Language of Light: Using Visuals to Communicate Culture

In modern worship, we can use visual language that draws upon 2,000 years of church history, and generations of culture.

When you are driving at night, and suddenly see blue lights moving in your rearview mirror, do you stare and wonder what this means, or do you just pull over?

Like stained glass, separation is a key value. In many cases, we've completely removed all windows to avoid light pollution.

We start learning a wide vocabulary of visual language at an early age. Light alone can tell us how to behave, act, and feel.

Those flashing blue lights makes one recall a scenario that you've studied in school, seen on TV, and associated with feelings for years. You'll run through a mental checklist of what you will say when the police officer comes to your window. And you may feel relief when they pass you on the way to some other driver down the road.

By using lighting language, lighting designers can speak to their audience with a vocabulary as powerful as a speaker. We respond to lighting all the time, at both conscious and subconscious levels. So what is your design saying?

What should we say? In modern worship, we can use visual language that draws upon 2,000 years of church history, generations of culture, or Lady Gaga's 2017 Super Bowl halftime performance (It was memorable. Those drones, right?). While using pop culture is maybe the best way to ride the zeitgeist, think about what parts of the artist you are emulating that support your mission and vision as a church body.

Whether choosing something deeply spiritual or something you saw on TV, the choices you make tell your audience who you are.

By looking at the lights during a service, you can learn many things about the church, such as how the leaders relate to the congregation, what the church believes about order and direction, and whether it is driven by evangelism, Biblical separation, liturgy, or relational openness to the unchurched.

As we discuss a few examples, please know I'm not making a positive or negative judgement about these theological concepts.

We are many parts of one body.

Let's look at some scenarios and what they might communicate to your guests.

Where Our Design Choices Began

I'm the media director of a Pentecostal church that uses big modern worship, but I grew up in liturgical traditions. Even those supposedly traditional spaces have a common language of light with origins and symbolism from before there was even electricity.

When I was a boy growing up at St. Cecelia's parish in Leominster, Massachusetts, the sheer presence of the church was always stunning. The architecture, artwork, and light worked tightly together, all aspects of visual design converging to express the values of the church.

This worship space was that of a cathedral style, with 60-foot ceilings and the layout of a cross if viewed from above. So right away, the architecture focuses you on the work of the cross. The size and grandeur of the room would speak immediately about the glory of God. At the altar, we had a beautiful hand carved crucifix, a golden tabernacle, incense burning (The hazer of liturgical church) and several life-sized statues of Mary and St. Cecelia (patron saint of church production? She is the saint of music).

The lighting was simple, never stealing attention from the artwork. The consistent look of the space before, during and after service encouraged visitors to explore the space for themselves and ponder the life of Christ. While there were plenty of simple white lights for the altar, the main light for Sunday morning services was 40-plus feet of colorful stained glass, with the resurrection at the center of everything as sunlight poured over the altar.

Stained Glass and Rock Star Leaders

Stained glass and windows in general are an awesome expression of theology in lighting design. Stain glass allows the building to close off the outside world and replace it with a vision of heaven. Even if it's a simple single color instead of a detailed picture, the effect of cutting off the church body from worldly, sinful influence is clear. Holiness and biblical separation are the key values for these churches.

We've carried this over into the modern worship setting, with projectors and concert-style lighting. Like stained glass, separation is a key value. In many cases, we've completely removed all windows to avoid light pollution.

Again, we're communicating a difference between the church and the world.

Interestingly, the feel of a concert setting at church also creates a relatable, fun vibe that borrows pop culture looks. People can see something separated, but relatable. Or "in the world, but not of the world," if you prefer.

Concert lighting brings in a whole new set of visual language for an audience to absorb, this time from TV. It's a language they have learned from countless rock stars and Broadway shows. These are larger than life figures. Using this language in church makes our leadership feel important.

Spotlights on a singer or preacher immediately imparts presence and authority.

After all, only important people on TV get spotlights.

The edge of the stage lighting for a concert also can cut a line between the band and crowd, or in this case, the leaders and the congregation. There is a traditional equivalent here, as the edge of the light recalls the high altar that separates the priest. This visual separation shows the significance and holiness of the clergy and recognizes their anointing.

Some churches want to involve the congregation, more than to separate them from the preacher. One way to do so is to add color wash and motion effects onto and above the audience. Now the light is no longer concentrated, but shared freely. When done in time with the music, this can be a powerful visual to express the release of the Spirit during worship, as the whole body becomes involved.

As the drama builds, what was once a dark, still room, now floods with color and motion and life. Even the sound has gone from a quiet start, to the lone voice of the leader, to the whole church harmonizing together. The lighting swells around the congregation, finally bursting into brightness as the church crashes into the big chorus.

All this synchronized production declares the order of heaven, all of nature working together to proclaim the glory of the Lord. They sent the musicians before the armies in the Bible, and here again, we call back to the example of scripture in worship.

Break the Walls Down

Following the ornate church cathedrals, came a movement to be focused on a congregational experience. Stained glass barriers gave way to giant, clear windows. Reformation thinking asked, why has worship become so ornate and leader driven? The architecture of the time is noted by functional white buildings on the town common and simple, clear windows. This allows in the natural light like stained glass, but also lets congregants to look beyond the walls into the community. The message here is that there is a world beyond the church, in fact a world that needs the church.

Immediately, the core values suggested are outreach, evangelism, and community involvement. Out of concern for being too fancy, reformers sought to streamline the experience and focus on the simple nature of God.

The modern version still retains many of the characteristics of the early protestant style: Lots of windows and natural light, but with modern worship elements that make sense. Because of sunlight, or perhaps instead constant and unchanging house lights, the choices are forced to be simpler and clean. Focus is not drawn to excessive color, motion, or individual performance of a leader, because the bright white lights simply prevent it.

The worship team can be minimized in the stage design, as well by placing them off stage or to the side, allowing people to take in the simple décor, and the unobscured worship as one body undisturbed by the complexity of worldly influence.

Finding Your Voice

Obviously, I'm working in generalizations with these two extreme, but realistic, scenarios. If you have a room without windows, you can obviously find a way to communicate oneness in worship. For example, you could keep the lights very simple and natural on the band, keep the houselights up on the congregation, while projecting a video of the town common behind song lyrics, and blend in either thematic or liturgical colors using LED lights on your stage design.

Now that represents a priority on inclusiveness in the body, an outward focus to the community, and some subtle concert lighting for a relatable, modern touch.

But if you want to express congregational worship, for example, a dark room with a spotlight on a singer and concert effects may not communicate that.

When rolling out changes like this, you may find a disconnect, as people who once worshipped freely with you, start to talk about how worship has become a show.

What they may be trying to say is that the values they believed the church stood for are no longer represented or easy to see. If that happens, you may ask yourself, did the values change, or are they not being communicated visually?

Finally, all elements of the service ideally must work together to support the core values and mission of the church the architecture, the artwork (real or projected), the music, the sound, the lights, the preaching, and the culture that radiates beyond Sunday morning.

As lighting and worship tech directors, let's do our part to show people what our church is all about.

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