When the Lights Go Dim!

by | Lighting, Production

A while back Brad sent me this question:

We seem to be developing a debate at our church in regards to adjusting the house lights to “set the mood” for better worship. What is your take on that?

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Glad you asked. I strongly believe in setting the mood, it helps some people to understand the words or gospel and real the emotion. I also understand that many other Houses of Worship may say you don’t need that to feel the power of religion. We live in a time of technology and submersion, the lighting can help your parishioners connect deeper with your message.

A Very Brief History of Lighting

Churches have been meeting with little to no light for centuries. In pre-dawn and night services they depended on candles or torches, or met by moonlight. With the advent of electricity, churches that had once gathered in darkness could now meet to the glow of bulbs and lamps.

Even as far back as the early 20th century, progressive pastors were experimenting with the potential upsides (in their minds) of affecting people’s emotions with lighting. In the last few decades of the 1900s 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.

Enter the world of rock concerts, seeker sensitive and emerging churches, and modern lighting. We can control lights in every possible way, including the percentage of light in the room. We can focus lights. We can flash lights. We can color lights. We can cause lights to move. We can widen and narrow lights. For the first time in history we can use all the light we’d ever want or need.

But we don’t.

More and more churches have chosen to turn down the house lights when the congregation sings. Search for “worship” in Google images and the majority are mostly dark or shadows.

For a number of years I’ve wondered why. This is my attempt to share some of my thoughts. To be clear, I’m not going to address production lighting in general. Doing what we do so skillfully that people aren’t even aware of it. In this tech talk, I want to focus on the level of lighting for a congregation.

I think I understand at least some of the reasons for turning the lights down.

  • it keeps people from being distracted
  • it focuses people on the front
  • people feel more comfortable and less conspicuous
  • screens and videos are easier to see when the room is dark
  • lights can be used to direct people’s focus
  • lights on the stage are less effective when the rest of the room is fully lit.

These are legitimate reasons for lowering the house lights. But I want to ask whether we should still consider turning the lights up. Or even on.

I recognize this issue falls far down the scale when it comes to crucial topics for the church to consider. But perhaps low lights can have unintended consequences.

Brad asked me what my take was on turning “the house lights down to set the mood for better worship.” His questions beg a few more questions.

Why does not seeing the congregation make for “better worship?”
What is the best “mood” for worship?
Should we be trying to set a mood through lighting?

When we start quantifying worship by the lighting and mood, we’re already in trouble. We’ve slipped from viewing worship as a Spirit-enabled response to God’s self-revelation in the gospel to seeing it as an emotional experience that can be humanly produced and manipulated. Worship is not simply a mood. Aesthetic elements should support and complement our response to God’s Word and the gospel, not overpower it, distract from it, or be the foundation for it.

God has given us means to motivate and affect people – the Word, prayer, the gospel. He’s given us the Lord’s Supper and baptism as visual and sensory ways to remember the gospel and its implications. Aesthetics are important, but secondary. Every time in history the church has overly emphasized aesthetic and artistic elements the gospel has suffered.

We’re speaking to one another.
When I go to a movie with Julie, I don’t mind that the theater is completely dark. I have zero interest in what the people around me are doing. I just want to see what’s on the screen. But a movie theater is not the church. The church is Christians meeting with God and each other around the gospel.

We’re commanded twice in the New Testament to speak to or teach and admonish one another as we sing. That involves not only hearing others, but seeing them. When I’m not leading I’ll look around a few times just to take in the fact that I’m singing God’s praise with other saints Christ has redeemed. I’m encouraged by their participation and the reality that I’m not alone!

Focusing all the light up front can subtly communicate that the most significant activity of the meeting is taking place there. But we’re gathering as the church not going to a concert. We’re a body, a temple, a house. The most important sound of the gathering is the congregation, not the musicians. A lit auditorium can help reinforce that theological principle.

House lights enable a leader to see the congregation.

More than once I’ve been in a situation where I can’t see who I’m leading. If I catch it in rehearsal, I ask the tech people to turn up the house lights. I want to be able to see how people are responding and whether they’re engaged. That’s harder when I can’t see them.

I can hear someone saying, “But you don’t know my church. I’m trying to avoid looking at their unenthusiastic, bored, disengaged, discouraging faces!” True. It can be less than inspiring to the people you’re leading. But it’s better to know how they’re being affected than to close my eyes and ignore them all together.

We want to make it possible for people to see their Bibles.
A dark room makes referencing a physical Bible during that time difficult, if not impossible. At times we turn lights down when we sing and turn them up for the preaching. Do we never want people to look at their Bibles when we sing? Or write down a thought they received during a song?

Of course, nothing I’ve said here forbids a candlelight service. And you can keep singing when the power goes out. And as I mentioned earlier, there are legitimate reasons to adjust the house lighting when we worship God in song. But God doesn’t put people next to me in the gathering so I can ignore them. We sing together to deepen the relationships we enjoy through the gospel.

So next time your church meets, try leaving the lights on or at least turning them up. It may be a little awkward at first. But if you take time to explain biblically what you’re doing, you might be surprised how people in your congregation start to realize the crucial role they play on Sunday mornings.

What makes congregational worship amazing is not the lighting or the architecture or the aesthetics. We’re in an ordinary room doing something extraordinary. We are all God’s people engaging together and that’s something worth shedding some light on.

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