Lighting in the Theater of God

Modern approaches to lighting design can create an enhanced worship experience and bring out the beauty of the architectural environment.

Pictured Above: Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace in Honolulu, HI. RDG Planning & Design lighting concept done with Morrissey Engineering. 

I recently had the incredible experience of visiting my daughter while she was studying in London. In between social visits, my wife and I visited several cathedrals and large churches, including Westminster Abbey. What struck me the most while in these spaces ­­– as a lighting designer and true lighting nerd – was the care that was taken in lighting them in a way that brought out the architectural detailing, extensive artwork and soaring ceilings. Nearly all the light sources were hidden from view, allowing the architectural environment to be the primary visual focal element of the space. It never felt like there wasn’t enough light in the space, but I was always drawn to what the light was revealing as it struck various surfaces.

My experience within these historic cathedrals and churches spoke to the powerful psychological effects lighting can create, and specifically, the way lighting impacts the experience within worship spaces. It also made me reflect on how the process of lighting these spaces has changed over time, and how we as lighting designers play an important role in helping our worship market clients modernize environments to help enhance the experience of the space. Though our lighting design team works across multiple markets and disciplines to solve lighting challenges on all kinds of projects, when we collaborate on the design for worship spaces, a popular reason we’re typically engaged is to help address accessibility for older individuals – those whose ability to participate in worship is impacted by low lighting and their inability to read text clearly under poor lighting conditions. The goal of improvements we make in lighting these spaces is to help create a more engaging and visually supportive experience for all attendees.

Developing a lighting design solution that enhances the worship space involves more than simply re-lamping or replacing the existing lighting with a “brighter” fixture or lamp; rather, it’s important to consider the lighting layers we use in design, including uplighting, wall washing, accent lighting, ambient lighting, decorative lighting and even daylighting. In other words, the key to effective lighting design within worship spaces is to understand that the psychological effects of light are often more powerful than the quantity of light. Here, we explore the challenges in historic approaches to lighting design within worship spaces, and how offering a modern approach can create an enhanced experience for all while bringing out the beauty of the architectural environment at the same time.

Historic Design Challenges: Daylighting, Task Lighting and Ambient Lighting

Worship environments have historically relied on daylighting as one of the primary sources of illumination, in large part because light passing through colored panes of glass adds to the dramatic nature of the space and makes the lighting feel more natural. For example, early Christian services tended to rely more on a leader-response type experience, with worship leaders doing most of the reading, singing and presenting. Evening services would commonly rely on the use of soft candlelight to create a more subdued environment. Because lighting needs varied, the quantity of light for the congregation was not seen as a critical component of design. Over time, the worship experience has become increasingly interactive, requiring the use of songbooks, pew bibles, bulletins and other reading materials that are distributed and referred to throughout the worship experience. In addition, with the primary worship space now in use for a variety of social gatherings, meetings, choir rehearsals, children’s programs, etc., which occur outside of the traditional morning worship, the need for additional electric lighting has increased.

These pendants, separated by nearly 70 years actually perform very similar tasks in completing the lighting for a typical worship environment. Photo by David Raver.

Most people relate the quantity of light required in a worship environment as the primary reason for lighting improvements. Being able to read a hymnal or bible printed on newsprint with size eight or 10 font becomes more difficult as we age. Most worship clients we work with typically measure three to five-foot candles (fc) from the electric light sources in their existing buildings. The Illuminating Engineering Society (IES) recommends everything from 10fc to 50fc, depending on the age of the individual and the activity level of participation expected, therefore suggesting a two to 10 times increase in lighting levels. Ninety percent of the time, we find that the only light source is a decorative pendant hung in pairs above the seating areas of the worship space. These pendants, which are found in many worship environments, serve multiple purposes (I often refer to them as the “jewelry” of the worship space) and were traditionally selected by the original building architect to fit the scale, aesthetic and detailing of the architectural environment – more so than for their lighting performance. Depending on the composition and lamping, these fixtures can provide uplight onto the ceiling – additional ambient lighting through the glow of the housing and the potential for additional downlighting typically with a very high wattage incandescent lamp. This type of lighting system was especially popular in the church boom of the 1950s through the 1970s in the U.S. Tight budgets and reliance on daylighting resulted in sparse additional lighting of the space and offered only minimal required lighting levels above the congregation. 

All the components within these “decorative” fixtures are an attempt to provide adequate lighting at the level of worshipers in the space. Depending on the age and environment of the church, these fixtures can be highly detailed historic ornaments or modern versions with little to no detail. Aesthetics aside, these are the primary lighting sources in most of the churches that we work on and are more often than not the root cause of a client’s lighting issues. Rather than solve the problem, efforts to retrofit the fixtures with LEDs can prolong the primary lighting issue and often only solve maintenance issues with the fixtures themselves. Replacing these fixtures can cost from $3,000 to $10,000 each. That said, sometimes the better solution is a different approach to the lighting, which can yield an overall better result at a similar cost.

Modern Design Solutions: Uplighting, Accent Lighting and Modern Technology 

The solution to getting “more” light into the space is as much psychological (improving what’s in an individual’s visual field) as it is needing to increase the quantity of light that a light meter measures. A key and well-known feature of worship spaces have historically been high ceilings. High ceilings are meant to symbolize the heavens, and it’s typically where a lot of the religious stories unfold in artistic elements such as paintings or mosaics. Though we’ve seen ornate ceilings disappear over time, the volume of space is still a common theme within modern worship space architecture, and that volume still plays an important role in creating an ambiance of reverence and contemplation. Within contemporary spaces, lighting designers can encourage people to continue to “look to the heavens” by integrating uplighting systems. Uplighting a large volume of space not only psychologically increases the volume of the worship environment but also helps provide an additional layer of ambient lighting reflecting off these surfaces. Higher reflectance values on these horizontal or pitched planes increase the perception of light and provide additional ambient lighting at floor level that helps supplement the original lighting achieved from the “visible” and existing light sources such as the pendants.

Focus is a strong design tool that can help modernize the lighting within a worship space. Using highlight and shadow, lighting designers can “direct” the worshiper’s attention to the primary elements of attention. Borrowing from museum and theatrical lighting techniques, the designer creates a sense of “drama” in the worship environment, directing focus towards a denominational icon or worship or praise leader. Though the amount of accent lighting utilized will depend on the religion, denomination and history of the worship space, bringing attention to sculptures, artifacts and other liturgical elements in the space through effective lighting design can help tell the story of these elements by bringing focus and prominence to them. Carefully concealed sources bring out the three-dimensional texture of key elements and create contrast and focus while providing the worshipper visual interest to make a space more sublime. Lighting on these elements can also be used on control zones separate from the general room lighting, allowing for changing lighting conditions to accommodate a bright, interactive worship experience or to create a more meditative, tranquil environment.

After photo showing more appropriate worship space pendants, in addition to increased ceiling brightness to add drama and ‘life’ to the church. Our Lady’s Immaculate Heart, Ankeny, Iowa. Photo by Tom Kessler.

One project that incorporates a modern lighting design approach is Our Lady’s Immaculate Heart Catholic Church in Ankeny, Iowa. The original lighting that needed to be replaced utilized simple downlight cylinders suspended from the ceiling. Having been built in the 1980s, the light source selected by the original engineer was a metal halide source, the kind typically used in retail and industrial applications and which produced a blueish light that was not dimmable. The existing lighting levels were sufficient, aided by a large amount of natural daylight, however, the general ambiance of the worship space felt suppressed and grey. RDG’s lighting design team offered a solution that replaced the cylinders with a fixture with architectural detailing that matched the geometry of the building. These pendants provide additional ambient lighting as well as increased downlighting while offering a dimmable source that could be “tuned” through the control system for various liturgical service types. The biggest change visually was the addition of indirect wall-mounted fixtures. The fixtures were fairly “non-descript” and intended to visually blend with the other structural and mechanical systems visible within the space. The light that the fixtures produced greatly enhanced the ceiling plane and provided additional ambient lighting, which pulled the entire design together.

Our Lady’s Immaculate Heart, Ankeny, Iowa – Before photo. Our Lady’s Immaculate Heart, Ankeny, Iowa. Photo by David Raver.

As an increasing number of modern and evangelical church environments evolve their language (e.g., replacing terms like “altar platform” with “stage”) and the way we light these spaces is also evolving. The decorative pendants used in more historic environments have been replaced with recessed downlights. The focused ambient levels on presenters are now colored (and sometimes moving) shafts of light piercing through the haze created by smoke machines. The foot-candles once used for reading purposes have been replaced with projected song lyrics and basic face lighting now uses theatrical fixtures and dramatic lighting to enhance the music and create an entirely immersive visual environment. All these elements come together to create a dramatic worship experience for the people in the seats and allow for high-level production aspects used in broadcast and streaming video for remote worshipers.

Evident within all these changes is the lighting designer’s important role in the space, both from a storytelling standpoint and for the overall worship experience. A skilled lighting designer can work with a client to understand their current challenges and ensure that lighting for the worship space is well integrated and purposeful.

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RDG’s lighting designers come from theatrical, architectural, and interior design backgrounds and are skilled at blending illuminating techniques with budget-conscious designs. Learn more about our practice, our approach and our work here.

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