A 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.
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)
Thanks for bringing some Biblical clarity and careful thought to this. I wholeheartedly agree. Did you mean to give a 5th reason to turn the lights up?
Ryan, thanks for the heads up! I combined two points and will change the post.
At the church I recently left, we could not hear ourselves. And with the lights off, we couldn’t see ourselves either. The whole church might as well have consisted of five or six performers prancing around.
Manipulation comes to mind. Using music to affect mood – same thing? I believe the key is to let the Spirit of God do the work through the preaching & teaching of the Word – not the machinations of man. Perhaps I’m oversimplifying; but I’ve seen these ‘methods’ tried since old YFC days in the ’50’s. This isn’t anything new. And it is as disturbing to me today as it was back then!
Humans are creatures of our environment. To ignore the environment of the place we worship is silly. For example we pay attention to the heating and cooling levels in our church gatherings. Why no controversy over that? If there is an unpleasant odor we would try to mitigate that to reduce it causing a distraction in worship. Most churches put in padded chairs instead of hard ones because it enhances the worship experience by providing a certain level of physical comfort. etc etc etc.
I wholeheartedly agree with all of this. Unfortunately in my area most churches aren’t getting the message. Recently during worship at such a Church, I looked around and nobody was singing or worshipping in any way that reflected joy. It seemed to me, we were robbing God of His glory due and truly saddened my heart. My question has been if we should always leave these dark churches? I wonder if there is a need to stay and be a light ourselves? However, I’ve never understood how pastors and leaders do not see concern with red lights (don’t we serve a risen Savior) and the need for ear plugs. I love to pray at points during worship services, but how can one even think in such instances. Heaven will most likely not be anything like our modern worship, and yet the Church is called to keep our minds on things above.
In the United States, the average age of Reform congregants is mightily increasing … more than reason enough to be “faithful” to old eyes, and let the Holy Spirit set any “necessary” mood as needed …
Where the Holy Spirit is not to be found, Satan is still free to be as edgy as he needs to be.
So glad you know there are some people who want to take notes during a song! I always feel a little strange bc I have to make a note on my phone so I see! I wonder if I distract others who may think I’m texting!
I keep a little notebook in my bible for making notes throughout the service, I would recommend it because phones normally do distract people in general, even if they see what you’re doing.
Thanks for the post, Bob. This trend just always feels like “we’re making this into a concert” to me. The band is amped so much that I can’t hear myself or anyone around me when they play, the lights are dimmed, and all attention is focused on the band. I don’t think any real thought is given to why the lights are dimmed on the congregation and full-on for the band – it’s just the way concerts work. The same as clapping after each song – it seems like that’s less about praising God and more about applauding a well-played set. I’m hoping to see some parts of this trend shrinking at some point so that we can hear and see each other, but saddened that with all of this tech we seem to be going back to the days when trained professionals do most of our singing for us. :(
I cannot say a stronger “Amen” to this. Of course, this is done to varying degrees in different churches, but to be honest, when done in the extreme (consciously focusing on the band or “leaders”, applauding (again to honor the on-stage singers), making the “worship service” effectively a show, this is actually sinful. Still, I realize it can be a matter of the heart and not sin for all involved (nor not only of those on stage, but also those who plan the service specifically to manufacture a contrived emotional high in order to keep people comin’. On the other end of the spectrum, I get terribly frustrated when the quality of the music team is distractingly bad–PPTs that don’t change until we’re supposed to be on the third or fourth word of the next slide, singers that don’t follow the words or the verse order that is on the ppt, changing the melody so that people have no idea how to sing along–again, all of these distract from focus on the Lord. I suppose all singing in worship should be geared to honor God from our hearts rather than honor man, as well as to emphasize the gathering of the saints–that we sing in worship together, not as islands unto ourselves. Surely such corporate focus is more reflective of heavenly worship.
I second your “AMEN”! Worship is all for God and Jesus. We do experience Joy and often a sense of elation during worship because God inhabits the Praises of his people and in his presence is fullness of joy! But I feel that our motive for worship should be to give to Him rather than receive. be blessed, my sister
In the biopic Ray, the house lights are turned down to quiet a rowdy audience.
That example has stayed with me as the ‘scripted’ worship took hold 10-15 years ago. I know because I quit being a sound man who also controlled lights (usually only dimmed for baptisms and dramatic presentations) when the script of many pages for an hour long service appeared.
Jody, what is the “biopic Ray?”
I believe she is referring to the movie “Ray” about the life of Ray Charles.
Good article, Bob. I’ve been teaching the same thing for several years. In fact, my younger son made a great observation. Since there is no darkness in heaven, people who are accustomed to worshiping with the lights down may feel a bit uncomfortable there at first. Interesting thought.
Tell your son that’s a great point!
I like that! Yes, we should be practicing to worship in the light not in darkness, since we will be in God’s presence, in His radiance.
I think he means the movie about Sugar Ray Leonard.
Thanks for the explanation!
I think he means Ray Charles, I.e. music not boxing
As a born introvert, God has brought out the extrovert in a number of ways. One is corporate worship. I am one of a small group who raises their hands and sings out with a grateful heart for what God has done for us. I am NOT saying people who don’t are wrong. People worship in many ways. I have gotten a number of comments from people I greatly respect for their love for God and their knowledge of scripture. One man, who had a stroke and can’t use parts of his body, told me “I love to watch you worship”. These people couldn’t see each other with the lights off.
I believe we are called to worship “in the assembly”, as a group and publicly. For me, this is an opportunity to stand up and let everyone know that I am a believer in Christ and the words we are singing are real to me. It’s all about God alone and I am very thankful for all He has done. I want to make that public declaration every chance I can.
Great thoughts and thank you for anchoring them in the word! Very helpful.
As someone who frequently references my Bible & receives insight re: issues I’m praying about during worship, I have resorted to bringing a small flashlight to services so I can read the Word & make notes. To me, the lights down scenario mimics a concert, transforming worship into a performance. Thank you for addressing this and couching it in a biblical foundation.
I think it’s the Ray Charles movie
There have been times when the lights get left too dim after the singing and into the sermon time. I sit on the front row, where I get pretty decent spill from the platform lights, and can sometimes have difficulty seeing my outline to fill in the blanks. I can only imagine how those sitting at the back struggle.
This is so interesting, thank you for the biblical thoughts.
When the lights are turned out, you miss seeing the Holy Spirit moving in the congregation. Paul tells us that everything that we do in our worship gatherings should be to build up the Body of Christ. Witnessing the Holy Spirit touching the heart of a worshiper through a song, a prayer, or the message does just that. It is like watching a light bulb being switched on.
Worshiping with the lights turned up is also a reminder of God’s expectation that we as followers of Jesus live in the light that He gives: “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light…” (Ephesians 5:8).
The early Christians worshiped in darkened rooms lit by oil lamps in the evening because they had no other choice. They wished to avoid the scrutiny of the Roman authorities. Many were slaves. One of the oldest Christian hymns, “O joyous light,” is associated with the ceremony of bringing in the lamps and blessing God for their light. To the early Christians the light of the evening lamps was a reminder of Christ the Light. When they could, they worshiped in the light of day, gathering in the atrium–the courtyard–of the house of a wealthier member of the church. A small table was brought into the court yard and the church gathered around this table to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
good points and worth thinking about for sure, but probably primarily a preference and perspective polemic. I’d guess I prefer middle ground – dim a little but not too much – so as to try and capture benefits from both lists as much as possible. Wisdom or just dim witted?
It definitely shouldn’t become a polemical issue, but I don’t think churches often think about the effects of their technology choices. I just don’t want a congregation to think they’re singing in darkness.
Bob, part of our decision to raise the level of the lights on the rest of congregation was because those leading could not see the faces of the people they were supposedly leading (which is a direct tie to point #2). Thanks for putting this post together.
Lord’s blessings be with you!
“it focuses people on the front”
Shouldn’t the focus be on God? Or is he especially present in the approximate location of the worship leader?
Jim, great question. God uses means to accomplish his purposes. So when someone is leading from the front it can be appropriate to focus light on them. The question is to what degree the front is lit as compared to a congregation.
Yes, yes, yes, to all your reasons. Thank you. And just to mention some unintended consequences, for some of us sitting in the dark with a brightly lit stage in front of us can trigger hyperesthesia symptoms like headaches and nausea, especially if there are added lighting effects or, God help me, moving video effects behind the words to the song on screen. I am not the only one in my church who has had to leave during praise and worship because of headache and/or nausea, and I have stayed home from church because sometimes I just can’t face the possibility of a triggering a migraine. I almost started crying when I visited a more traditional, denominational church recently and sat down in a relatively quiet, well but not too brightly lit sanctuary, and the light never changed. It was just so wonderful to be able to completely relax the whole service and focus on the worship and the word. I know I’m in the minority, that I am overly sensitive to light and sound, but I’m guessing there are a lot of people who don’t even realize how they are having to work to overcome the distraction and discomfort of being in an abnormally dark room with a bright blinking stage in front of them – kind of like you don’t realize how the sun is bothering you when you’re driving until you finally put on sunglasses and you’re whole face relaxes.
Ash, your church leaders should consider what can be done to help you worship…whether that’s toning down the visual stimulation a bit or providing an alternate worship service with less visual stimulation or warning you on those days when there will be more visuals than usual or helping you find a different church that can enable you to worship more easily.
Church isn’t just about you, but you are a member of the flock that the Lord has placed under their care. They should not just brush off your concern. They should help you. If needed, print out my comment and remind them of Acts 20:28. Do it with grace and humility and love.
While we have nice lights in the Worship Center, we also have large windows. There’s no turning down the lights very dimly for dramatic effect during the day. We light the stage for the choir and orchestra during the time for singing and turn down all lights except for the podium during the sermon so that attention can be directed to the pastor. But there’s still plenty of light in the house for people to read along in their Bibles.
Windows are the best…
I appreciate your humility and making it clear that this is not an issue to be argued or cause division. I would caution you, but especially others who left comments, on judging the motives of those who elect to keep the lights low. Many of the reasons that you gave are good reasons. But to call it manipulation or showy or like a concert is far from true for many churches that prefer low lighting. I would also caution the use of Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16 as a an argument for “singing to one another.” Colossians 3:16 says the opposite, that we are singing to God (teaching one another but singing to God.. The “to” in Ephesians 5:19 is not in the Greek, and since the “one another” is dative, is better understood as referring to one another as in all are doing the singing…not really singing to each other. We are singing “with” each other, but my worship is to God, not other members of the congregation. Why would a sing a worship song to other people? I’d better not be doing that. On the other hand, in a day when so many are so quickly and easily distracted, I appreciate the focus being taken off the crowd, where I also like to look around too much. Bottom line is this, it’s ok to have preferences, and that’s why there is a variety of churches. If you don’t like the lights low, it’s easy to find a church where they are bright. But it’s not ok to pass judgement on and rip on a church that is of a different preference. This isn’t doctrine, it’s preference. Which I appreciate the author clarifying. I simply did not like the misuse of Scripture to back up a weak point.
Scott, thanks for the great comment. Yes, this isn’t something to get on a high horse about, but I do think it’s helpful to bring theological and biblical categories to a practice that seems to be widely and unthinkingly applied. Regarding the question about my first point, I appreciate your clarification. As I understand the two passages in Colossians and Ephesians, we sing to God but we address one another (Eph. 5:19) and teach and admonish one another (Col. 3:16). Even if we understand the the text to mean “with” each other, the principle remains the same. I could have been clearer in my original post, and cleaned it up so there’s no confusion. Thanks again.
Lights have to be up. How else do you see the hymnals? :)
Hymnals……? lol Churches don’t NEED hymnals anymore….they have better things to sing…..(true sarcasm here) If only I could find a church that still uses hymnals ….
Making how a church uses lights a Biblical matter isn’t good or proper use of Holy Scripture. It’s frustrating to see Christians proof-text in this way. Hopefully this article won’t be used to beat up churches and pastors who choose to turn the lights down or off for worship, but I fear that it will be.
Chen, thanks for your comment. I completely resonate with your hope that this article won’t be used to beat up churches and pastors who choose to turn the lights down or off. That would be totally out of sync with what I wrote. Everything we do, including eating and drinking, is a biblical matter according to 1 Cor. 10:31 and Col. 3:17. Secondary issues such as lighting should never be turned into primary issues, but that doesn’t mean we can’t process them in light of Scripture. Thanks again for your thoughts.
Am I reading too much into the last section? Is the author really trying to make keeping the lights on a matter of doctrine?
Cory, thanks for commenting. I don’t know if you’re reading too much into the last section or not! Certainly you won’t find lighting on Sunday mornings covered in a book on systematic theology. That’s why I state in the article that when it comes to crucial issues, this one is far down the list. But everything we should be examined in light of Scriptures like 1 Cor. 10:31, Col. 3:17, and 1 Cor. 14:12. Is it for the glory of God? Is it a way of giving thanks to God through Jesus Christ? Does it build others up? My purpose in writing this post is to encourage people to think about potential implications and consequences of a practice (turning congregation lights off or almost off) that in places has been adopted uncritically or for simply pragmatic reasons.
A friend put tis on his facebook page and so this was my response.
I would say it kind of reminds me when I was like in seventh grade going to a Jr. High school dance and the slow song comes on and they dim the lights to “set the mood”. Now maybe they should try this in congress and will help them fund DHS for the rest of the year!
This is really Charismatic/Pentecostal worship type of service of being “in the spirit” or in the presence-feel the presence of God. Usually accompanied by slow emotional scores/music where you are more apt to see hands up, eyes closed, swaying hips back and forth with the music-one reason I probably wouldn’t do good in those kind of services-more apt to go find a good looking gal and ask her to dance with me!! Buahahahaha!
It’s not wrong per se but I think if one must set the mood to worship the Lord-what have you been doing in your manner of living to worship the Lord with your life? Is there a scripture reference for this? Does it set a mood to hear the preaching/teaching of the word of God-what is given the preference in a service in a church using this? I have seen where the song service dominates the service but also seen a 45 minute song service and the preacher preached for an hour-but usually the song service given the preference because you are there to “worship” the Lord.
The one question/thought is will it offend people who are there-is it bringing a lot of strife in a church and would it be offensive to other members of a church? Would it bring disunity in the church? Does it pass what I call a Philippians 2 test-is it done in a humbleness that will serve all members? Is there a willingness to compromise where it is not done for every service? What attitude does it bring out from those faithful members in the congregation? I could really go either way as long as the primacy is given to the preaching/teaching of the word of God! I have many more thoughts on this but will let it go at this right now.
Great thoughts to chew on Bob. In our fairly conservative church, we’ve had the lights dimmed in the past during an evening service. I wanted to encourage intimacy with God during the worship time. But there is a time for private worship and Church is the time for Corporate worship. There is a divide between the two! I have also tried to encourage our people to think corporately instead of individualistic. The Church is a corporate thing and what we do together effects one another. So now I am seeing how dimming the lights “can” possible continue to feed the “me-ism” I am trying to defeat. And yes, I agree, there is something silently spiritual that goes on when we can see our brothers and sisters worshiping together. It strengthens our inner core somehow and lets us know we march together with shared values. Thanks for the post.
I really find it annoying when my home church has played around with the lights for 2 reasons. First off for my wife who has seizures , messing with the lighting can set off a seizure. Secondly, I’m there to worship , not at a spa or some new age guru mood altering session. Getting tired of the whole rock concert approach to worship that can be associated with modern contemporary worship.
From the perspective of a professional lighting designer who works primarily in the live event world I think the artical makes some good points about lighting for worship, but let’s be careful that we don’t allow it to also dictate what your lighting technicians are and aren’t allowed to do during a service. A well designed lighting system should first illuminate, then draw attention (to the proper place, be it the speaker, band, or God) and third drive mood and emotion. This is not manipulation of emotions but rather a recognition that humans are greatly effected by their environment and colors and intensity of light (as well as sound) play a huge part in that. Why fight it? Embrace how we are designed and let us use the technology we have available to us to create environments which draw people closer to God! There are very appropriate times for the house lights to be up, AND there are also times where they distract. Let’s also point out that there are large safety concerns in play when you begin putting volumes of people in dark spaces. All I’m really trying to say is; theatrical lighting (which is what you are doing regardless of your opinions of the word “theatrical”.) is a subjective art form and is therefore open to interpretation. There are many, many, options these days and one idea is not always greater than the other, just a different interpretation. My only personal request is that house lighting is never changed during a prayer!
… the sacraments? … you’re in worse trouble than you think …
Craig, thanks for the comment. I need a little more info before I can respond, though.
This issue never really hit me until my husband and I started serving at our current church. We have a large population of special needs students in our church. It’s amazing that something as simple as lighting can distract away from how they are able to worship.
Katy, thanks for your comment. I think it comes down to how we define “worship.” If people are able to focus more clearly on a speaker because the house lights are dimmed, that’s a good use of lighting. But I’m addressing something broader here, and that is the idea that in order to engage with God I have to shut out everyone around me. If that were the goal, we would all do much better sitting at home and listening to music through our headphones.
Great article! I think it is important for Christians to understand that worship is about gathering together in one spirit as one community of faith to give glory and honor to God. Bringing the lights down turns a communal group activity of praise and adoration into an individualized and personal experience. And trying to use lighting to manipulate moods and emotional responses is terrible; any emotional response should be brought by the Holy Spirit. This was one of the 7 tips I pointed out for increasing congregational participation in worship in a recent post on my website.
YES! I agree wholeheartedly.
I haven’t read all the comments to see if someone has asked this already but in regards to your comment “Every time in history the church has overly emphasized aesthetic and artistic elements the gospel has suffered.” – are there some examples from earlier centuries where this has taken place and how specifically the gospel suffered? I personally think of the Reformation and how many of the ascetics were removed from the cathedrals and sanctuaries for a more simplified and common appearance, and that the pulpit (ministry of the Word) was centralized. But I still would like to see the connection with art specifically and impact (for good or bad) on the gospel.
I love your very “regulative” approach to the means of motivation (Word, prayer, the gospel, and the sacraments) and agree with your thoughts and responses. Thank you for shedding “light” on the topic and for your grace and wisdom. Just seeking some clarification and examples.
Eric, great question. It’s actually a topic I want to do more research on. I think of the time when the cathedrals were being built. The emphasis on aesthetics and architecture was high. The preaching and the power of the gospel, not so much. That doesn’t mean a congregation that meets in a beautiful building or cathedral won’t emphasize the gospel. The point I’m making is that when a church makes architecture and art the focus, the objective truths and power of the gospel tend to fall into the background.
Architecture and aesthetics were ornate, highly detailed, and designed to be as beautiful as possible as an act of worship. The architects and laborers were giving their best for the glory of God, and that is why cathedrals were the most beautiful (and usually tallest) buildings in those towns. It was all to give God glory and turn focus towards Him. In our current culture (and what could be traced back to near the reformation), many people see this all as a distraction, but anything can be a distraction. Lights up is a distraction for some. Lights down is a distraction for others.
Not long ago, I toured a newly opened Greek Orthodox Church. I was blown away by the artwork and iconography that was hand painted inside the dome. Even the colors of the paint were hand mixed in the ways of old traditions. The amount of care put into that artwork is something that is often missing from contemporary worship. I’m not saying we should go back to iconography in all of our churches, but we should put forth the kind of care and attention that that artist did.
I spent 14 years designing lighting environments in a large church where we had a tendency to run the houselights on the dim side of the spectrum (not from the beginning, but shifting from bright to dim through the worship time). It was not “mood” setting, but rather a way to help focus shift from coming in from the world to singing together to singing directly to God. For the past 3 years, I have been leading worship at a campus of a similarly sized church that keeps houselights brighter. I still prefer to shift lighting to a dimmer setting by the last song that we sing, but I also keep everything brighter to keep in line with the methodology of our church.
When I was designing lighting looks, I saw it as a way for me to worship through my art. I wanted to give God my best first, and help others to engage in worship, giving Him their best as well. Sometimes I missed the mark on that second point, and it was always a result of pride getting in the way.
Regardless of which side of this conversation people fall on, we can all agree that light, and the use of light in a worship setting, is a powerful tool. Whether you want to call it mood, atmosphere, or focus, how we use light affects the people who spend time designing the looks, the people leading the worship, the pastors leading the congregations, and the congregations who come into the building from every imaginable situation they could have encountered through the week. Every church needs to evaluate what is the most effective plan for helping their congregation (and unreached community) take steps towards God, rather than away from Him. That might even look different between churches that are right across the street from each other, or even campuses of the same church.
Many thanks for this.
I and many others, for lots of reasons (including poor vision) cannot read words from screens. We need large print words…. and (in the rare occurrence that worship teams choose the songs in time to allow the lyrics to be printed in large print) if the lights are turned down, we can’t read them!
First let me say I don’t believe demons are in LEDs or the devil made robo-spots. And I am involved with a church with a seven figure stage (that is before the decimal point). I do attend each weekend the band rehearsal, service run through and service.
I do believe lighting is super important in this fact, if you do have a web presence and you do produce a web service…it’s just as important as a decent sound system.
However let me make these few comments. They are just “my” observations.
First lowering the lights lends itself to allow the worship service to become more observant than participatory. It’s not the focus on the singers, it’s the other “stuff” that is happening from the huge integrated LED HD panels, to the guys running around stage to get the video, the animate spots, the color coordinated embedded lights, to the rotating animated stars on the back walls. With all that happening then the darken room, makes one focus on this “stuff”.
Second I find the songs change. A church (not all) has to have songs that support this “stuff”. We are now singing songs that no one can sing. They are done well, excellent in execution but again it lends itself to have folks that just watch.
Thirdly the mix changes. My pet peeve here. If you can’t understand and hear the enunciation of the words than what are we doing? The mix is now focused on a concert type presence and not something that supports a worship service. Again in lends itself to just watching.
I will end with a short story.
A while back, for whatever reason the typical worship set was cancelled and all it was a worship leader and an acoustic guitar. Personally I think something happened to some of the key folks and this is what they came up with. There were no funky lights, no cameras just a moderate overall lighting of the stage…and the lights were down. Simple modern songs that you could hear the words to and the closing of the eyes was made easy while you sang. To me that was one of the coolest times in worship we have had in a long time.
we are not children of darkness but of the Light………
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.
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.
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!!
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.
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.
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!
Amen Diana……I agree wholeheartedly with your comments…..I am so depressed every Sunday when I think I have to go sit in a dark , very dark, church….I just want to stay home, but I know that I can’t do that either..
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.
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.
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… ?
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).
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.
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.
I just came across this post, but I have been thinking about this for a long time. I’m a baby boomer, who has been in church all my life. I’ve played in worship bands on and off for over 30 years. I couldn’t agree more with what is said here. Being part of the worship team requires being in sync with the congregation and once the lights started going down, I found this more and more difficult. It began to feel like playing just another non-church gig. Having the house lights out, in my experience, creates a concert atmosphere of a performance on stage.
One thing I would add that I think would be beneficial for all, but especially for churches that insist on turning down the lights during worship is this. Put the band in an orchestra pit, or off of the stage entirely. Let the main worship minister stay up front, but do everything possible to remove the appearance and feel of being at a show or a concert. The band should be heard (and at a volume that is no louder than the congregation), but it does not need to be seen. The focus is on Christ, and the congregation is the performer.
I think a major problem is bringing people into the ministry of worship who have no theological training. I’d say a minister of worship should have both formal music and theological studies at a minimum. A former career playing in clubs does not qualify one to be a worship leader. The real underlying problem is too many well-intentioned people trying to lead worship without a theology of worship as a foundation.
Thanks for your comments, Alan. The only thing I’d push back on is that I think seeing the band can be helpful for a number of reasons – modeling expression and interaction, and engaging with the congregation. But that can be done without giving the impression of a concert or show. Thanks for faithfully serving the church for three decades!
Alan & Bob; Alan your comment reveals insightfullness and discernment. Thank you! And Bob, at least in my experience, I find worship ‘teams’ to be genuinely distracting. Rare is the church leadership willing to vet every individual participating up front. The reality is that the average church gets who they can and most leaders do not have the spiritual insight and maturity to understand the importance of how the worship team behaves, and yes, looks while performing on stage. So what little I can see during any given church service become distractions with musicians swilling water bottles or Starbuck’s in between songs (even DURING!), brief conversations with one another or inappropriate clothing accompanied by dead facial expressions and bored countenances I don’t know if these participants think because they can’t see us we can’t see them, or they simply lack maturity or understanding or it’s a combination of these. Not every musician participant has these issues but unfortunately from my viewpoint that is the exception.
Perhaps part of the issue is a more distracted congregation > partly due to the fact that we don’t feel connected but partly, I think, we don’t recognize most of the music and after a while we give up and in our discouragement our eyes wander around. Because we can’t see very well in the building we’ll focus on what we can see . . . whoever is in the front.
Fortunately I now attend a church that has genuine mature music guidance and seems to understand the importance of vetting its worship ‘team’.
Until churches will excercise some tough love and only allow worship leaders who approach the stage with reverence and awe that they are participating in ushering the congregants into the presence and glory of God, I say put them in the pit! (Orchestra, that is)
Please be cautious about large, sweeping assumptions regarding the condition of people’s hearts. I am sorry for the experiences you’ve had with distracted and under engaged worship team members, but do not feel that your experiences can be generalized as broadly as they have been in your comments. I appreciate your viewpoint, but as a musician, I do not resemble those you describe, nor do those with whom I serve. I am glad you have found a place where you can worship comfortably and are not distracted. May God continue to bless you as you seek to serve Him well and fulfill your part in the mission of His church.
Perhaps you could show me where I have made “large, sweeping assumptions regarding the condition of people’s hearts”. I too am a musician and these are my observations as someone who has been involved in church music for 40 years. I would appreciate any quotes I have made that have offended so I can ask forgiveness if that is necessary, or explain if it is simply lack of communicating correctly.
I’ve been wondering about that myself and yes, there are good points like focus. I remember before all the band music and lighting effects, when I went to church with my family and we all worshipped as a whole with lights on. No bells and whistles, no PowerPoints and loud drums and electric guitars… I feel like those have their time and place, and I do like Christian rock, but I also like simplicity and connection, seeing the body of Christ worshipping together and when there’s that stillness, I can sense God’s presence a lot easier. It’s great if contemporary service can do that for a person, everyone is different, but I think we still need simplicity. Be still and know God… Just my thoughts 😊
….if prayer is speaking directly to God, and the object of true worship is to be only fixed on God – why is it generally accepted that we should close our eyes when we pray but keep them open when we worship?
Closing our eyes while praying is never spoken of in the Bible. Why then has it become such a widely accepted practice?
Most common explanation is that it takes away distraction.
I would then deduce that anything that can eliminate or reduce outside distraction while interacting with God is a positive thing.
For some, in worship that means dimming the lights …. for others it may mean keeping them bright.
We trip matters up when we extrapolate and project our own experience onto others. This doesn’t mean a person who prefers one style / environment / method over another is wrong. However at the point we start to dictate that our preference is superior we begin to enter dangerous territory.
Ron, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I’ve had the same question about praying vs. singing. The only difference is that we’re told singing is an act of teaching and admonishing one another, and addressing one another (Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:19). That gives more weight to the thought that we should be more aware of others when we sing than when we pray. But I think we could pray with our eyes open more as well, as Jesus did in Jn. 11:41. But I agree we can’t dictate preference. I’m only seeking to ask questions about what is an increasingly common practice.
Our congregation is very small (avg <20 on Sunday mornings). My husband volunteers to run our sound board and another lady volunteers to run our power point for worship/sermon notes. I play keyboard and lead worship from a small stage, sharing it with a beautiful handcarved pulpit our pastor preaches from. On the issue of house lights, I prefer that the stage and house lights both be dimmed slightly (not dark) for several reasons.
1. My 1st thought for the stage lights being dimmed was two-fold: I felt like I was in the spotlight and was expected "entertain" the congregation rather than lead them into worship. I lead a simple set with no added drum tracks, etc. I am not there for a concert, but to lead them in songs to glorify the goodness of Who our God is. Secondly, I have migraines that are triggered by harsh fluorescent lighting, and this helps reduce the trigger.
2. Our church has natural lighting from both sides of the building and lowering the bright glare of full fluorescent lighting doesn't diminish our sense of togetherness. They can see one another and I can clearly see them. Lowering the lights not only creates a "softer" atmosphere, but also makes it easier to see the overhead screens for the song service, bible verses and notes that are displayed.
Does it have to be the extreme of "all" or "nothing" in the way of lighting? Maybe I'm searching for validation where I don't need any, but after reading some of these responses, I have to wonder, are we missing the main thing? Worship (of The One Who is Worthy to receive our praise) should be to prepare the hearts of the people to hear the Word of the Lord given to the pastor for the growth of the church. Blessings to you all, and may we all be as one for The One.
Laura, I believe the dimming of the lights in your situation would be ok….you said you have lots of natural light coming in on both sides plus the over head lights that are dimmed and you can see everyone….I think how our church is and others that are speaking about, the lighting is very dark …..like darker than a theatre dark…..that is not the case in your church from reading what your wrote …..I get very very depressed from the darkness and hate to even go….I would give anything to have natural light come in…We have probably 14 large windows on each side of our church and they are actually covered in boards so no light comes in at all…then the lights are turned down low except for the platform (which they now call the stage) lights lit with probably a hundred candles and about 10 of those new Edison lights that all the “cool” churches are using……enjoy your well lit church, because they are few and far between….
Not.to mention.we should be in the light not the darkness
Sometimes worship music is more like a christian concert than praise to our Lord. The lights being low can sometimes be a negative in more ways than one. Are we meant to have inconspicuous worship? Where our brothers and sisters in Christ can not see our love and praise for Him. Inconspicuous means: hidden, unassuming, unexceptional, unnoticeable, unspectacular, undistinguished, etc… Is this what should be displayed in church? Are we not the light of the world? The salt of the earth? Seeing my brothers and sisters in Christ openly share their love for our Lord is encouraging and uplifting and edifying…which is in God’s word.
Really? It seems examples cited in the post and comments are based off extremes (extreme darkness where you can’t even see) First, I can agree that not being able to read or take notes is too dark. I think most arguments about ‘setting the mood’ goes both ways. Whether the lights are turned up or down… a mood is being set.
Our worship building has a full bank of cool white fluorescent lights like it was a school classroom. This type of lighting is not natural, sets a ‘cold’ mood and is very, very different from a well lit sanctuary getting light from large windows. Both rooms in this example are well lit… yet the moods are very different.
Using the illustrations of light and darkness in scripture has nothing to do with the lighting of your worship building; period. (Though there are those people and groups who do use dark rooms to communicate their dark beliefs) I do not think it reasonable to relate those groups to our church sanctuaries.
Folks, let us remember Luke 18:11 (Since most comments here are in favor of more light) Let us be careful not to worship our holy, awesome God with the mindset that we are somehow better than those that worship in darker sanctuaries and accuse them of needing lighting to set a mood to worship our Lord and savior. If you are married, consider the next time you ‘set the mood’ with your wife/husband. If you really love them, then you won’t need to set a mood… and therefore do not because if you do, it means you don’t really love them? Does that make sense?
I agree with the authors statement that lighting is a nonissue and perhaps one of preference. I will end by saying, too much darkness and/or too much ‘cold’ lighting, is not good IMO.
I haven’t thought about the trendiness of church/worship lighting until recently. I’ve been deeply involved in church since I got saved 35+ years ago. I understand that trends come and go, changes around us, blah blah blah. I played keys in church with the band with drummers, electric guitars and whole shabang. I finally stepped down from playing because of the intense work and time it took to prepare before Sunday; we had to sound like the pro bands making CDs and you hear on the radio. We’re just common work folk, who volunteer to help with the music. And we’re supposed to sound like Third Day and Toby Mac. Stage props are changed about every 3 months. The lighting gets fancier and more involved and DARK. Trendy church models are used to attract people, but our church isn’t growing. It’s a constant cycle of people in…people out. I think we’re all looking for something more…not Sunday am productions that cost a lot of money. That’s just my thoughts about it. I’m ready to get back to simplicity and God’s word. That’s what I’m hungry for.
Wow. I am so glad to see this issue being addressed. I googled it because I was wondering how it got so dark in church. And always the purple lights! I have always felt the dark church and the purple lights and the concert arena was to attract youth. A very bad idea. The Bible says we are set apart, made holy, a peculiar people. How can we be different if we look like the world? Odd attracts. If we have to turn out the light so we won’t be embarrassed, we need to work on the embarrassed part.
As a pastor, The Lord has indeed dealt with me on this matter of late, specifically in regards to your point #4…
There is nothing more beautifully calming than for a disciple of Jesus Christ to thumb through the pages of their personal bible(s).
I have observed that since we went “dim” there has been an absence (or reduction) in bringing bibles to church primarily because “I can’t see or read it when its dark inside”.
At church, during the message, the believer can thumb through and follow along with the preaching making personal notes and references as the preacher navigates the sermon. This is a precious art that has become dormant, since we have gone “dim”.
If the believer brings their bible to church on Sundays, highlights and marks it up during the sermon, there is a good chance they will open it up mid-week to rehash their note-taking.
I agree with the church being lighter as I know its done to attract the younger generation with the clubbing feel but God is not a light show that they need to copy the world to attract people as the Holy spirit meets people without lighting effects and singers acting like the voice.
I’ve been in many big tent meetings and no lighting effects and met God in a special encounter.
Having dark buildings is just like the Hebrews wanting the pleasures of egypt because they did not know God’s presence.
We need to be set apart from the world and worship God for who he is not make it a glorified concert . It is special to see others while we attend church so we know we are a body, darkness brings separation I think and cuts us off from being a family, the body of christ.