What’s the Right Approach to Church Lighting?

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.

Some time in the late ’90s youth meetings started experimenting with dimly lit rooms. Leaders reasoned 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 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 toward 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)  

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Bob Kauflin
Bob Kauflin currently has the privilege of serving as the Director of Worship Development for Sovereign Grace Ministries. © Sovereign Grace Ministries. WorshipMatters.com. Used by permission.