally in service to the kingdom of God in our everyday lives. In doing so, we find that our lives bear the “fruit.” “As I studied Wesleyan theology, I very much resonated with the idea that salvation is a journey rather than a transaction,” Washington said. “Wesley's understanding was that this journey that begins with God goes on to "perfection." At Upper Room, we say "significance." Upper Room leadership believe it is their calling to awaken each soul in their care to his or her own journey of Christian significance and then equip and coach them into their deeper purpose, while providing community for them along the journey.
Upper Room members have answered their callings to Christian significance in remarkable ways. One congregant founded a company that provides information technology services to mission hospitals around the world. Another Upper Room entrepreneur has leveraged his import company to pay coffee farmers, exploited by big-name coffee companies, fair prices for their products. “Christian significance can be anything from raising your children well to mountain-moving things,” Washington said.
An Church that Looks Like Heaven
The small act of the congregation extending invitations to those who looked different from them was the first intentional step in creating a church that “looked like heaven.” Today, Upper Room is careful to represent its incredibly diverse congregation in everything from its worship leaders to the teaching team. Sunday services are rich with opportunities for worshippers to approach God in ways that are unique to their culture and experience. Washington describes the worship music as “contemporary Christian with a little soul.”
Prayer stations around the worship space offer kneeling benches, candle banks, prayer partners, and a replica of the Western Wall in Jerusalem where members are invited to write their prayers on small slips of paper and leave them in the spaces between the stones. One especially unique prayer station feature sandboxes. People use the sandboxes to write down a sin, or person's name they need to forgive,” Washington said. “We encourage them to take a moment, breathe, and then wipe it away. We call it the Sea of Forgetfulness.” During once a month communion, the sandboxes serve as Upper Room’s confessional.
A Theology of Place
On Sunday morning, July 29th, Upper Room held its first preview service in its new location, the Heights Theatre. Two more preview services will follow before the official launch in October. The church is right at home in a neighborhood as eclectic as it is, offering members a sense of belonging so powerful that Washington calls it a “theology of place.”
Upper Room is excited to put down roots of service in its new neighborhood. As each member lives out his or her Christian significance, the work of the kingdom is bound to flourish in the Heights. “We have been pursuing the wrong things,” Washington said. “Happiness, success, and independence are all traps, idols. Like Abraham, we find significance when we bless the world. It is much akin to perfection.”