Church Lighting is Different — A Talk with Greg Persinger

Posted on August 4, 2014

All the world may indeed be a stage as Shakespeare wrote, but despite what some may think, the rules of theatrical stage lighting do not always apply to churches.  At least that’s the view of LD Greg Persinger of Vivid Illuminations in Nashville; TN. Persinger knows whereof he speaks. The author of numerous church lighting articles, he has designed rigs for 75 houses of worship.  In this far ranging interview the church LD, who will be conducting a seminar for CHAUVET Professional at WFX 2014 in Dallas, shares his views on the unique world of house of worship lighting.

You are so strongly associated with church lighting; can you tell us how you got started in this field?

“After a moving to Nashville, Tennessee, I began working as a lighting guy in the local production scene. First there were a few small tours with various Christian artists, then a bunch of lighting for television work, followed by a few arena and stadium tours.  By 2000 I was the lighting designer for the Fernando Ortega ‘Home’ tour, and my experience at one of the churches we played at really pushed me over the edge and into consulting.

“While we were carrying a small tour lighting that had only had a few moving lights into this church, I noticed there were around 40 moving fixtures hanging in the ceiling. I thought that I had hit the jackpot and was going to see if I could use some of their fixtures to augment my show. When I asked the church’s technical director if I could use some of his lighting fixtures, he just hung his head and said that he wished he could let me, but that wasn’t possible.”

Why was that?
“Although the church was only a little over a year old, only one of the 40 moving fixtures worked. You see, the lighting company that did the design and installation never told the church that they were going to need to service the moving lights on a regular basis.

“Since the lights were hanging 50 feet above the floor, over pews, this was a problem. There was no catwalk for access, instead each light was hanging on a short lighting pipe. This meant that the only way to access the lights was to build a 45’ tall scaffolding tower. So, after spending about $500,000 on the lighting installation, they discovered that they were going to have to spend $30,000 a year in lighting system maintenance.

“While on that tour we played a myriad of churches, and there were two things I heard over and over again from churches.  The first was, ‘I wish we could have lighting like you are doing on the tour in our church. ’ The second was,  ‘We spent all this money on our lighting system and it still doesn’t work.’ Because of these two repeated statements, Vivid Illumination was born.”

Church lighting has often been compared to theatrical lighting — is that an apt comparison in your view?

“I don’t believe that this is a good comparison. Many times church lighting encompasses theatrical, concert, television, and architectural lighting techniques all at the same time.  No one technique works for every application in a church, instead they all kind of collide, intermingle, and overlap simultaneously.

“One of my pet peeves is having someone teach at a church conference or post on an internet forum the ‘virtues’ of hanging the lights at a 45˚ angle on both the vertical and the horizontal, and gelling one fixture light pink and the other light blue and saying this is the best way to light a stage.

“What they have is the beginning of a McCandless method lighting design. When you try to explain that you can also light from straight on, the top, the floor, the back, etc. etc. as Stanley McCandless wrote in his method, they look at you like you’re crazy. Uneducated people have taken McCandless’ method and turned one piece of it into a ‘rule’ instead of a guideline. Of course it lets you figure out their skill level very quickly.”

“Many churches shoot video for IMAG, streaming, or broadcast and so whatever you do has to look good on camera. At the same time a contemporary church wants the worship time to look moody and theatrical and have a bit of a concert feel to it as well. “

Lighting Insights Church 5

We understand that church lighting is a unique field onto itself, but does it reflect the same trends that you see in other lighting genres?

“Yes generally, but a few years behind. Most churches are not early adopters — many times because of the costs involved.” 

Today’s churches seem to fill a more diverse mission. In addition to services, their sanctuaries might be used for a variety of other functions like youth groups, seminars, conferences and the like; how is this impacting lighting?

“I guess it has some impact in the sense that churches are looking for lighting rigs that are very versatile”.

Has the growing use of video walls impacted the role of wash lights in churches?

“Yes, more churches are using LED video displays, and as the prices come down I believe more churches will make the purchase. Video is having an impact on lighting as more church LDs are driving media servers from their consoles.  From a lighting standpoint, it makes focuses easier as LED is much less sensitive to ambient light than projected video. It also gives you one more visual element to add to your arsenal.”

Lighting Insights Church 6

It also seems that some churches are incorporating moving heads in their rigs to create more dynamic presentations aimed at younger people. Do you find this to be true? How will a church use these kinds of lights differently than a club?

“Yes, the prices have come down to a point that moving lights are more accessible than ever and the trend of LED fixtures makes it even more enticing as the maintenance is much lower on an LED fixture.

“Many churches don’t use them much differently than a club. They tend to abuse the audience with them, putting the lights in my eyes. I don’t tend to like that at church, but hey that’s me. Some churches are using moving heads as focusable specials, and to color the platform. Many do not run haze, so the fixtures either wash the stage, spot a person, or do pattern projection.

“One of the things to be careful about now that technology is becoming accessible is you don’t have to be good with it to use it, as was true back in the days when you  had to know what you were doing to go out and program a rig. Today, many up and coming LDs, in both the church as well as the concert industry, substitute movement for design. My four-year-old can make the lights move, but I wouldn’t classify it as good design.”

“Many church LDs move the lights for the sake of movement, and I think that if they don’t know what to do they sweep the audience. For any church LDs reading this, we have a term for that in the Biz. It’s called ‘Audience Abuse.’ Don’t do it. It’s distracting to those worshipping.”

As the rigs in churches have gotten more elaborate, are you seeing a change in the knowledge level of the volunteers who run lighting at churches? Do they depend on you for advice and training?

“Yes, church volunteers are gaining more knowledge, but since they are volunteers and lighting is not what they do for their day job, the level of knowledge is limited to what they need to survive on a typical Sunday.

“Most training is passed from the most knowledgeable person in the church to everyone else, or learned off the internet or a combination of both.  Professional training is rare because of the expense involved in bringing a professional in to train. However, what I have heard from my clients after they brought me in for training, is that they should have bit the bullet and spent the money sooner. It was worth every bit they paid. Generally the churches that hire someone to do training do large Christmas or Easter productions. There also have been some training conferences that have been developed specifically for the church technician like WFX that can be helpful.”

Can you describe the process of how a church lighting rig comes together?  Who does an LD work with? The pastor? Volunteer committees?

“The answer to this is YES! All joking aside, every organization is different.  Currently I am working with the 70-year-old volunteer that has maintained the lights for the last 20 years to design a new system on one job. On another, I am working with the worship leader.

“On some projects I get called by the technical guy and then meet with the pastoral leadership to figure out what they want and then make a presentation to the board for project approval and then work with the tech guy for the install, so we can get the pat on the back by the pastor. How churches work is all over the place, but that is part of what makes dealing with them interesting.”

When starting out on a lighting project, do churches depend a lot on you for advice or do they have a definite idea of what they want? How much give and take is there?

“Most churches have an idea of what they want, it just might not really be what they need or can afford.  They often aren’t aware of what good equipment costs either.

“My philosophy is to be an advocate for the church. Every project I design is personal to me. I look at it from the perspective of this being my money I am about to spend, and I design in such a way as to make the most of it. I work hard to balance quality with price.

“I always try to design with good quality equipment. After designing a rig with quality gear, I have never had anyone lament that they should have bought something cheaper. Generally I hear clients say they wish they would have bought something a little bit better. Alf Sauve, Media Specialist at Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church in Marietta, Georgia, had a great quote. He says, ‘The bitter taste of low quality remains long after the sweetness of low cost has dissolved.’

“Sometimes budgets are very small — $5000 to $10,000. While for what we do that isn’t much when compared to building a theater or a mega church, it’s a lot of money to that church. How you get to the end result comes from a lot of listening, education, and understanding. If you aren’t patient and respectful, a church isn’t going to want to deal with you.

“There can be a lot of give and take if you have a good relationship with the client, but they need to feel as though you are looking out for their best interest. It’s important to make sure you understand what your client is asking for and then make sure they are educated about the pros and cons of the different technologies that could be used to accomplish the design. I’m probably as picky about taking on a client as they are in hiring me. That is why I have worked with some of my clients for 13 years.”