Journey, Church, Oklahoma, lighting Steven Hall
A view of the worship space at Journey Church with extensive lighting being utilized.

Lighting Design: What Kind of Story Are We Trying to Tell?

The powerful part of using lighting for storytelling is that it doesn’t tell the person who is in the space exactly what to feel, but rather sets the environment for the individual to interpret and experience the story in their own way.

There is a little saying among lighting designers, and it goes like this: “Without lighting, it’s just radio!” It’s a fun little way that we make sure our presence is known as designers!  

All joking aside, though, a well thought out and intentional lighting design is absolutely a critical part of any engaging worship experience. Please note that I said, “a well thought out and intentional design.”

Coming in to program lighting at 8:30 on a Sunday morning for a 9 a.m. service isn’t going to produce the results you want in creating a good design. It cannot be thrown together, with the aim that it will also be effective.

One of the most important aspects about a good lighting design is determining what kind of story we are trying to tell, and how we are going to use lighting to tell it. Of all the technology that is available to us, lighting is the one that is the most dynamic and critical to telling the story.

Lighting has the power to direct focus, create emotion, set a tone and mood, and overall, it engages the visual senses of people.

The powerful part of using lighting for storytelling is that it doesn’t tell the person who is in the space exactly what to feel, but rather sets the environment for the individual to interpret and experience the story in their own way. It really is the only tool that can do this for us, which is why I often am surprised when it is passed over so easily in the planning of worship experiences.

From the moment people walk into our worship space, we are immediately telling them a story. However, in order to tell the story to others, you have to know it for yourself first, in order to tell it! This is why planning and preparation for intentional lighting is so important.

When you first get a look at your order of service for a given weekend, what is the first series of thoughts that pop into your mind? In all honestly, it should be “how do I use my skills and abilities as a designer, as well as the tools at my fingertips, to tell this story?”

Some questions I always ask myself, before I even turn on the lighting console are:

• What is the worship journey I want to take the congregation on  during the service?
• What am I going to do with what’s in front of me that will support and direct all the attention of people attending, toward what my pastor is going to get up and speak about?
• Is what I’m going to do with my technology, going to set my pastor up to win, when they step onto the platform to deliver the message?
• Is what I am about to do, going to support or distract from that message?
• How can I help tell the story?

Once I have wrestled through these questions, and more, I then will begin to read through a pastor's notes for the talk. Then I listen to all the music for the service. I listen for days before I even begin to program.

As a designer, you should know the music better than any musician that plays or sings. You must invest time into listening and learning it as best you can.

You need to think through all of the points within the music that speak to you. What emotion do you feel during the bridge on song 2? What does it stir in your soul, when you hear it?

Now, ask yourself this... How can I use lighting to create that same emotional response in others? I think you are picking up on my theme here, right?

Next up is intentional design. You know the music, you know the story you want to tell, but now you have to ask, how do we bring it to life?

The first thing you want to do is to be intentional about the design. When you’re doing a worship song, think about how you can use specific colors, movement, etc., to set the tone and tell the story.

What I’m getting at here is stop using the effects engine of your console for every song and every cue. Effects engines have a place, but strategic use of them is key. When I see programming that is jammed full of effects engines, I think the designer either didn’t take the time to properly program or didn’t care enough to invest the time to plan ahead. 

Again, with good planning and preparation, you can build lighting looks that will be very specific and intentionally designed for the exact experience you are trying to make for the worship service you are working on, which will ultimately create the most impactful worship experience possible. 

I encourage you to spend time thinking through your own process and approach to coming up with your lighting plan for each weekend service. You will likely be surprised at how many opportunities there are to use lighting in a more effective way, to tell the story and create the most impactful and inspiring worship experience possible.

If you have any questions or need my help with talking through your approach to lighting, click on my byline at the top of this article for my contact information, and please feel free to reach out. I am more than happy and open to help!

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