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KnowHOW: How house lighting can make an impact

KnowHOW: How house lighting can make an impact

KnowHOW: How house lighting can make an impact

John Black delves into house lighting and the impact they can have on services

The vast majority of lighting production articles and resources focus on techniques and theories on how to light the stage or platform. When attending a live event, the audience enters, the house lights dim and then the magic happens onstage. In the house of worship setting, congregants gather together to participate in corporate worship rather than be entertained. Therefore, the entire auditorium becomes an environment that lighting designers and technicians can use to help promote an atmosphere conducive to worship.

In previous articles specifically discussing the differences between “warm” and “cool” colour temperatures of light, I’ve discussed the impact of different colour temperatures on how we feel and interpret an environment. Imagine again the feeling that you get when you visit a hospital or medical facility verses a department store. We described the light in the majority of hospitals and medical facilities as feeling “cold” as they are often lit using fluorescent or cool-white lighting sources. This stark-white appearance, though cold and uninviting, gives the sense of cleanliness and sterility that we want to believe exists in these types of facilities. To contrast, we described the lighting in a department store as “warm” as they are often lit using incandescent or warm-white lighting sources. This more yellow appearance is more inviting and gives the sense of comfort and belonging.

House lighting has gone through a time of transformation in many event facilities, including houses of worship. Today you will find houses of worship that use fluorescent lamps to illuminate the auditorium, as well as those that have migrated to LED lamps that allow lighting technicians to not only dim but change the colour of the auditorium. These newer technologies allow the entire worship environment to be considered and intentionally lit to impact the worship experience for congregants. Let’s look at some techniques that perhaps you can use to maximise your house lighting impact.

Changing intensity

Unless your auditorium is older and still using fluorescent lamps, chances are pretty high that you have installed lamps that wash your auditorium in a warm field of light. These may be wired to simple on/off switches somewhere in the auditorium, or they may be wired to a sophisticated lighting control system with preset control switches as well as allowing intensity control from the lighting console.

Perhaps the simplest technique for increasing the impact of your house lighting on the worship service experience is to intentionally and creatively make changes to house lighting intensity throughout the various service elements. Unlike most theatrical experiences where the audience is not actively participating during the program, worship services often involve congregational singing, perhaps interaction with others sitting in close proximity, or time for personal reflection. The intensity of house lighting can help establish and guide the experience of each of these service elements.

For example, here is a list of house light intensity levels that could be used during a single service:

Pre-service – 100%

Worship – 50%

Welcome – 80%

Worship – 50%

Message – 90%

Personal prayer/reflection – 25%

Worship – 50%

Post-service – 100%

For each service element, the house lighting could be programmed to fade over a set duration (8s for example) to assist in moving from element to element without abruptly changing the lighting intensity. During pre- and post- service when congregants are entering and exiting the auditorium, it is often a social time as well as a time to find seats and read service materials. Therefore, full lighting is best suited. During worship, it may be appropriate to dim the house lighting to focus congregants on worship while allowing them to still feel a part of the greater worshipping body. During spoken elements, it may be appropriate to bring house lighting back up to allow for congregants to read and be visible to speakers. During personal prayer, you may want to lower the house lighting to reinforce personal reflection and separation from distractions that may come from other congregants nearby.

There are no hard rules for when to make changes and how bright different service elements should be. Intensities will vary depending on your auditorium, the house light system, and the overall atmosphere you are trying to achieve during service elements. Simply changing the intensity of your house lighting can positively impact the experience of the service, reinforce the congregants’ focus during service elements, and assist in supporting the service flow.

Coloured house lighting

Perhaps the newest movement in house lighting systems has been the incorporation of colour-changing LED light systems. Not only can “warm” and “cold” white lighting establish a particular feeling in an environment, but specific colours of light can help to establish desired moods and atmospheres. While none of the facilities that I work in have a coloured house lighting system installed, I can still experience the impact of coloured light in the auditorium through the placement and control of stage lighting fixtures focused on the auditorium. For existing facilities, this may be the most cost-effective way to add colour to the auditorium and can achieve the same results to a purpose-designed house lighting system.

Why would you want to use coloured light in the auditorium? As previously mentioned, worship services are often communal experiences, meaning that the congregation is just as much an active participant in the service as those on stage. Coloured lighting is frequently used on stage and by bringing that colour out and immersing the congregation in coloured light matching the stage lighting, congregants can experience and engage in the service in a more impactful way as the barrier between “stage” and “auditorium” is removed. The communal aspect of the worship service is celebrated.

While lighting intensity is very well suited towards impacting a worshipper’s focus, coloured lighting can specifically have an impact on establishing and reinforcing particular moods and feelings. For more detail on conveying moods with colour, you can reference my Winter 2014 article How to Convey Moods with Colour. The concepts remain the same, but now the entire worship space becomes the canvas upon which colour can be applied.

Probably the most obvious application of using colour to light the auditorium would be during worship music elements of a service to match and blend with the lighting on the stage. During other service elements, it is highly possible that congregants would need adequate lighting to be able to read passages, notes, programs, or other materials during the service, so washing the auditorium in coloured light may not be the most effective. I touch on this subject more in the July–August 2017 article Blending Congregational Lighting and Stage Lighting.

Be intentional – less is more

Whether using the intensity of your house lighting fixtures or manipulating the colour of lighting washing your auditorium, there are few considerations that are important to keep in mind.

First, it is important that decisions made regarding the house lighting be made intentionally. Remember that you are lighting a worship service, not a rock concert. The overarching purpose for any design or technical decision made should be to help connect and usher congregants into an environment free from distraction so that they can worship. Lighting can have a hugely positive impact towards meeting that purpose. But it can also distract and detract away from that purpose. When planning lighting cues, lighting looks, cue timing, colour choices, and changes in the state of house lighting, it is important to be aware of this purpose and to ultimately ensure that your choices are creating that environment rather than distracting from it.

Chroma-Q's Inspire XT range
Chroma-Q's Inspire XT range

Second, as with all lighting decisions, it is important to keep in mind the impact that changes in lighting will have on any other production elements used in your services. For the most part, this relates most closely with video. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic swept the globe, houses of worship recorded, streamed or broadcast their services to viewers. The goal of a service broadcast is often to capture the service as a whole, to try and draw in the viewer to participate what is happening live. This often was and is accomplished through camera angles and shots that include congregants. Therefore, the amount of light and the quality of light needed for these shots needs to be considered so that the video team can capture what they need to capture.

Third, I encourage you to start small. Sometimes less is more. It is important to remember that the focus is impact – not “wow factor”. I have found that often the most effective and impactful lighting impacts can be achieved through the smallest changes. That may be a really slow fade time between two lighting states. That may mean selecting a single colour for an entire service. In my theatrical work, I know that I have done my job well when the technical elements go unnoticed. The same is true of a worship service. Every technical decision should be intentionally made to support the worship environment and the service message.

In closing

I hope you are able to use these techniques and tips to utilise your house lighting to be impactful in your services. Keep your eyes open, make small subtle changes, and collaborate with the other members of the production team to meet service goals, purposes and messages. If you do this, you will make an impact – even with your house lighting.

This feature appears in the November - December edition of Worship AVL. Subscribe at

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