Illumination for the Congregation: How to Choose the Right House Lighting

Copyright © 2001 by David Jacques

Published in the March, 2002, issue of Your Church Magazine

The most important impression is the first impression. That’s why the atmosphere created by your church’s environmental and house lighting is crucial to the overall experience of your congregation.

However, choosing the right house lighting is not a simple task. There are literally thousands of lighting fixtures, lamps, and control systems available. And further complicating the selection process is the fact that church house lighting should do more than "crea te atmosphere." It shoul d provide reading light, allow for safe evacuation during emergencies, and complement the overall aesthetics of the building. In addition, house lighting must take much into account if theatrical productions, videotaping, and/or broadcasts are incorporated into the worship services.

To help you make wise choices, this article outlines the factors involved in choosing the appropriate lighting system for your house of worship.

The Right Style

From my experience as a professional lighting designer/consultant, I know every church is different. So, I allow the particular needs of each church to guide me, whether designing the lighting for new construction or retrofitting an existing sanctuary.

When designing lighting, I first consider how the overall visual theme of the environment should take shape. I carefully consult with church leaders on their vision for the aesthetics of the church. The architect will have already incorporated this vision into his/her design. I follow along those lines, trying to compliment whatever style has been chosen, whether contemporary, blended, or traditional. Positive collaboration between the church, architect, and lighting designer will guarantee a bright future.

Let’s take a look at how the different styles affect real-world sanctuaries.

A traditional-style building, often associated with traditional worship, dictates that house lighting be as unobtrusive as possible. Houston’s Lord of Life Lutheran Church—fairly traditional in design—is a great example. Open windows are prevalent in the church’s architecture, and there is a lot of wood, which the church wanted to highlight. So, it was important that the house lighting support the contrast between natural elements in the design and exterior sunlight.

The lighting chosen for the Lutheran church incorporates hanging, incandescent, up/downlight pendant fixtures that were specifically designed to accentuate the wood-beam ceiling and provide sufficient illumination for the congregation. The relatively low color temperature of incandescent lamps pulls out the rich color of the natural wood. The warm incandescent lights also produce nice results against the cool exterior light. Recessed incandescent fixtures also add light. Wall washers are used to highlight the walls of the church and the rear of the pulpit.

The design of Woodlands United Methodist Church mixes traditional and contemporary elements. The design uses custom hanging pendants as the primary lighting and wall sconces for decorative and functional visibility. In addition, recessed incandescent fixtures are used for lighting under and over the balcony.

First Baptist Church of the Woodlands, featuring a choir and praise band in its services, is a good example of a mixed, or blended, worship center. The architectural style is quite contemporary, so the house lighting design includes contemporary theatrical fixtures (for small productions) and recessed and hanging incandescent fixtures. The lighting can be controlled by area, or zone, allowing the church to set different atmospheres.

Speaking of lighting control, worship style also dictates the type of control system your church will need. In traditional churches, a simple control system can be used to dim and brighten the lights. But, once you introduce theatrical elements into your services, the lighting requirements get a little more sophisticated. Even adding a simple praise band means you’ll need greater control over lighting. Several models of programmable house lighting systems are available.

Finally, video projection has a huge impact on house lighting and vice versa. It is crucial to design house lighting in such a way that no extraneous light hits the projection screen. The house lighting near a screen or screens should be separately controlled, so that a dark frame can be created around the screen for ease of viewing. It is amazing how many people fail to properly design and control lighting when video projection is involved.

More to Consider

In addition to style and technical concerns, there are several other considerations designers must account for in house lighting systems.

House lighting must accommodate the brightness needs of a congregation. Older church members may need more light to read their Bibles. It is also important to provide lighting that does not create unflattering and disturbing shadows on the congregation. This can make reading even more difficult.

In addition, proper emergency lighting must be designed into the system. Each city has different safety codes, so it is important for designers to research which codes are applicable. In most cases, a minimum foot-candle reading must be maintained in the case of a power failure, which means an emergency battery-powered lighting system must be available to facilitate a safe evacuation.

Another important consideration is energy efficiency. It is common knowledge that fluorescent lighting uses less energy than incandescent lighting. Modern fluorescent fixtures can approximate the color temperatures of incandescent lamps; in many cases, these lamps may be substituted to save energy. The initial investment in fluorescent fixtures and dimming systems can pay for themselves in energy savings. Wisely using low-voltage, incandescent lighting can also conserve energy.

Lamp life is another factor. Choose long-lasting fixtures and lamps and make sure they can be easily serviced. I have seen terrible design placement that make service difficult, which ends up costing the church in labor costs.

Finally, churches are more than just sanctuaries. Lighting designers must design the other common areas to allow for an aesthetic flow from the lobby, though the common rooms, and into the worship area. Among other options, a combination of incandescent low-angle wall sconces and downlights can create a warm, inviting area.

David Martin Jacques ( is a professional lighting designer/consultant for theater, television, and architectural projects. He has worked on several major church projects and serves as head of stage design at California State University Long Beach.



A Texas-Size Lighting Challenge

Unusual architectural elements and high-tech needs can sometimes create interesting challenges for lighting designers. Riverbend Church in Austin, Texas, has a striking arched window behind the pulpit area that allows daylight to illuminate the congregation. This is a beautiful addition to the sanctuary, but it complicated the house lighting design because Riverbend’s services are videotaped and broadcast. The house lighting needed to complement the exterior lighting in a manner that didn’t ruin the videography, but it had to fit the overall tone of the sanctuary.

Two sets of house lighting systems were designed: one to accommodate daytime services (with a color temperature of 5,600K) and one for evening services (with a color temperature of 3,200K). The daytime system uses metal-halide pendant fixtures, which ensure that the coloring of the congregation matches the sunlight. This is necessary when the camera shoots from the rear of the pulpit, past the pastor to the congregation. If incandescent lighting had been used, the congregation’s coloring would vary according to areas in or out of the sunlight—a distracting effect.

In addition, indirect fluorescent fixtures are used under the balcony for daylight services while recessed incandescent downlights are used for night services. The two systems can be used independently or in combination. The incandescent system allows the evening services to be lit with the warmer, 3,200K light. This creates a softer atmosphere and contrasts beautifully with the evening sky through the window. Custom incandescent striplight fixtures colored with glass filters are used are used to light the large wood wall above the pulpit. This assists in adjusting the wood color according to the color of the selected houselight system.

—David Jacques