In The Dark About Light? Suggestions for lighting your worship space

What does lighting have to do with worship?

If your congregation is like many others, you've never given too much thought to that question. On these pages John Weygandt, a lighting professional, challenges churches to take another look at the lighting in their worship space. Although Weygandt's observations are based on his experience in a setting quite different from those in most of our churches, his reflections may well encourage even small churches to make some important changes.

■ Let there be light.
■ The Lord is my light and my salvation.
■ Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.
■ Arise, shine, for your light has come.
■ I am the light of the world.

Scripture deploys light as a rich, complex metaphor. We study it, conceptualize it, and even theologize it, but when the time comes to physically use light in worship, most of us remain in the dark.

Lighting (and sound): Just turn it on so we can see (and hear), right? Yes, but that's only a beginning. Effective lighting for worship is governed by a number of objectives and criteria that can be applied to any size church with any size lighting system and any size lighting budget.

Lighting Objectives

In planning any lighting system, I keep the following three objectives clearly in mind:

1. Selective Visibility

First and foremost, light enables us to see. If a lighting system achieves nothing else, it must be visibility. Can you easily see the speaker/leader at any given moment of the worship service? Many times, and in many places, the darkest corner of the room is where he or she is placed. Because the gospel of Christ is the most consequential information anyone can utter, I am discouraged when I see his good news delivered in (relative) darkness.

Notice that darkness is qualified by relative, and visibility is qualified by selective. If a speaker is in sufficiently bright light, but the surrounding space is even brighter, we perceive the speakers area as dark. The art of lighting is in knowing where not to put light and where to subdue light. Rembrandt's paintings are a clear example; he painted dark and light to hide and reveal. Is your (our) worship revealed by light?

The highlights and shadows on a speaker's or singer's face should be cast in a natural and pleasing fashion. The less important facets of worship presentation should be subdued. (For example, why is the wall sconce brighter than the minister's face?)

2. Composition and Focus

Composition is the use of light and dark to focus attention. Master artists achieve composition by design, not by accident. I encourage lighting directors (LDs) to intentionally direct attention. My favorite part of teaching new LDs is sitting together during a service and constantly whispering in their ears, "Where does your eye travel? Who's brightest? Who gets secondary focus? Where are you going next?" My advice: Plan out what the audience/congregation should be watching at each given moment of the service, and then use lighting intensity to guide our vision.

3. Variety

In making those plans, remember that variety is the spice of life. At Willow Creek, our motto is change, change, change, in order to keep the audience visually engaged and interested. Our background looks change, colors change (at least warm/cool), and cue rates vary all in the course of one worship service.

But be careful: Variety for its own sake often appears heavy-handed. When each element of a service is radically different from the others, we risk losing a visual "through-line." The elements then feel disjointed, consciously or subconsciously.

Variety must be seen in a context of supporting each individual element. We design a bright look for an up-tempo song, and make a serene statement for a ballad. Significantly in all cases, the lighting cannot upstage the vocalists {or speakers, for that matter). They are the human connection point to the congregation in worship. We communicate indirectly, but they communicate directly. Lighting and all of technical production must be supportive and subservient.

Achieving the Objectives

How does one go about achieving those three objectives in a lighting system? The following questions can serve as criteria to help you evaluate the effectiveness of your worship lighting and make improvements where needed.

Are the lights in effective locations?

What do they say are the three most important things in real estate? Location, location, location. The same is true for your lighting fixtures. The positions of your fixtures are more critical than the type of control board you use. You can't fix bad angles with an expensive board. How many of these church lighting scenarios ring familiar?

  • chandeliers and / or wall sconces with no directional light toward the stage (pulpit/altar)
  • spotlights positioned only above the stage with no chance of front-lighting the minister's face
  • windows behind the platform that are so bright on a sunny morning that the faces in front disappear

Whether you have a budget for theatrical spotlights, or hardware-store variety fixtures, or just recycled coffee cans, please pay heed to location. The following guidelines might help:

  1. If you have only one light, stand at the most-used point onstage facing forward, raise your arm straight out horizontally, then raise it to about a 40°-45° angle. Locate your fixture anywhere along the invisible diagonal line, usually as close to the ceiling as is feasible. A single front light is better than nothing, but has a flat effect on faces.
  2. If you have two lights, do the same thing with both arms this time, and separate them by 60°-90°. Locate the two fixtures along those two diagonal lines, again preferably close to the ceiling. The two lights used in tandem increase the sculptural dimension and apparent "realism" of the human face.
  3. If you have a third light, add it as a backlight at about 60° above horizontal. Backlight gives a nice halo/rim effect to hair and shoulders and "highlights" the person forward out of the background.
  4. With a fourth light, do something interesting but not distracting on the background (i.e., wall or curtain). This adds depth, but must be controlled separately from the other lights.

Do I hove the information I need to tight this week's service(s)?

As a lighting system grows, so too will the specific weekly needs of the musicians, actors (if drama sketches are included in services), and ministers. Preparation and information are vital to maintaining my sanity. At regular weekly meetings, I make it a habit to find out the stage layout, each song's tempo and style, and the tone of the drama sketch. I also ask if any musicians or actors need a "special," a tightly-focused light that provides extra highlighting and emotional underscoring.

Lack of information leads to extra work, hassle, and confusion for our lighting team during the service setup and rehearsal.

Is the lighting I have planned for the service in good taste?

The person making the lighting choices needs good taste—a territory that is naturally personal and subjective, but critical nonetheless. Many people who gravitate to the lighting team come from a digital world, not a watercolor world. Taste may need to be nurtured and cultivated.

Designate a Taste Police Officer (most of us know the person[s] in our church who was "born" with exquisite taste!). Invent unique ways to hook that per-son(s) up with your lighting directors. Explore and experiment with colors— which ones work together well? Research color theory in a local library. And avoid green light on faces—it accents skin blemishes.

Is the lighting plan sensitive to all zoorship elements?

Taste and sensitivity are siblings. Distraction and conspicuous lighting effects sabotage the very focus of worship. If the lighting calls attention to itself, it is most likely distracting our focus. If the lights "grow strangely dim . . ." or quickly change to a distracting color just as a soprano is concluding her acapella rendition of "Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus/' we have ruined "the moment" in less titan a moment! Lighting design and execution must support worship with sensitivity.

Will the lighting cause fatigue in the audience?

Effective worship is enabled by a comfortable context. We work hard to prevent fatigue. If a seat is broken, or we can't hear the minister, or the lighting strains our eyes, we are inclined to tune out. Fatigue can result from too much or too little lighting and sound. High-contrast lighting, for example, is wearisome to the physics of our eyes. So is too little light.

Is our worship facility designed to be functional?

Effective functional design of the worship facility, though included last here, could easily be the first and primary question a congregation asks itself about lighting. Get the building right.

You may want to hire a professional theater consultant to help you in your planning. Your investment in an expert will more than pay for itself. On the other hand, the lack of a good consultant may set you up for years of regret.

A worship facility has much in common with a (live performance) theater, primarily as an outgrowth of the audience/communicator relationship. Don't hesitate to use theatrical tools (beginning with the room itself) to facilitate worship. At first, you may feel "showy" because of the technical equipment and intentional design. But if the gospel of Christ really is the most consequential message we can communicate, we are obligated to use the tools that can most effectively present and support that message.

The potential for lighting in worship has been persuasively articulated in a letter to our team:

Dear Production Team,

I don't know who does the lights, who figures out the set, who figures out how to make the stage consistently look so beautiful-—but it's somebody on your team. Every service, every single service, the colors of the stage lights just take my breath away. They look utterly beautiful. I smile at these lights, and I praise God for creativity and color and [the church] and the production team.

Thank you, thank you for bringing such beauty into our place of worship.


[a church member]

John Weygandt is the visual arts director at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, where he is also a member.


Reformed Worship 33 © September 1994, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.