5 Steps to Better Church Lighting

by Andy Manning

By Andy Manning

Selecting the proper lighting for a church is one of the most
important decisions for any building or remodeling project. Church lighting should not
only provide adequate illumination, it should also complement a church’s architecture, be
efficient and easy to maintain.

Through the years, lighting companies have found that the
congregations that plan ahead and follow a few simple steps are happiest with the end
result. The following steps explore the basics of church lighting. For more detailed
information, it is always best to consult with an architect, engineer, lighting designer
or manufacturer’s representative.

Step 1: Decide on a location

Proper location of each fixture and electrical box is important not only to ensure a
uniform level of illumination but also to fit into the architectural design and pew layout
of the church.

No matter how pews are arranged, fixtures should be centered over pew areas (not the
aisles) to ensure enough light for comfortable reading. Spacing between fixtures should be
based not only on the light coverage desired but also on the spacing of the windows,
ceiling beams and other architectural elements.

Additionally, it is important to provide enough lighting for members to find seats and
locate exits. Churches also should examine other lighting issues including theatrical,
custom, exterior, office, parking lot and hall as well as the electrical considerations
entailed in those systems.

Step 2: Determine mounting height

The mounting height of each fixture should be based on the lighting level desired, the
appearance of the fixtures in relation to architectural elements, and uniform distribution
of light at the reading plane.

Pendant lighting using reflector flood downlights should be suspended so the distance
from floor to bottom of fixture is about 1.2 times the distance between fixtures
longitudinally. Generally, the higher a fixture is mounted, the more even the light
distribution will be below. However, the higher a fixture is mounted, the more the wattage
of the downlight must be increased to compensate for the higher mounting height.

Step 3: Choose lamp-type wattage

The light level at the reading plane of a church largely depends on the architecture,
denomination and tastes of the congregation. Today, a level of anywhere from 15 to 40
foot-candles is recommended at the reading level for comfortable observation.

Most churches prefer a level of above 30 foot-candles. Though calculation of exact
requirements is complex, an allowance of one to five watts per square foot can be figured
as average to obtain adequate results.

Another important area is electrical capabilities. In some instances, the facility will
need additional electrical panels; however, they should remain as inconspicuous as
possible, especially when redesigning the lighting systems in older buildings. Wiring in
existing churches should be checked for capacity with an architect or engineer. Churches
also may elect to consult with a lightning director to evaluate their overall lighting
needs and to provide solutions rather than simply relying on the church’s architect in the

Many pendant fixtures are available with downlights, interior lamps and uplights
depending on the model and size selected. In most cases, the greatest percentage of total
wattage should be reserved for the downlight with small incandescent lamps used in the
interior of the fixture.

Fluorescent and metal halide lamps offer greater energy efficiency and longer lamp life
than incandescent lamps. However, the initial cost of the fixture is higher, especially if
a church leader wants to allow dimming of the fixtures. Some congregations prefer the warm
color of standard incandescent lamps vs. the cool color of more energy efficient lamps.
However, lamp technology has greatly improved in the last 10 years and fluorescent and
metal halide lamps deserve a close look.

Step 4: Select the fixture

There are two basic ways to light a church: direct fixtures use downlights that light
the pew areas from above, and indirect lighting fixtures bounce light off the ceiling to
light the area.

Direct fixtures are better suited for churches with dark interiors and high ceilings.
Gothic period churches maintain the beauty of their deep-shadowed, vaulted ceilings by
using this type of lighting system.

Indirect fixtures work best for white or light wood interiors and lower ceilings. These
lights are often featured in Greek or auditorium-type churches.

Some fixtures combine both indirect and direct lighting for the advantages of both.
Contemporary churches sometime use a combination depending on the various moods they seek
to convey.

The proportion and size of the selected design will depend on the proportions of the
interior, spacing between outlets and the height at which fixtures will be suspended.

In an interior where the height is greater than the width, fixtures of similar
proportions are more compatible. A good rule of thumb is to choose a unit about 1-inch
diameter to each foot of spacing between units longitudinally. In interiors where the
width is greater than the height, 2-inch in fixture diameter should be figured for each
foot of spacing. Care should be taken that the size selected has sufficient wattage
capacity to produce desired lighting results.

Step 5: Determine how you’ll light other locations

In general, churches fall into two classes, Liturgical or Ritualistic and Conventicle
or Evangelical.

In the Liturgical or Ritualistic class, the altar is the focal point and the religious
ceremony takes precedence over the speaker. Since the altar or chancel is the focal point
of most churches, it is recommended that the light levels be two to three times greater
than above the pews.

Lighting for this area should also be concealed from the congregation to avoid any
distractions and provide an unobstructed view. Adjustable flood and spotlight units
mounted behind an arch or beam can be used to light the general area and spotlight the
altar, pulpit or other areas. An adequate light level should also be provided so church
members can follow the service in their missals.

In the Conventicle or Evangelical class, it is also important to provide necessary
lighting for the congregation to read. However, the speaker is the focal point and
provisions should be made to reduce lighting levels in the auditorium during sermons in
order to accentuate the speaker with high-intensity spot lighting.

Lighting the pulpit or lectern is best accomplished with two units to minimize shadows.
Light on the speaker should be directed from an angle between 30 and 45 degrees forward
from the speaker and spaced so that the angle is 45 degrees or more above where the
speaker stands.

Areas above and below balconies should be lit with smaller fixtures that match the
units in the main area. Fixtures are available in several sizes and styles, including
ceiling-mounted fixtures for under balconies.

Foyer and hallway lighting should be selected by room proportions using 1.5-inch
fixture diameter to one foot of room width as a guide to proportions.

Entrances can be lit with wall brackets and pendant fixtures designed for outdoor use.
Allow approximately 1-inch diameter to one foot of entranceway width as a general rule for

Andy Manning is the president of Manning Lighting, Sheboygan, WI, established in