Restoring the Church’s ‘Upper Room’
A friend recently told me a story about renovations being done to the upstairs of an elderly woman’s house. The reconstruction project had proven more costly than expected, resulting in considerable friction among her children, who presumably will inherit the house and their mother’s remaining assets someday.
This was a casual conversation about a very real situation. But it contained significant prophetic lessons for the state of the church in America.
As the story unfolded, I found myself asking a number of intriguing questions, and the answers lead us to important principles about the kind of renovations needed in the body of Christ today.
Why Renovate the Upstairs First?
This woman lives in an old, stately house. A visitor might conclude that it’s in fairly good repair, but most of the decorations and accessories are quite dated.
Usually a visitor would only see the main floor of this house, which raises the first question: Why not invest the time and money to renovate the first floor instead of the upstairs? After all, the upstairs would rarely be seen by the public. And I know this would be our family’s priorities if we did renovations—we would concentrate on the most visible areas.
But you see, the church has an “upper room,” and from God’s perspective nothing is more important. As my friend’s story unfolded, in my mind’s eye I could see a house that was clean and fit for use on the main floor, but it had an upstairs filled with cobwebs, dust, and debris.
Sadly, this too often is the situation in the church today. We care about what is seen by the visitors (i.e., “seekers” and unchurched people), but we don’t realize the crucial importance of restoring the upper room—the place where we find intimacy with God and are filled with His world-shaking power.
So we typically renovate the main floor first. Giving great attention to a visitor’s “worship experience,” we focus on having friendly greeters, good lighting, an awesome sound system, stunning video effects, and a stage production that most rock stars would envy.
Let me be the first to say that I’m not particularly against such things in themselves. In many churches, the main floor needs some renovation. The old organ music isn’t helping to reach many new people, and the pews and overall décor clearly have a “dated” look.
But what should be our first priority? When the first floor becomes our obsession and the upper room is neglected, we aren’t putting first things first. To the extent that we succeed at all, we will fall into the dismal trap of “having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:5).
Of course, there are some truly successful churches that give the upper room its proper place and alsoreach out to seekers with excellent music and preaching. Yet many new church plants simply try to mimic the first floor worship experiences of these effective churches, without investing in the upper room power.
Is It Worth the Cost?
In my friend’s story, the cost overruns had caused conflicts among the woman’s children. It was a very expensive project, and one could well question whether it was worth it.
Here again, there’s a prophetic lesson. When a woman anointed Jesus with costly spices before His death, the disciples asked this very same question: “Why this waste?” (Matthew 26:8) After all, there certainly could have been better use for this extravagant expenditure: “This fragrant oil might have been sold for much and given to the poor” (v. 9).
In essence, the disciples were saying, “Jesus doesn’t really need this lavish display of affection. Instead of wasting it on Him, we should be reaching out to the poor—the seekers and those are lost.” There was a certain logic to their argument, for they knew Jesus had a great passion for the least and the lost. They probably thought He would commend them for their perspective.
But Jesus startled them with this surprising rebuke: “Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her” (v. 13). In other words, true worship—upper room style—was a key ingredient for genuine gospel outreach! Jesus wanted people to remember this woman’s act “wherever this gospel is preached.”
While trying to impress people with our amazing technology and “sound and light show,” we must never forget the most important feature of an authentic church: the presence of Jesus! (Matthew 18:20) In the end, that’s all we really have to offer (Exodus 33:15-16).
When we truly worship Him as our first priority, something incredible happens in the spiritual atmosphere:“The house was filled with the fragrance of the oil” (John 12:3). Notice that the WHOLE house was filled—not just the upper room. When we set our hearts on worshiping Jesus in the upper room, the aroma will surely fill the downstairs too.
So Why Not Make the Whole House an Upper Room?
There’s an urgent need for the church to renovate its experience of the upper room. The cobwebs are many, and the power is running low in most congregations today.
However, some well-meaning believers have taken this message to an unhealthy extreme. Realizing the vital importance of the upper room, they’ve surmised that nothing else is of much value.
So these very spiritual Christians have tried to turn the downstairs part of the house into an upper room. Since the upper room is so crucial, they argue, why not turn the whole house into a “house of prayer”?
While this indeed sounds spiritual, it’s basically moving the pendulum from one imbalance to another. Yes, Jesus wants His house to be a “house of prayer,” but He never wants us to forget the second part of our assignment: We must be “a house of prayer FOR ALL NATIONS” (Mark 11:17). In other words, the prayers and praises in the upper room are always supposed to be linked to our mission to preach the gospel.
If we turn the “public” floor of the house into an upper room, it’s no longer truly public. We’ve lost our place for visitors or seekers to come, because we’ve taken away their point of access. In effect, we’ve eliminated the outer court of the Temple and told people to come directly into the Holy of Holies.
Of course, I’ve heard all the arguments that the church must be a super-spiritual place where believers come to meet with God—and the evangelism will come later, after we’ve soaked in His presence for an extended period. While this concept sounds appealing, I’ve found that, too often, the evangelism never actually comes. We’re basking in our upper room day after day, but never taking the presence of God with us to the streets and the marketplace.
Satan loves imbalance. Sometimes he even lets “good” things happen unopposed, if they are good but ineffective.
Unless connected to the upper room, an effort to reach seekers will ultimately end in frustration. But an upper room not connected to outreach a lost and needy world will ultimately become a self-absorbed delusion.
No matter which side of the pendulum you’re presently on, it’s time to regain balance and true impact. As for the early disciples, so with us: It was after they worshiped Him that He gave them the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). The two cannot be separated if we are to succeed in filling the earth with the knowledge of His glory (Habakkuk 2:14).
Are you ready for renovation? Then let’s start in the upper room, as the early church did. But let’s not be content until our renovations rock the whole world.