Set Design: Creating an Inviting, Worshipful Space

Even if you aren't building sets to match messages, it's still impactful to create a look that provides an inviting space. The alternative of blank walls and general room lighting gives a sterile classroom feel.

As a lighting designer, I believe set design is a natural extension of my craft. It is a major part of what we present for a look and feel on Sunday morning, and it is one of the palettes on which light can be painted.

Matching your set look to the message has many benefits.

I can still remember my first large worship experience, at a Willow Creek Worship and Arts conference in the early 2000s. Thousands of worship leaders singing in one room can get very intense!

Just as much as that left an imprint on me, so did their set. The theme that year was "An Hour on Sunday." Wow, even as I just typed that, I can start to get choked up. It means, if someone is willing to give us an hour of their time, then we should do our best to make it count. To support this theme, they had various clocks in different shapes and sizes hanging around the stage at many different heights and depths. The look was interesting, thoughtful, engaging and yes, timeless! Most importantly, it supported the message.

That's our number one inspiration.

Matching your set look to the message has many benefits. First, it engages both sides of the brain during the message by stimulating both the visual and the auditory cortexes at the same time. It is similar to when your pastor tells a story related to the message. It helps you relate to what is being talked about, in a way that you will experience more deeply and remember longer. Just like all those clocks hanging around the stage helped me remember the message many years later.

Even if you aren't building sets to match messages, it's still impactful to create a look that provides an inviting space. The alternative of blank walls and general room lighting gives a sterile classroom feel that likely leaves many looking for the door. So, where to get inspiration from?

Many in the church community look to the site Church Stage Design Ideas, for inspiration.

Use the links at the top of that site’s homepage to jump to their other two sites, Worship Set Ideas and Series Ideas.

However, there are a couple caveats on using the work of others as inspiration.

First, make it your own. Your space is likely not the same. You'll have to adapt the design to fit your space.

Second, what works for others, may not work for you. Just because it looks good on a small set doesn't mean it will look good on a larger set. And the opposite is true.

Third, just because they used more expensive materials, doesn't mean you have to. Be creative!

Finally, inspiration doesn't need to come from out of house. You and your team can come up with creative and inspiring designs. And what better way to engage and empower your volunteers!

Let's wrap up with some tips and tricks from the trenches.

TIP #1:

Think three dimensionally when designing, both on the overall design and on the elements themselves.

On the overall scale, try to build in layers. Your worship team members are the first layer. Behind them might be a second layer consisting of some prop pieces. At my own church currently, we are preparing to put a bunch of small Christmas trees upstage behind our team. That will be our second layer. Behind them is our third layer, consisting of some recycled wood features with LED strips lighting them. More on those in a minute.

While I like that we can buy 4 foot-by-8 foot fake brick paneling at the local home store, that by itself is a little too flat for my taste. Add another layer in front of it to make it really pop.

Even if you only have one layer behind your team, then things like crumpled aluminum screening provide a 3D surface that catches light differently top from bottom, to provide stunning effects like the one shown as the first image among the slides.

TIP #2

Almost anything can be used to build a set.

Recently, I provided the lighting during the 2017 Fall Simply Worship Conference in Concord, N.H. Shortly before our event, Brittany Moultroup and her team at CenterPoint Church revised their upstage look using HVAC air filters! A relatively low cost simple design that was very effective.

TIP #3

Design core elements which can be used for multiple sets.

One simple example is building in infrastructure like the ability to lift and hang lightweight parts of your set.

Appropriately designed ropes and pulleys allow you to raise and lower elements. Of course, keep them lightweight and safe!

My last example are a close-up view of the wood diamonds as shown in the second image among the three slides. The close-up is the third image among the slides.

In that image, it shows how they are edge lit light boxes that are reusable. The lighting is RGB LED tape (the white strip at the edge of the wood). Attached to the back of each diamond is a power supply and a DMX controlled LED driver. Each diamond is its own light fixture. The center look can be removed and replaced as the set changes. Here they are shown with a wood look. The decorative wood boards are mounted on a thin backboard that is removable. On the next set change, they will come out and the next look inserted!

Remember, this is a major part of what sets the mood in the room. So, be creative and experiment to see what works best for you.

Make the best out of that hour on Sunday!

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