How Have Church Lighting Needs Changed, Amid a ‘New Normal’?

by | Lighting

In the scope of a few months, so much has changed for churches across the country.

In terms of a church’s technology needs, lighting has also seen a dramatic shift of late.

Up to a few months ago, churches were largely focusing their lighting needs around live, in-person services. Upon facing the reality of cancelled services for a number of weeks, then mandated limits on congregation service sizes – priorities understandably shifted. Read how churches have worked to keep connected to their congregations in recent months.

Lighting Focus Shifts Toward Broadcasted Services

As noted by lead lighting designer Scott LeBeau at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, “it’s changed a lot. It is now about the camera lens; not about the atmosphere in the room.”

Tim Ottley, lighting director at Asbury United Methodist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, agreed. “In a live environment, one draws focus by turning off light in some places. People (in live settings) will look at the brightest thing in the room. That changed, when we went from 1,000 eyes in the room, to one – the camera.”

Beyond just the number of eyes, Ottley explained that for broadcast, “it’s a different type of light.” What works best for live services with a congregation in the seats is much different. For example, Ottley said, “Super bright does not work very well for cameras. When you have lighting that does one thing, like lighting brightly, can you have it change to lighting the room well?”

Churches Move to New Ideas For Broadcast Gains

As LeBeau explained, there are many aspects where lighting has dramatically changed with the focus now on broadcasted services. “Dynamically, front wash (lighting) is needed, as it takes care of shadows on the eyes.” In addition, for broadcasts “captured (people on camera), stood in place much more. So, we need to up-light much more in the past.”

Among the steps New Life has taken to improve in this area, is to help provide some “lighting texture in the background,” LeBeau explained. As part of work on a new design, “LED strips are deep in the background. That is so that there isn’t a black hole” of depth-of-field on camera during worship, he added.

Even for churches which already were significantly invested in streaming and live broadcasting services before March, they too are navigating a significantly altered landscape.

“What we have to do now for lighting, programming and design, is much different. Especially from what we did six months ago,” explained director of tech arts Kevin Penrod at Trinity Fellowship Church in Amarillo, Texas. “The balance between broadcast and live that we had … went out the door.”

Trinity Fellowship, like many other churches, recently has “come back to live services,” noted Penrod. Nonetheless, “I don’t know if any churches will go back to live numbers as they did before.”

Taking On Different Approaches to Lighting

At the Amarillo church, Penrod noted how it continues to work with different approaches to their lighting. Among those approaches is one that “creates a broader spectrum, to connect to the entire worship team. One where we do not leave anyone in the dark.” Previously, the lead senior member of the worship team had a spotlight focused on them.

Even as churches return to in-person services, the majority of those watching, are still doing so digitally. “It is now a split situation. People are in house again, but most are still online,” said Ottley. “We are still having to light for cameras, with it being a challenge finding a happy medium between the two.”

There once was a time where “rules” were in place that revolved around having a sizable congregation for a service. That has all changed, as “those rules were thrown out the window. Now it has to translate through the lens (as the priority),” said LeBeau.

Contending With Different Locations For Lighting

What are some of the most notable changes to the presentation of a pastor’s sermon? It wasn’t long ago when congregants would either be watching the sermon on Sunday from the worship space, or if streaming, view the broadcast being done in the same space.

With worship spaces having been empty of late, pastors began to record their message “from the senior pastor’s personal office. That meant it had to be set up with lighting,” explained Chris Tall, lighting designer for Essex Alliance Church in Essex Junction, Vermont. “The lighting is very different than live. The setting is rather unique.”

Among the issues inside an office that has to be handled differently from a worship space, Tall noted, involved “background considerations. Such as ambient lighting coming through the windows.” Another significant variable, he added, might be a “drop ceiling. One that has florescent fixtures in the office,” unlike the lighting in a worship space.

At Asbury, the approach to lighting for services has had to account for such changes. In the past, the church worked significantly toward highlighting the church’s in-house environmental projection and lighting. Most recently, the church has been making set pieces to create some depth of field on the worship set. That is because prior to that, Ottley said, “with the black background before, it looked horrible. It’s a huge change for us.”

As churches move much of their focus toward streaming and recording services, it adds up to needing “to shoot more dramatically,” Penrod said. We have to put more drama in our lighting cues. With more emphasis today on YouTube and Facebook, it has to be more eye catching, more stunning … before they even hear it.

Live Services Soon Returning For Some Churches

Even as some churches have begun live services recently, others are still planning to make that step soon.

“We are preparing to go to live services on August 2, barring nothing changes,” said Tall. For Essex Alliance, though, the plan isn’t to host services at their Essex Junction campus. Tall detailed how the church recently had taken management of a second campus, in Burlington. The church has planned its first in-person services at that location.

“We just invested in some new lighting, audio and video equipment, to augment that space,” noted Tall. “That space technology-wise, is considerably less than our Essex space,” but with the new gear, the church has plans to offer the service through an “FM broadcast to the parking lot, with remote live display, to provide a live video experience on the campus of the site.”

One of the newest goals at Trinity Fellowship, noted Penrod, was with a 4,000-seat auditorium, “to control the intimacy. Providing some texture and color, beyond the congregation is needed.” With in-person services set to be smaller for some time, the challenge is to where “it doesn’t feel empty. There still needs to be a connection. One that the people (in a service) used to carry over naturally.”

Understanding how in-person service numbers won’t rebound right away, Tall emphasized, “we will continue to do the lighting well supported while being live (for broadcast). It’s kind of a double-headed beast for lighting for broadcast, and for live.”

Considering Where to Spend for Lighting

For churches looking to invest in new options for lighting, the focus continued with the camera and the stage.

“If someone wants to outfit a different (worship) space, an option I’d mention are static LED washes, not connected to a console,” said Tall. “Do they need to light people on stage? If so, then simple lighting trees with some static, virtual LED washes.”

Penrod pointed to lighting improvements around the stage. For him, he focused on having lighting that “definitely lowers the ceiling. Bring lighting before the physical stage, to create more intimacy. By doing so, it will create more connection to the congregation, and more versatility toward camera placements.”

For LeBeau, his focus was also toward the stage, but from a different perspective. For churches unable to invest in an LED wall, for instance, he pointed to another feasible alternative. To offer depth on stage, LeBeau noted how at New Life, “we built LED nodes, that look like stars. They look nice during sermons.” Paired with moving profile lights on the floor, they “give an extra pop for the camera lens.” To achieve the look, the church took 400 LED strips, “and cut every third node.” After taping each strip, the church was able to create the pixel look.

Churches Must Continue to be Flexible to Succeed

With all that has changed in recent months among churches, the aim continues to be “to create worship atmospheres, for in-person and broadcast,” explained Tall.

The challenge for churches in the coming weeks and months is to continually adjust to their respective congregations’ needs.

“We are now navigating the fact that for much of our congregation, the (in-person) service used to be their Sunday habit,” noted Ottley. “That no longer is the case. They are now watching it online instead.” Recognizing that shift, the work is focused toward “how do we make the service more experiential? One that is engaging you physically, and you want to have more of that experience?”

Avoiding The Inexpensive, Speedy “Solution”

With so much on the plate for churches, it can be tempting to turn to a quick, low-cost option.

Among the more intriguing angles on avoiding such a pitfall came from LeBeau. He highlighted the risk of spending significant money on some gear, while skimping elsewhere on related products.

“One of the biggest mistakes is when someone buys the biggest and baddest lighting console … only to buy the cheapest fixtures,” he said. “It’s nice to have the biggest console, but if you don’t have the paintbrushes, then what good it is it?”

From LeBeau’s personal experience, he noted, “I run an Obsidian M6, and I do everything that I can do on a $90,000 console. I want the (quality) fixtures that allow me to do that.”

Keep An Eye On Pricing; Don’t Ignore Renting

In the effort to stretch one’s dollar, LeBeau explained, one should be willing to talk to one’s dealers about pricing.

“Sometimes, you have to ask the question, “What deal can you get me?” Especially these days (where companies might be more flexible),” with his noting a company offering more than half off on its pricing.

In addition, another valuable perspective was from Tall, who talked of avoiding “solutions” one can purchase down the road at the local hardware store.

The much better option, Tall explained, would be to “work with their rental production house. Begin by seeking a reduced rental rate.” Even see if the company wants “to sell off their older stuff.” While purchasing used gear might have a higher outlay of money initially, continuing to rent “will cost more over the long-term.” If your church opts to rent its gear for now, Tall noted, don’t be scared away by the rates typically found online. “When looking at rental rates for gear, the price you typically see is the first week rental. From there, the second and subsequent weeks are half of that, at least that’s how the places I have worked with do their pricing.”

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