Lighting and stage design greatly enhance the church experience and the act of worship. Lighting can create and reflect the moods that coincide with a sermon, while stage design allows for multiple uses and maximum functionality for events utilizing your stage.
Understanding design principles will help you choose the best system for your church. Working with a company like Spire AVL means you’re partnering with a company that has the technical know-how to create tasteful and appropriate lighting that elevates the religious experience and demonstrates respect for your building and congregation. A little extra light goes a long way.
What Are the Basics of Church Lighting?
In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about church lighting design. Among these important elements, we’ll discuss:
- Church lighting ideas and how each area of the worship space needs to be lit differently.
- Popular types of church lighting, including direct and indirect lighting.
- Lighting fixture types.
- Why lighting positions and mounting heights matter.
- Church lighting software and lighting control methods, such as DMX.
How to Choose a Church Lighting System
After reviewing these core areas of church lighting basics, you’ll gain a better understanding of where your needs lie. We believe knowledge of design principles and lighting products will give you the confidence necessary to take the next step. Once you realize church lighting isn’t a difficult concept, you’ll begin applying the following considerations to your space.
To aid in the development of your vision, let’s begin by examining the different zones of a church and each of their unique design requirements. Understanding these vital design aspects will help hone your ideas, and spark new and exciting ones, too.
1. The Platform and Altar
Let’s first think about the platform and altar. As the focal point of the worship experience in most churches, this space will benefit most from a lighting system with design concepts that are based in theatrical lighting. It is necessary to light this area using front light at a 45-degree vertical angle from the main speaking and worship location. To minimize shadows even more, consider using a two-point lighting approach. Using this two-point method, this would mean that two sources of light would illuminate the Minister, Pastor or Worship Leader.
To emphasize people in this area of the platform and to help them stand out from the background, we always recommend back lighting. This creates a form of layering on the platform and allows people to be highlighted both in person and through video capture.
2. Choir Area/Stage
The choir area also requires specific lighting considerations. In basic form, the same rules from the platform and altar would remain, but with the addition of another vital angle of light. Down lighting for the choir and band is necessary as this allows them to read any sheet music, hymnals or notes that they have taken.
In traditional services, prayers from the altar and music from the choir often play off each other. Independent lighting control over each of these zones work to complement different moments of a service or gathering. For instance, when the choir begins to sing, lighting can highlight their presence. During the choir’s song, lighting reflects the prominence of that moment — while the altar receives subdued lighting.
In more contemporary services, stage lighting often utilizes several light positions with varying colors and intensities. This might reflect the song being played or the style of service. Some churches may even utilize their stage as a venue for contemporary concerts if they have the proper lighting systems and functionality. Occasionally, a church will employ a spotlight on the stage. Such precise lighting works well to emphasize a significant part of the service, including a speaker, cantor or musician.
3. The Congregation
The congregation area typically needs softer lighting. Attendees need enough light to read their Bibles or hymnals and to exit the church and pews safely, but not so much that it distracts from the service.
To accomplish this balancing act, many churches use direct, down lighting. When proper down light fixtures are selected, glare should be minimal and coverage should be even throughout the seating area resulting in adequate light for reading. Since adequate light for reading is somewhat subjective, we’ve included a table to show some lighting industry standards. The most common measurement when it comes to light intensity is the use of foot-candles, which is the illuminance on a one-square foot surface from a uniform source of light.
Type of Space
Suggested Illuminance in Foot-candles (fc)
High School Gymnasium
Houses of Worship
Types of Light
The two most common architectural lighting strategies are indirect and direct lighting. Direct lighting and indirect lighting are often used in tandem throughout modern architectural lighting design.
Direct lighting functions well when positioned from above, directed downward, and when lensed appropriately to evenly wash an area. Direct lighting creates more intense light because it is directionally emitted onto the workplane. Now that down lighting has become more efficient through the use of LED fixtures, this type of direct light has become common in many commercial and residential spaces.
Indirect lighting is less common for general illumination of a space, but it is often used in feature spaces that have special conditions. Some of these spaces use lighting applications that require minimal glare and uniform general illuminance levels. Indirect lighting uses a diffuse surface to reflect light in a space and can minimize disabling glare on computer displays and other dark glossy surfaces. It gives a more uniform presentation of the light output in operation. However indirect lighting is completely reliant upon the reflectance value of the surface. While indirect lighting can create a diffused and shadow free effect it can be regarded as an uneconomical lighting principle.
Choosing the Right Lighting Fixtures
To achieve the perfectly lit church, it helps to know more specifics on lighting fixtures. Depending on your needs, each fixture will accommodate you differently. Fixtures can be used to create varying degrees of coverage, focus intensity and your choice of throw distances.
1. LED Fixtures
Light emitting diode (LED) lighting offers an economical, color-changing capable, flexible option. LED boasts a reduced power draw, which will save you money on electrical costs. LED sources are now used in all the following fixture types.
2. CYC Fixtures
You may have seen cyclorama (CYC) lights illuminating backdrops and backgrounds on stages and in theaters. These lights wash a large area in broad light. When used at a proper distance from a cyclorama or backdrop on your church’s stage — 1-foot distance per 1 foot of horizontal coverage between fixtures — these fixtures can provide a lot of cost effective light.
The asymmetrical lighting they employ creates a flood which perfectly covers any large surface. Consider these for lighting your backdrop evenly.
3. PAR Fixtures
Parabolic aluminized reflector (PAR) lights have traditionally been the standard stage lights you see in a theater or at a concert. In these fixtures, the filament, reflector and lens are combined into a single non-moving unit. The housing, or PAR can, merely holds the lamp, color or any external hardware. PAR fixtures offer every option — from incredibly narrow and precise to wide floodlights.
The size and dispersion of the lamp’s elliptical beam depends on the type, size and number of facets that are molded onto the lens. You can easily change their color, direction or use. The light beam has “punch,” but often retains a soft edge.
4. ERS Fixtures
Ellipsoidal reflector spotlights (ERS) focus light into a precise and flat beam. ERS fixtures combine the ellipsoidal reflector and a double convex-convex lens system. They also allow variable sharpness of the edge of the light field — in other words, how hard or soft you want the spotlight to appear. These focusable fixtures offer the lighting director a primary tool in creating an ideal church lighting design.
5. Automated Light Fixtures
Originally used in rock concerts, automated lights — or moving lights — have become established mainstream fixtures. They are now the convention rather than the exception. They are found in many theaters and churches. Automated lighting is in constant development and there are various manufacturers and types of moving lights on the market. These fixtures required dozens of control channels to control various parameters.
Several features are included in a typical automated lighting system, such as color change, tilt and pan. You can also include texture effects, zooming and variable beam spread. A comprehensive system like this also reduces the number of individual lights you need. It’s easy to accomplish many effects with a limited number of lights if you program them creatively.
When planning a church lighting design, be thoughtful about it. The locations where you place light fulfill a functional role.
Front lighting should be placed at a 45-degree vertical angle from the desired center of their field. Ellipsoidal fixtures combine good, fairly even light across the beam with the control of a tight beam along with the ability to shutter off items. Your lighting position choices must conform to the physical realities of your church. Consider the architectural layout and building structure of the space when planning where light fixtures and rigging infrastructure will go. Pay attention to where natural light enters the church and take advantage of the natural light if it is desired.
Likewise, the ceiling height and arrangement of beams will determine your light placement and mounting height. Keep in mind that theatrical fixtures can often be recessed by the construction of a cove to hide the fixtures if the keeping a historic appearance of the space is critical. Be sure to take into account the added cost of HVAC by exposing the attic space or plan to build an enclosed cove in the attic space to keep exposure to extreme temperatures out of the gathering space.
Mounting height refers to the height of a positioned light. For free-hanging lights over the congregation, the mounting height will affect the light coverage. Make sure to evaluate the proposed mounting height when working on a lighting design using a given fixture.
Consider that on a sloped ceiling various fixture beam angles and lumen packages may be necessary to create an even wash of light. Also consider that you will likely need independent control over each of these mounting heights/fixture types to allow for detailed control during the commissioning phase of your project.
The management and fine-tuning for your lighting system comes from a well-designed lighting control system.
Putting It All Together With a Good Lighting Control System
The lighting console directs all the manual inputs for your lighting fixtures into a more simplified software and hardware control solution. Through this controller/console, you can tell your lighting to dim, spread, focus and alternate color. You can program certain lights to tilt or follow a speaker, or pre-program a cue list to follow a rehearsed worship service. A good control platform will simplify your lighting system and will allow various levels of volunteers to get involved on your lighting team.
Control panels use a standard digital communication called digital multiplex (DMX). DMX is now often transported over data cabling (CAT5e or CAT6) and then encoded/decoded on each end to create a lighting network. This allows systems to contain multiple universes and allows for maximum flexibility when moving data around the venue.
While not every church needs a large theatrical lighting console, some level of control is required when using DMX fixtures. Various controllers are available that range in physical size as well as control output size. Size also enters into the role and placement of the control panel in your church. You can place smaller consoles at any number of discrete locations and in some cases in single gang outlets around the facility. Architectural lighting control systems are used further to integrate functional lighting on the same control system as the theatrical lighting fixtures.
Spire AVL’s lighting systems come fully equipped with the option to create automation. Simply pre-program the features you want, and they produce the reciprocal response each time you access that selection. This saves you the hassle of needing to make real-time adjustments and decisions during a gathering or worship service. For example, if your church has the same type of event weekly, create a lighting program for that evening. Then simply select that program on that night. That “preset” would then be capable of controlling the architectural lighting as well as the theatrical lighting. To take that concept further, audio and video controls can also be integrated with this unified control solution.
Work With an Expert Lighting Consultant to Get the Best Results
There are many aspects of church lighting to consider. From area differences to lighting types and fixtures, you must balance every element to create the perfect lighting harmony. It’s always best to consult with a lighting consultant professional on how to incorporate all the pieces.
We encourage you to continue learning about lighting. With knowledge, your confidence will grow, and you will make effective, bold choices for your lighting goals.
Lighting is important, and a big investment. It’s vital to discuss financial options with an expert. Let the professionals help you gain a complete understanding of how to make the best selections for your space, while advising you on the most cost-effective and optimal results for your specific needs.
Contact Spire AVL
The Spire AVL team is a leader in lighting and stage design. It takes experience to gain intuition on how to provide a given church with appropriate lighting. Each church we supply with a lighting and stage design solution presents a new and exciting opportunity and we strive to not repeat designs.
To maximize results, we maintain a close, collaborative relationship with you. We’re not satisfied until we help you fulfill your dream.
Along the way, we offer you our suggestions and expertise. Our experienced team of lighting consultants works with architects, engineers and end users at churches nationwide. From planning to implementation and training, our team will instruct you every step of the way.
We’ll work with you to design a system and lighting specification that meets your needs. Your church services will be transformed through the proper use of lighting design principles, including audio and video elements.
Call us or complete our short online form to speak with one of our AVL consulting experts for a free consultation on how to improve or renovate your church lighting system.
We trust you’ll continue to expand your lighting education. We can’t wait to help you get to the next step of your journey.