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How to Light a Church

Many churches don't have the luxury of having a lighting designer on staff or even a technical director for that matter. More often than not, a parishioner is asked to take care of the audio, the video and, if budget allows, the lighting.

Lighting can be a complicated subject. If you don't know where to begin, the best thing to do is to contact a Lighting Systems Integration team, which can help you find a solution that works within your budget and is best suited for your needs. But even before you make that call, a little knowledge of some lighting basics can go a long way.

Typically, the area of greatest concern is lighting the chancel. Many of the concepts are similar to lighting the stage in a theatre.


The most basic fixture for lighting the chancel is the PAR can (PAR is an acronym for "parabolic aluminized reflector"). A PAR can is typically just that: a metal can with an incandescent lamp inside (a "lamp" is the professional term for what consumers would call a "light bulb").

When mounted on the wall or ceiling, you can simply plug one of these fixtures in, point it at the stage and focus the light on a particular area (also known as a "zone"). Each zone you want to light will require a separate PAR can.

The best PAR can for beginners is a PAR 64 with a 500W lamp, which is ideal for an average-sized church of up to 1,000 seats. If your venue is larger, you can use the same PAR can with a 1000W lamp.

The ETC Source Four PAR is the best PAR on the market today. Utilizing 575W–750W lamps, it gives you a light output equivalent to around 1000W, with more efficient power usage.

Technology has produced an excellent alternative to this staple of the American stage with the introduction of LED-based, color-changing PARs. The Elation ePAR Quad, for example, is a cost-effective, high-tech, color-changing solution that produces light from multiple LEDs rather than from a single lamp.

In addition to lower heat output, LED fixtures use less power, which can help save on electricity costs over time. LED fixtures are also programmable in a way that conventional lamp-based fixtures aren't.

Although considered one of the best LED PARs on the market by some, the Elation ePAR Quad is not intended for a production environment. In other words, it's a fixture that is meant to be hung and left alone. If you need a PAR that you can hang and take down from time to time, you may want to look into more robust (and expensive) LED alternatives such as ETC D40's.

If you want to change the color of the light on conventional incandescent fixtures, you typically have to climb a ladder and apply a sheet of colored gel to the fixture. Most LED fixtures, however, have a built-in color-changing feature, which allows you to change the color of your light without ever using a ladder.

LED fixtures can also save on the cost of expendables such as color gel, not to mention the electricity you save using LED over incandescent lamps.


Dimming allows you to control the intensity of your light source, from fully bright to completely off, and anywhere in between. With conventional, incandescent (non-LED) lighting fixtures, you will need to plug your fixtures into dimmer packs, which are, in turn, controlled by a console.

We recommend using DMX-controlled dimmers. DMX (short for DMX512) is a standard for digital communication, which allows data to go back and forth between the console and whatever it's connected to via DMX. ETC offers a myriad of dimmer choices, from portable to permanent to centralized—at all levels of budget. Leprecon and Elation offer smaller, cost-effective portable dimmer packs that can be mounted on a pipe with your fixtures.

If you're working with DMX-controlled LED lighting fixtures, you don't need separate dimmer packs, which can reduce the cost of your lighting system (although LED fixtures are typically more expensive than their incandescent counterparts).

Also, most LED fixtures can be connected together via a DMX cable (this is called "daisy chaining"), which goes directly to your lighting control console. This allows you to run power to all the fixtures and control them on a single line, instead of having a separate line for each fixture.


The last major piece of equipment that you will need in your basic lighting system is the lighting console. The console controls all of the intensities, fades and transitions of individual fixtures as well as groups of lights. A basic, two-scene-preset DMX lighting console is the brain of the system.

Most consoles today are capable of manually controlling the lighting and are fully programmable. Basic consoles range in capacity from 12 to 250 channels. If you're using your console to control your dimmers, the simplest setup is a one-to-one ratio: one dimmer per channel (for example, if you have 12 dimmers, you'll need a 12-channel console, and so on).

On the other hand, LED fixtures with a color-changing feature will require a three-to-one ratio: at least three channels (one each for red, blue and green) per fixture. ETC's Smartfade is the best small DMX lighting control console on the market today. There are many sizes of Smartfade consoles available, ranging from 24 to 250 channels. Larger churches may consider the ETC Ion or MA Lighting's GrandMA2.

While we've provided a quick overview of some basic concepts in church lighting, we recommend that you contact a professional so they can help you design the best, most effective and efficient lighting system for your particular church.

They know which questions to ask and can answer all of your questions in a helpful, easy-to-understand manner. As basic as some lighting systems are, it can still sometimes feel like rocket science. Using an expert is probably the most basic and efficient step you can take.

This article is courtesy of ELS, www.elslights.com.

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