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Crossroads Community Church Crossroads Community Church 2019
Crossroads Community Church Pastor Bryan Tomes preaches to a crowd under bright house lights as he prepares for an altar call.

What House Lighting Tells Guests About Your Church

Lighting is your best way to create a memorable aesthetic, to show people what is important to you, and how they are expected to behave.

This is the first of two parts on a look at house lighting. The second part of this piece will appear tomorrow, Friday, July 5.

First impressions can be critical to a relationship. We talk about it a lot in ministry: The greeters need to be friendly, the entranceways need to be clean, seats should be comfortable, etc.

House lighting is the lens through which this first impression is formed.

The experience, though, continues throughout the entire visit, including how our guests connect with the music, the preaching, and the people during the coffee hour.

One key moment in this first-time experience is when a guest first sees the sanctuary. This is the most important room in the building, where the church gathers to worship God in unity.

Whether your church is modern or traditional, reserved or ornate, when a guest crosses the threshold and enters your worship hall, they will form immediate and lasting impressions about who you are, and how they should behave.

House lighting is the lens through which this first impression is formed.

Lighting is your best way to create a memorable aesthetic, to show people what is important to you, and how they are expected to behave.

As a result, it’s important to understand how to shape this message. Beyond making sure the aisles are lit well enough to be safe and beyond making sure people can read their bibles, let’s look at ways to communicate who you are to the guests that are joining you for the first time.

The Unspoken Language of Lights

Whether people are consciously aware of it or not, we are all taught from a young age a visual language of lighting. We do not learn this in a classroom, but through the experience of every place we visit, including concerts, restaurants, stores and homes.

For example, when attending a concert or a movie, the house lighting at either venue communicates not just an emotional reaction, but also plays a significant role in behavior. Before a movie or concert begins, we can behave basically however we want: We can talk loudly with friends, move around, or look around the crowd if we want. But as soon as the house lights dim a little bit, we know it is time to be quiet, sit still, and look forward. All this happens without any sort of announcement from an usher or instructions over the PA system, as the entire audience knows what the dimming of house lights means, and the reaction is almost immediate.

Communicating How Guests Should Behave

One concern for any new person visiting a church for that first time, is how should they behave to fit in. People may be unsure what to expect, because they have never been to church, or they may have preconceived notions based on their former experiences in different churches. Using the same techniques with our house lighting as the theater example above can communicate our expectations, which in turn helps new people to be comfortable.

We use a version of this technique at my church, Crossroads Community Church in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. As the service begins, the stage lighting is set in the dark, with only color washes, but the house lights are bright over the congregation. The room is big, but a somewhat plain-looking gray. As a result, the eye is first pulled forward to the color of the stage, but seeing that not much is happening there, the bright house lights let you know you can find your way to your seat and look around.

We’re a friendly congregation, with many of those that are within it, as they enter the space, generally look to greet each other and welcome new guests.

When it is time to start a service, we lower the house lights to enter into worship. In fact, as the musicians enter but before they begin playing, we lower both the house and stage lights to a dim ambience, after which we push up the intensity of the color from the stage lighting. This again serves to pull the eye forward to the platform. This is the darkest moment of the service at Crossroads, in part to communicate silently that a change is coming, and it is time to focus attention on united worship, rather than fellowship.

On the other hand, if your church culture requires immediate reverence when entering the worship space, having people walk into a brightly lit house may work against your goals. A Catholic congregation in my town welcomes people to its chapel services with the house lighting barely above a few candles in intensity. They use a few modest additional lights to spotlight the cross, the Bible, and pulpit. These spots cut right through the relative dark and make these items appear immediately important and larger than life.

Even before looking for an open pew, your eye finds these symbols and they hold your attention in the front. The service starts dim and stays that way through the end, only raising the house lights slightly when it’s time to leave. People enter this hall cautiously and quietly, whether there is anything happening up front or not. Think of this behavior like entering a movie theater, once the film has begun.

In both scenarios, the house lights borrow the language of concerts and theaters to communicate how the people entering should behave and what is important.

Remember that the brightness of the house lights primarily communicates freedom in behavior: freedom to look around, freedom to select what holds your attention, and even the freedom to communicate with those nearby. Darker house lights instead demand that people focus their attention together and behave in a reserved way. Darkness can be freeing, too. Mostly the freedom to not be seen, and freedom to worship openly and emotionally without calling attention to yourself.

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