As a Lighting Designer I find church lighting designs to be the most difficult to design. 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 have all seen the 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. I feel if that happens the design has failed and falls under distracting. Also it may not be the designed system it may be the lighting console operator over-using fixtures in the system.
So, before I continue let’s remember that churches have been meeting with little to no light for centuries. Services depended on candles, torches, or moonlight. When electricity came along, and churches could meet at any time with enough lighting for pastor to see his congregation and the congregation to easily watch the service.
In the early 20th century, some churches were experimenting with the potential upsides of affecting people’s emotions with lighting. In the last few decades, youth leaders were turning the lights down in their meetings, reasoning that near-darkness made teens feel less noticed and more comfortable. Low lights would give unbelievers an opportunity to hear the gospel and participate more.
Enter the world of rock concerts, mega churches, and modern lighting. Now that almost every church can easily purchase LED moving wash units and profile units that draw a small amount of power, most churches can find themselves is this situation in the lighting design. We can control lights in every possible way, including the intensity, focus, color, and movement. We can now create a mood and a focus point that will draw everyone attention to look and listen.
Using specialized lighting in worship can be a tremendous benefit in setting an appropriate worship environment, however you can become a distraction by using too much haze and over-using the moving lights. These elements can create a concert environment rather than a worship environment, and this can easily take your worship participants and turn them into spectators staring at the effects and no longer listening.
New lighting and effect equipment is truly amazing whether your church has a large budget for name-brand gear or a lower budget for inexpensive online gear, you can easily design it and if you use it correctly your worship service will be enhanced and the attention of your church congregation will easily follow along. I find that LED lights either Pars, or moving wash units are a great way to set the mood, especially basic color settings – blue, purple, red, and the basic no color break up which can be obtained in a Profile unit for easier focus, I also like Front Lights in a Rosco 33 Gel or similar which allow a nature face light, simple can be just as affective. The front specials are a great way of leading the congregation along in the sermon without distraction.
I am strong believer in drawing attention to what should be seen or heard with lighting rather than designing a lighting plot that would be distracting with too much color and movement. Remember we’re creating a Church Service not a rock concert. A rock concert lighting plot is meant to be part of the show. It’s meant to make you think the band is even more cool than you already think they are and that is the distinction. In a worship service, what is your lighting scheme doing? Is it drawing attention to the band? Is it simply adding a cool effect or is it intentional, with the purpose of bringing these worship songs and lyrics even more to life. Do the lights help to draw people’s attention to the service even more? Using our sense of sight is a powerful thing, and can absolutely impact the atmosphere of worship.
If you are the designer or console operator and you go to a cue that you programmed and you 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 recreated and simplified to reduce that affect. Sometimes just a slower fade up/down time can correct that.
My point is simple: what is the lighting design accomplishing? Cool lighting effects used over and over will eventually become dull as well. The goal should be to use this technology to enhance the atmosphere of worship of your church and make the messages of your praise even more real to your congregation. I strongly believe that planning a lighting design and slowly building in new looks that don’t distract will guide you in the right direction, that’s something worth shedding some light on.