Who Turned the Lights Out?

shutterstock_219491914_FotorA while back Brad sent me this question:

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

Later I received this from Jeremy:

I was wondering if you could offer any commentary regarding the use of lights at any of the WorshipGod conferences. I have memories going back to the “Psalms” conference [in 2008]. In each of the conference settings, it has struck me that the lights in the house are left active during the music-worship time of gatherings. Is that intentional? Is that unintentional? Is it because no one is available to run a lights scheme? :-

Glad you asked. Yes, we do have someone available to run a lights scheme and yes, leaving the lights up is intentional.

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. On that topic, we should pursue what John Piper terms undistracting excellence – doing what we do so skillfully that people aren’t even aware of it. In this post I want to focus on the level of lighting for a congregation.

The Good Stuff

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.

The Not So Good Stuff

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. So here are:

Four Reasons to Turn the Lights Up

1. 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 (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). 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 (see Ps. 34:3; Ps. 150; Col. 3:16; Rev. 7:9-10).

2. 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.

3. We don’t want people to be ashamed.

When the church gathers to strengthen one another, we should do whatever we can to encourage boldness and engagement. Here’s David describing his attitude towards others listening in on his praise:

My heart is steadfast, O God! I will sing and make melody with all my being!
Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn!
I will give thanks to you, O LORD, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations.
 (Ps. 108:1-3)

He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD. (Ps. 40:3)

David wants everyone around him to see and hear him praise God, who is worthy of our strongest affections. Why wouldn’t we want to encourage our people to have the same perspective? A dark room can lead people to progress from thinking their role isn’t that important to complete disengagement.

4. 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 God’s people joyfully and expectantly engaging together with the Creator of the universe and the Redeemer of our lives in the power of his Spirit.

And that’s something worth shedding some light on.

And night will be no more.
They will need no light of lamp or sun,
for the Lord God will be their light,
and they will reign forever and ever.  Rev. 22:5 ESV

(Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com)





84 Responses to Who Turned the Lights Out?

  1. Denny October 20, 2015 at 9:33 AM #

    Good insight, was wondering wether to invest in $5,000.00 of lights or upgrade our nursery. Even thought of just adjusting the lights for special occasions, dramas, anniversaries or special events.. But agreed worship should be lit up.

  2. Alan Myatt October 27, 2015 at 10:33 PM #

    Great article. I’ve been playing in worship bands for 30 years and have only noticed this trend in the last 10. I absolutely hate playing during worship and not being able to see the congregation. It feels like I might as well be playing in a club. Playing a show is fine, but not in church. Cutting the house lights sends an strong signal that this is a performance to be watched, not a corporate worship event to be participated in. I’ll go you one further. What I’d really like to see is the worship band be off stage, in an orchestra pit and invisible.

    I think one of the issues is that many, many churches have no theology of worship and tend to stick people in the position of worship leader whose main credentials are having played in rock bands. A worship leader needs formal theological and musical training, as well as experience gigging.

  3. Bill Brown November 15, 2015 at 9:40 PM #

    Bravo Bravo!! Finally, someone with some clarity on this issue. Every church we try to go to they turn down the lights. I appreciate your insight. I have just come to the conclusion that these churches like treating their people like mushrooms keep them in the dark and feed them fertilizer the whole time. No thanks, I’ll keep the lights up, thank you!!

    • Diana November 24, 2015 at 9:44 PM #

      If you walk in the light as he us in the light you have fellowship one with another. …kind of brings New light on this scripture. No pun intended.

  4. Diana November 24, 2015 at 9:40 PM #

    I’m not a blogger so I’ll be brief. Here is what has changed in worship and I think its sad. Ever wonder why no one is connecting? Back in the day the lights we’re on. We could actually see our brothers and sisters, the people we are to carry burdens for and pray for. This made us feel a string sense of community and family. We knew who was missing and we knew who was new so we could welcome strangers and check on the missing.
    The music was in an octive that we could all sing and the songs we’re simple about scripture and not so focused on how God made us feel. We grew in the word and this strengthened the hearts. This made us want to participate while singing. Smaller churches gave opportunity for anyone to share a song or testimony. This built our faith and encouraged confidence and trust.

    It is so so so sad to go to church and sit in the dark. I haven’t taken my Bible to church for years.I can’t see the words. This discourages actual Bible reading. It just seems more authentic that you can read the book. Very sad

    I wonder why anyone would even want to get up early, get dressed, go out and sit in the dark, feeling alone just like they do at home. Reflective prayer and worship is mainly done in you own heart in your prayer closet. If you give the former ways opportunity again.I think you’ll find people will be ready to do community and praise in public worship and truely connect again. We are in perilous times, we need to know And connect to our family again.

    • Diana November 24, 2015 at 9:47 PM #

      Ps the most family like churches I ever attended were over well lit.And some didn’t even have instruments during singing. Everone was excited to be there and it showed in there worship and participation.Awesome!

  5. JoyFounder December 27, 2015 at 11:57 PM #

    When I sit in my church and observe ‘worship’ time all I see is black. The walls have been painted black and the windows are covered with black. No exaggeration when I say it is like sitting in a tomb. Recently this passage in John keeps circling through my brain: ‘And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God. (John 3:19-21).
    It is my contention that contemporary lighting in churches is one more opportunity for Christians to blur the lines of the world vs. the set apart remnant. I’m not at the point to call everything a vast spiritual conspiracy, but when I attend our local evangelical church I feel spiritually oppressed. I am overwhelmed with the spirit of hopelessness and despair. I want nothing to do with what these people consider ‘worship’. The very last thing I am capable of there on Sunday mornings is worship. I want to run . . . for the light.
    What made my spiritual predicament a profound reality was when I visited a different church last week, due to the availability of a Christmas Eve service. As I sat listening to the worshipful piano prelude of Christmas carols such as Oh Holy Night and O Come All Ye Faithful, my eyes were filled with beauty. As I slowly moved my eyes around this setting I saw LIGHT. I saw the late afternoon sun streaming through the stained glass windows, the beautiful Christmas wreaths and bows, the hanging advent wreath and candles above the platform with exquisite royal blue ribbons intertwined throughout the advent circle, the smiling families finding their seats, greeting one another. I saw EVERYTHING. I saw the two pastors walk to the front of the church, kneel down and quietly pray with arms embracing one another. To my shock and awe, when the one pastor turned to lead the congregation in prayer and the first congregational carol, the lights stayed on, not only on but they were BRIGHT. These lights communicated life, the brightness of our Savior, the glory of God and the illumination of the gospel message. I was energized. I was excited to be there and participate in this corporate celebration of our salvation and life in Christ. For the first time in years I was being encouraged in church.
    At the end of the service the pastor unplugged the Christmas tree and dimmed the sanctuary lights to prepare for the lighting of our hand held candles. We sang Silent Night and read more passages from the book of Luke. It is now early evening and dark outside but I could see more clearly than I ever could in my home church. Now, instead of sunlight, the sidewalk lamps were glowing through the stained glass windows. A bit different than the sunlight but still bright. This church was designed to pull in the light. I can’t help but see the spiritual metaphors and apply them to my experience.

  6. Mark March 1, 2016 at 9:49 PM #

    I am a believer for 40 years in our wonderful savior Jesus. Raised in the mega concert era of the 1970’s—and went to many “dark” concerts of smoked-filled demonic rock music. As blood bought saints we no longer need to worship in the darkness; we are children of the Light, his marvelous light. We must worship Our God with knowledge, wisdom, and stop imitating the children of this age.

  7. Dwayne Conyers March 27, 2016 at 1:25 PM #

    They say dark lights “set the mood” for worship — to allow people to contact God. I contact Him when I wake up in the morning… when I lay to sleep… and throughout the time in between. Is the need for a “mood” a sign of, something… ?

  8. Andrew Bernhardt April 12, 2016 at 11:35 PM #

    Worship is not a mood, a feeling, or an experience. While those may be involved, worship is not for the benefit or enjoyment of man but for the glory of God. Just ask Job. I’m sure he wasn’t in the mood. His “worship experience” was not pleasant, but he worshipped anyway (Job 1:20-21).

  9. T.K. July 28, 2016 at 6:00 PM #

    1 John 1:5 This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. 6 If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.

    • Sylvia F August 15, 2016 at 1:04 AM #

      My husband is an evangelist and I occasionally teach also. I sing and play the piano/keyboard at most of the churches we visit around the United States. I have watched the trend in recent years toward dim and/or colored lights. Without exception, every church that uses lights that we have been to is lacking in authenticity. I sometimes wonder if the lights are used to make up for a lack of substantive true, sincere, heartfelt worship. I agree wholeheartedly with this article. There is a place for dim/colored lights on certain occasions but not routine worship services. The North American church needs a return to prayer and devotion. There is nothing more authentic than this. God responds to a sincere, humble heart, but I somehow think our attempts to “help” worship services do not impress Him. What message are we sending young people when we emphasize exterior trappings to supposedly enhance our worship? We must return to heartfelt, God-centered worship.


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