The Process: Lighting a Worship Service – Learn Stage Lighting .com

The Process: Lighting a Worship Service

By David / 5 years ago

It’s 8:45am on a Sunday morning.  Coffee in hand, rehearsal over, it’s almost time to start the first service.  As the band takes the stage, you bring up…

Wait a second!  What lights do you bring up?  How do you know what to do for each song, when to make changes, and what to pre-program?

While every person’s way of designing lighting is different, and each church will have different desires for their lighting, this post can act as a general guide and starting point to lighting your service.  Feel free to change, adapt and use different parts of this as you please.  After all, it wouldn’t be called design if you weren’t allowed to break the rules!

The Process: Lighting a Typical Worship Service

Let’s rewind back to sometime in the week before Sunday – it’s time to get out lighting focused and programmed.  I’m going to start from the very beginning of lighting a service, even though these beginning steps will not be necessary to do every week.  This is the nuts and bolts of exactly how I light a church service, from start to finish!

Focusing Your Lighting

Front Lighting

Worship Lighting

Start with a great, white front wash. From bsabarnowl.

When I focus lighting for a worship service, I start with making sure I have a excellent, white front wash over the whole band.

White front lighting is really important in worship, and so I also make sure to have a special for the worship leader and anyone else who sings.  The special may be part of the overall wash or it’s own fixture, but the important part is that I can single out just the singers in white light while washing the rest of the band in color.

If the room is wide, or if we are doing IMAG, it is incredibly important to light the singers in 2 points of front light.

Next, while I am at the front lighting position, I want to go ahead and focus a nice colored wash on the artist.  Depending on the technology, I’ll either be focusing tons of conventional pars, LED fixtures or moving lights.

My #1 priority is lighting the people well, so I want to get at least 1 point of light on the whole stage from the front, hopefully 2 points.  When I am using conventional lights with gel, it’s important to get the different colored fixtures as close together as possible.  If the light is coming from different angles, the colors won’t mix well!

Set Lighting

If you have any set design, blank walls, or a backdrop of any sort, you can use the rest of your front lighting and other angles to make it really pop!  If you don’t have any set design, check out this page to get started (it’s easier than you think).

Church Set Design Lighting

Uplighting on Austrian Drape Set Panels Thanks to Incase on Flickr.

Blank walls and other flat or mostly-flat forms can easily be uplit as the primary means of illumination.  Then, you can come in from the front or sides with gobos from a leko or moving light to add texture if desired.

When you are dealing with a highly textured/3d set, it’s naturally going to take a lot more to light it properly.  Starting with the front light, you need to first decide if it must be lit in white and color, or just color.

Many sets look great without white light, but when you have more “representational” sets, such as a town, a house or something else from real life, you probably want to fully light in in white too.

You can also try and experiment with placing LED lights inside of your set to highlight specific 3d aspects of the design.  You can get some really cool looks by doing this!

Using wash and gobo light from multiple angles will really make a textured set come alive – and it’s super fun to turn on and off the texture enhancing lights during different songs or parts of the service.

Experiment, play around, and be inspired by the pictures posted here to light your set better.

Backlighting

Worship Lighting Design

Backlight in Haze.  Photo by Mourner

The last bit of lighting to focus for Sunday morning is the backlight.  Backlight is important because it provides definition to bodies and objects on the stage, and provides separation from the backdrop.

A great white backlight wash is a perfect starting point, and if you have the resources to do color too, that is great.  If you have LED fixtures as your backlight source, a white conventional wash would look great for your preaching time, but it isn’t 100% necessary.

You can probably coax a good enough white out of your LED’s unless you are shooting video – then I’d highly suggest a conventional backlight wash too, or at least some LED fixtures that also have amber and/or white LED’s with a diffusion gel to even things out!

If you are using haze, your backlight is really important to make shapes and designs with.  If not, a symmetrical focus is still great to aim for as it will give you more even light across the stage, which is essential to a great look on camera.

If you don’t have much experience focusing lighting, or want to learn more about the technicalities of a lighting focus, check out this ultimate guide to a lighting focus!

Time to Sit Down and Program!

Once you get your ladder or lift put away, it’s time to sit down and start programming!  This is the exciting part of the process where you get to see the fruits of your lighting focus.

Just like the lighting focus, programming may not be necessary every single week.  It really just depends on your churches style of worship music, and how often you want to redo your lighting looks.

Worship Lighting Programming

From John Lemieux on Flickr.

Churches that want different lighting for every song, every week will have at least some programming to do on a weekly basis, where a church that does a lot of the same songs, or just works off of the same looks will not have to program weekly.

Either way, before programming we need to get on the same page as the worship leader, to determine what lighting fits their overall vision of the worship service.

Pre-Programming – Get on the Same Page as The Artist or Worship Leader

When it comes to working on the week’s vision with the worship leader, it’s a similar setup for all types of churches.

Some churches may have a full-on production meeting weekly, while others may talk about what lighting they want occasionally, but leave it up to the tech director or volunteer to make the week to week decisions.

Regardless, every church will at least occasionally have this dialogue between the tech people and the worship leader to discuss the expectations and specific looks for the worship service.

It’s important to figure out their vision for the service, and then help serve them with the lighting design that matches their vision.  If you’ve never had this conversation before, start with a question like “What lighting would you like to see this week?”, “Any specific colors for particular songs?”.

Use the feedback you get to make the first week happen, and then use the feedback from your worship leader after the service to improve for the next week.

By asking specific questions, you’ll either get them to think more about the lighting or show them that you’re thinking about it and have them release creative control to you.  Both are good, and different worship leaders have different levels of input that they like to add in.  Once you have the creative ideas imparted from the worship leader and yourself, it’s time to start programming!

Programming Conventional Lights and LED’s

Lighting for IMAG

Thanks to soundman1024.

I almost always start my programming with conventional lighting and LED’s that don’t move.  As we went over above, It’s really important to get an amazing wash as a basis for your colored and effect lighting.  If you can’t see the talent(or pastor) properly, then your colored and effect lighting won’t matter!

The first cue or submaster that I program is the wash fader.  I make sure that I get a great wash to build off of.  Have I emphasized that enough yet?  Next, I program any key specials or sections of the stage that I know I will have to light separately from the wash.

For a band setup, this may include a lead singer special and a all singers specials.  For the preaching, this will also include a special for the pulpit or center speaking area of the stage, depending on how exactly you do things!

For my LED’s, I start by programming a slew of different, basic colors.

I typically build around 9-10 colors to start – Red, Green, Blue, Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, White, Violet and Amber.  Then, as I get a feel for the songs, I may add in another color or 2 that really fit the music, but to start, I stick with a basic 9-10 colors so it doesn’t get overwhelming!

These are also my go-to color choices for lighting a concert or corporate show that I don’t have any advance info on.  It’s a great starting place to make a diverse show happen!

Programming Moving Lights

Like I mentioned above, I pretty much always use a good number of my moving lights for lighting the set.  Since moving lights can move, these fixtures can play double duty going from a texture on the set to sidelight, backlight or a special effect of some kind.

In a perfect world, I like to put my movers for the set on a midstage truss, or a side ladder on the midstage.

I begin programming by building pallets and modifying the pallets generated by the console when patching.  If your console doesn’t have a “generate menus” or “auto-pallets” feature for moving lights, you’ll need to start from scratch and program pallets for each gobo and color on the color wheel.  I’d also program some CMY mixed colors if you lights have CMY mixing.

Worship Moving LightsAfter that, modify the pallets, deleting the ones you know that you won’t use.  There may be a gobo or color that you just hate, and you don’t have to use it!

Then, program a bunch of pallets for positions you’ll use.  I usually pick a bunch of graphic positions that look great in haze as well as positions that highlight specific pieces of set, the band, or the house.

Of course, I skip the graphic positions if I know that there will be no haze, but try to focus some positions that put lights on the walls or set in a graphic orientation.

Now that I’ve got all of my pallets recorded, I move on to setting up some cues to use during songs.  For worship lighting, I typically record full looks on cues that do not include the stage wash.  This way, I can change the wash and cues independent of each other, depending on my needs during particular songs.

I will also record moving light/LED effect cues separately, either on executor buttons or virtual cuelists via the consoles touchscreen.  If there is a particular effects cue I know I’ll use a lot, it’ll get a fader, but that’s on a first come, first served basis.

The most important thing is to have the important wash and color faders on hand close to my fingers, and then to have effects cues just an arms reach away!

If your service is typically very cued, and things don’t change or happen spontaneously, you can write cues that contain everything and just have someone go cue to cue on a simple, 1 fader cue stack.  When you do this, however, depending on your console, it may be difficult and awkward to change things on the fly, which is why I am a big proponent of splitting looks up.

Either way, the one cue-stack method is a great way to start out volunteers and get them used to the equipment before you set them free to run a more dynamic setup like the one described above.  If your church doesn’t currently change lighting during the service, a simple cue stack is a great place to start!

Putting It All Together

Program Whole Looks or Partial?

So, at this point we’ve got a few faders with conventional lights controlling our washes and we’ve got the rest of the faders with full looks of moving lights and LED’s to compliment the conventionals.

As I mentioned above, a great way to start with lighting is to just use 1 playback fader for these looks, and then you can expand to more faders of different looks as you become more advanced in your lighting abilities.

If you re-order your cues every week, you can just hit the play button all service long and play your cues back in order, or you can jump around the cuelist every Sunday.  That all depends on how trained and technical you or your volunteers are!

Using Movement

Moving lights are one of the great, highly debated parts of lighting in the church.  Some churches like them, and others don’t want to see movement at all.  The amount of movement you use depends on what style of worship your church is engaging in.

Movement works on the principle of dynamics.  Just like a musician doesn’t start most songs at top volume, there are great ways to crescendo lighting and follow the band’s lead in lighting.

Say a song starts slow, and you bring up a nice LED look with front lighting.  Then, say the second verse adds in the drums harder, and you follow that with the lighting by bringing up the intensity on the moving lights in a static position.  By the chorus, you can put the moving lights in a bally-hoo, or other chase or movement pattern.

Program lots of different diverse movement effects in order to keep things fresh.  Start with a few movements that use both pan and tilt while flashing the lights, and then experiment with programming movements that only use the “pan” or “tilt” of the fixture.  This way, each different position that you have the lights in will have a different effect!  Work with chases on top of that, experiment and have fun learning more about lighting design!

How to Make Great Transitions

Though it takes a little work, a great transition that is matched to the mood of a song works wonders and keeps your lighting in the background, supporting your worship band or presenter.  A fast transition can happen in just an instant, or can drag out for 2 seconds.  Remember that slower songs need slower transitions, usually 3-6 seconds or more.

Experiment with super-long transitions of up to 30 seconds and see if it works for you, and the particular service that you are lighting this week!  I like to use manual transition during really quiet and calm points of the service, so I nail it just right, matching the band and praying speaker!

Programming the Non-Music Parts of the Service

So far, we’ve focused mostly on programming for the musical portions of our service, but it’s also really important to have a few other key looks ready.

  • Walk In/Out: I usually go with set lighting and a little smidgen of backlight and maybe some front light.  Experiment around and see what you like.
  • Preaching: For the preaching look, I usually do full set lighting with white front and back lighting on the area the pastor uses for preaching.  If he doesn’t use the whole stage, I’ll typically hit the dark areas with some colored front light to match or complement the set lighting.
  • Announcements: Similar to the preaching look, but I change the colors and may light the whole stage if it’s going to be used.
  • House Lights: Don’t forget to have a good house lights fader to run the house up and down.  Or, even better, a separate house light controller to sit next to the console for easy access.  You just never know when you’re going to need to tweak the house lights.

I usually run these cues on executor buttons or virtual masters since I don’t typically need to adjust the intensity of these looks.  I want to always keep my fader playbacks or submasters for cues that I want to have intensity control over.

Rehearsal – Experiment and Pay Attention.

Now that we’re all programmed, let’s talk about the rehearsal.  The rehearsal is where you can test the cues you’ve written and tweak them before Sunday morning.  As the band works on their transitions, you can test yours right along with them and make any changes to timing that you need.

You may find that a different look works for the song than you originally planned, and now’s the time to change these things.  The great part about a rehearsal is that you can stop the lights and change between looks in the middle of songs to find what looks right.  Also be sure and pay attention to solos and songs that only use some of the band, and use those moments to change up the lighting and keep it fresh!

Service

Come time for the service, the job of the lighting director/designer is almost over.  Play back what you’ve preprogrammed, and follow the order of service like a hawk.  Be watching for pastors who spontaneously change the announcement time and jump up in between songs for a prayer!  You want to make sure they are lit just as much as the audio guy makes sure the mic is hot!

Are you starting from zero experience in lighting?  Click here to get my “getting started” guide!

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  • Joan says:

    We are painting the sanctuary. How do the paint colors on the proscenium and other surfaces affect the lighting?

    • David says:

      Hi Joan,

      When you’re choosing paint colors, you can really shape the way the room feels when the lights are on.

      In general, you want to stick with neutral colors, so that it doesn’t look strange when certain colors are coming from the lights. (Example: a red wall with a green light pointed at it just looks black!).

      Then, you need to decide if you’re going to paint the room a dark or light color. Light colors will take lighting well, and make the room seem bigger, but dark colors will help maintain the focus on the stage better.

  • Matt says:

    Hey I was actually wondering if you knew or have an idea of how much time most churches spend on setting up lighting cues each week?

    • David says:

      Absolutely! The range of time that different churches put into their lighting is really wide! Some work from scratch every series, some weekly, and some refresh their looks once a year. No matter how much time you personally put in weekly, you can use bits of this post to save time – something we’re all looking to do! 🙂

  • Barney says:

    Hi David,
    Great site.
    Just wondering if I can reach out to you.
    I have a number of fixtures which have inbuilt effects residing on a single fader.
    When creating my shows using DMX when I switch from effect 1 to effect 4, the fixture steps through 2 and 3.
    Have you come across this sort of thing before and how have you overcome it please?
    Thanks and be blessed.
    Barney

  • Barney Kirk says:

    Hi David,

    Sorry for the delay!

    I have tried a couple of consoles so far:

    ADJ DMX Operator 384 and
    Synthe-FX’s Luminair iPad app

    Any help or insight would be much appreciated.

    Thanks,

    Barney

    PS. I added this as a new comment as the reply option kept failing for me 🙂

    • David says:

      Hi Barney,

      That’s weird. I’m going to look into that technical issue!

      On any of the consoles you mentioned, if you want to step from effect 1-4 without seeing the effects in the middle, you will have to black out the fixture (take the dimmer to zero).

      Unfortunately, this is a situation where the inbuilt effects on the fixture aren’t well designed, so you can’t jump from one effect to another seamlessly.

      Hope that helps!
      -David

  • Fred Beck says:

    Great article. I am looking into budgeting some lighting for our small church, although the small stage (~8m wide, ~2m deep) and low ceiling (~3 m) make it an interesting challenge.
    I am curious how to address a concern regarding the house lights: while I do want these dimmable on the console for service time, how would I go about using ordinary light switches to allow non-techy folks to simply switch on the foyer and sanctuary lights to full brightness for cleaning or setup? Do consoles have external inputs for such a case, or is there a way to wire the lights so the switches can be bypassed when the DMX system is powered on?

    • David says:

      Hi Fred! There are generally 2 ways to make this happen. The first is to work with an electrical integrator to install a house lighting system with DMX input. Your console would then either take over control when it turns on, OR the house light system will have a “lockout” button at the lighting console position to turn off the wall panels.

      The other way to do this (if you already have your house lights on a DMX system), is to get a stand-alone wall panel system that can control your lights. Here’s a good one: http://www.dfd.com/p10a.html . Wall panels like these also can automatically sense DMX and allow takeover from your console.

      Thanks!
      -David

  • Phinn says:

    Hi, I was approached to light a church and prepare different programs. On one hand I find it absolutely immoral and I think that it absolutely goes against the spirit of christianity, on the other.. if I don’t do it someone else will. How do you guy deal with such ethical dilemas regarding the craft?

    • David says:

      Hey Phinn,

      I would say that if you can’t find this particular church and what they want to do morally right, then don’t work with them. But do consider it carefully and try your best to keep an open mind – every church has a unique call to ministry, and as long as they are not doing anything deceptive, I would consider working with them.


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