As a lighting designer, I find church lighting designs to be among the most difficult to put together. It requires a more delicate balance than many other types of production lighting applications.
We usually have a lot of input on ideas and designs others have seen before in other churches, then we need to think about the space size, power, the rigging and the budget. We’ve all seen simple plots that work and the state-of-the-art systems that can either work very well or that become to distracting, to the point you start to look up at the lights and stop listening to the service. If that happens, the design has failed and falls under distracting. (Note, however, that it may not be the designed system but rather the lighting console operator over-using fixtures in the system.)
Remember that churches met for centuries with little to no lighting. Before the advent of electricity, services depended on candles, torches, or moonlight. By the early 20th century, some churches were experimenting with the potential upsides of affecting people’s emotions with lighting.
Enter the world of rock concerts, mega churches and modern lighting. Almost every church can afford LED moving wash units and profile units that draw a small amount of power, and we can control lights in every possible way, including the intensity, focus, color and movement. And, we can now create a mood and a focus point that will draw everyone attention to look and listen.
Using specialized lighting can be a tremendous benefit in setting an appropriate worship environment; however it can be very distracting if too much haze is deployed. In addition, these elements can create a concert environment rather than a worship environment, and can easily turn your congregation into spectators staring at the effects — and no longer listening.
Newer lighting and effects equipment is truly amazing. Whether your church has a larger budget for name-brand gear or a lower budget for inexpensive online gear, an effective system/approach can be designed pretty easily. From there, the goal is to use it correctly so that worship services are enhanced and the congregation is encouraged to follow along.
I find that the LED lights — either pars and/or moving wash units — are a great way to set the mood, especially utilizing basic color settings (blue, purple, red) and the basic no-color breakup that can be obtained in a Profile unit for easier focus. I also like front lights in a Rosco 33 Gel or similar, which naturally light faces pretty simply. They’re a great way of to lead the congregation a long sermon without distraction.
I’m also a strong believer in drawing attention to what should be seen or heard with lighting rather that employing a lighting design plot that, with too much color and movement, can be distracting. Remember, it’s a church service, not a rock concert.
Concert lighting plots are meant to be part of the show, intended to make us think the band is even more cool than we already think they are and that is the distinction. In worship services, what’s the lighting scheme doing? Simply adding a cool effect — or is it intentional, with the purpose of bringing the praise songs and lyrics even more to life. Do the lights help to further engage people’s attention? Using our sense of sight is a powerful thing and can absolutely impact the atmosphere of worship — just remember that it cuts both ways.
The test: if you’re the designer or console operator and you go to a cue that you programmed and notice everyone’s heads look up and away from the sermon, choir or band, then you may have created a distracting look or cue. It can always be simplified to reduce that effect — sometimes just a slower fade up/down time can correct it.
My point is simple: what is the lighting design accomplishing to enhance the worship experience? I strongly believe that carefully planning a rather simple lighting design and then slowly building in new looks that don’t distract is the right way to go. Now that’s something worth shedding some light on.