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Lights, camera, worship

Having grown up in church my whole life, I never questioned the usage of live production stage lights in relation to worship. I grew up aware of the story behind the song “Heart of Worship” about Matt Redman’s church, Soul Survivor — a song about stripping away all except the simple words of repentance to God, yet this song was performed identically to the others.

Their story tells of a worship team and congregation of which “there was a dynamic missing.” Members of the congregation told the pastor how they felt — they just became music consumers and were not really worshiping God anymore. Matt Redman had described that the church removed their sound system and the worship band. The congregation learned how to sing unaccompanied without a band and was able to find a way to worship God again. Slowly, they returned the normal elements of modern worship into their service after they had found the “heart of worship.” Even now, their website homepage features a picture of their sanctuary stage with stage lights rigged to a truss. Evidently, whatever issue they had back in the 1990s must have been resolved since.

It seems to me most churches have not followed a similar challenge of spiritual discipline. Most modern churches in America seem to jump from one performance trend to the next without questioning the need to even do so. I often wonder how much of the individualistic, consumeristic American culture has influenced the modern church worship service.

1. Corporate worship 101

First, let’s deconstruct the term ‘corporate worship.’ Personal worship simply involves the adoration and devotion to God in a solitary setting, also including the Romans 12 call to offer one’s own body as a sacrifice. Corporate is much harder to biblically define.

Thus, I will begin in the Old Testament. The Kingdom of Israel saw the establishment of the temple where the Israelites congregated to give offerings and repent, providing precedence to the idea of corporate gathering. However, as Jesus came to fulfill the Law and offer His life, His body became the temple, a place where someone repents and worships God (John 2:21–22). Through Jesus, acknowledging God’s name as sacrificial praise is possible for the individual in a relationship with God. Jesus then explains that when two or more people meet in His name, He is present (Matt. 18:20). But what does the Bible tell us to do at this type of gathering?

Certain aspects of what appear to be actions done in a corporate manner are found in the New Testament, including sharing Psalms and songs of the Spirit, reading the Word of God, praying, encouraging and edifying one another, conducting baptisms and partaking in communion. However, nowhere within these passages is there an explicit command to do these en masse, altogether. Thus, the image evoked is that the church was originally contrived so that members met either individually one-on-one or in small groups.

2. Now versus then

I wonder why the American church has inflated itself by adapting aspects of modern live production culture into its functions. Although some religious denominations would probably disagree, I’ll add that just because the Bible does not say the church needs a stage with lights, instruments and a sound system, the Bible does not specify that the church cannot have those things.

Also, in historical context, many early Christians still attended the synagogue, and they lacked the resources necessary to build or buy a place suitable to house a large congregation. On top of that, much of the early church faced heavy persecution under the reign of Nero, so even if some communities had the resources for a building, they would have been unable to use it for assembly anyway. Therefore, it could be valid to assume that the early church would have congregated en masse if provided the ability to continually and sustainably do so.

3. Differing denominations

Understanding ‘corporate worship’ can then lead to a differing perspective on the need for stage lights. Obviously, it would be absurd to have a church service en masse with no lights at all, because people would be unable to see where to go and where to sit if the building had no windows. Many denominations do argue against having house lights on during a worship service, believing that seeing other people in the congregation can distract from praising God. In that case, stage lights help focus the attention of a congregant to the stage, to help foster attentiveness toward God.

I disagree. Firstly, because if I am to focus my attention on the stage I would be too consumed with identifying stage presence tactics and musical stylizations of the worship band that I would be unable to praise God. Secondly, since an aspect of corporate worship is encouraging and edifying one another, turning off house lights decreases the ability to recognize when someone in the congregation would possibly need encouragement. If we’re together to be there for each other, why turn the lights off so we can’t see each other?

The purpose of stage light designs and patterns should accentuate the words sung in a worship service, but I do believe these effects can easily take over the attention of a congregant. Pragmatically speaking, I would prefer lighting styles remain a subtle aspect of the worship experience.

I do find value in color theory and that a lighting director should have a proper understanding of how Americans culturally perceive colors and what emotional responses are evoked from each color, so as to not misuse a color. However, the intention should never be to instigate an emotional response from the church, but rather to help further what feeling God has already caused within each individual. The focus should always be on the songs, the Word, prayer and edification, so lights should always take a supporting role and never the main contributor to a corporate worship environment.

In essence, I am not condemning stage lights. I am, however, questioning their place in a worship setting. Lighting is not essential in a worship service; it can be used to help accompany the main components of corporate worship.

Evidently, many areas within the current world tend to go without understanding its nature. I believe it is beneficial to dig into what composes the construct.