By Mike Sessler
After more than a decade as a Technical Director and now serving churches across the country, one thing I see so many churches struggle with is intentionality. Why the music is the way it is, why we mix the way we mix, why we shoot the camera shots we shoot, and more are just some of the areas that I feel like often churches sort of just feel their way through without any real thought as to why they're doing it that way. And today I'd like to hit the area that I see churches be the least intentional with, which is lighting. I could be wrong on this but I'm not sure there is another discipline that ends up being less intentional than lighting. And it's not just in churches. I see all kinds of random lighting all over the place. But I think this is an area where some planning and thought can make a huge difference.
Earn the Cue
Perhaps one of the best pieces of lighting advice I've ever received came from my friend Daniel Connell at Church on the Move. Several years ago at Seeds, he was talking about his approach to lighting and he gave us his criteria for adding a lighting cue to a program. He said, "The moment needs to earn the cue. If there isn't a benefit for a new cue, I don't do it." I've repeated that phrase over and over to my lighting guys in the past and use it myself when programming. The way this plays out for me is in simplicity. I don't have a compulsion to do three cues per verse, nor do I run animations all the time. When there is a build in the song, I'll write a new cue. But if the feel of the song is consistent throughout, it will likely only get one or two. And sometimes the best lighting is super-simple?one look will keep the focus where it needs to be.
Learn Some Color Theory
One of the best things you can do as a lighting director (or technical director who programs lights) is learn color theory. Different colors make you feel different things. Do you know which ones conjure up which feelings? I'm not going to go into a bunch of color theory here; you can Google it. But there is a really good reason we use red for our communion songs and yellows, turquoise and purples for many of our worship songs.
Match the Energy
This is a big one for me. It's easy, especially for younger programmers, to crank up a bunch of effects engines just because they can. I've seen songs played at 68 BPM with lights moving wildly all over the place (that's not good, by the way). The lighting should set the mood and energy, which should be complementary to the feel of the moment. I've done slow, contemplative songs with a single lighting look, because that's the song needs. Larger, up-tempo songs will generally have brighter colors, more animation and more cues. You should also take care to match the fade rates to the moment. Going from a dark, contemplative look for an offering song to full house and teaching lights in a 1 second fade is a sure-fire mood breaker. By the same token, using 5-second fades during a fast song feels rather weird.
Lighting styles and trends change pretty all the time. It's important we keep on top of that, while remaining true to our individual church styles. If you need some help with getting a sense of what is appropriate and good, pick some other church services to watch online. I recommend Church on the Move as a great place to start as Daniel is a master. They can do things that many of us can't pull off, but there are plenty of concepts and ideas that are transferable. Find some other churches that are similar to your style and see what they do. Whatever style you develop, just make sure it makes sense for your church and the moment. All my former lighting guys listened to the music while they programed to make sure they were doing things that were in keeping with the feel of the song. Nothing is random, it all makes sense and contributes to the feel of the moment. But even that is not by accident. We were very intentional in teaching them to do it.