March 18, 2011 by: Heimsath Architects Staff

When we work with our clients to design or modify a worship space, one of the most interesting issues that must be considered is the relationship between natural light and the audio/visual systems.  Whether it is a historic sanctuary, a high-end praise and worship space, or a multi-use space (Sanctatorium is one of my favorite multi-use space words), more and more, we are seeing a desire to have a least some video projection in the worship environment. 

Foundation UMC, Temole Texas, Video Screen, Praise and Worship

Foundation UMC, Temple TX -- Video Screens at Platform

For some groups, this just means projecting bulletins or song lyrics for the congregation to read.  Others are looking for words or graphics to be projected throughout the service to enhance the congregation’s experience. Filming the proceedings for projecting close-up images on the screens and/or to produce for later distribution is a further step we have seen growing interest in. 


One of the more interesting things I have seen lately is the concept of environmental projection.  In this case, images are projected throughout the space on the walls, floor, and/or ceilings to really bring the congregation into the presentation.  Since projectors have gotten much less expensive and since these images don’t necessarily have to be as crisp and sharp as the main images, projecting on other surfaces is a very exciting concept—especially since you can control exactly where the image appears on a surface (for example, you can mask out the bottom of a picture so that it is not shining on people).  Below is a quick example I found on YouTube showing one simple concept.  If you look around the Internet you can find some pretty interesting photos (to which I don’t have rights) and videos to pique your imagination.


This is a very simple (I am sure not simple to get the technical issues done) instance of environmental Projection I found on the web.  Other instance were too long to add but involve a lot more of the space used for projection.

No matter what you are trying to do with a projector, light, whether natural or man made, is an issue.  The brighter a space is, the brighter the projector needs to be.  If you are just projecting words (with a high contrast), it is not as big of a deal as it is with images.  Any light source that is actually illuminating the area where you are projecting will make the image appear less bright.  This is why theaters and auditoriums are dark—they only want light from what you are looking at to be present so they have the maximum amount of control.  Many apply this to worship spaces, as we often see worship spaces with no outside light at all.


However, natural light has a place in worship as well.  Stained glass windows would not be nearly as interesting without natural light (although now it is possible to project images of stained glass windows).  We feel that connection to outdoors through windows or skylights provides a connection to the outside and God’s creation.  Natural light makes spaces brighter and livelier than is possible with the light sources we currently have.  Bright spaces also allow people to see each other clearly and feel more a part of the service than watching the service.

St. Albert of Trapani Catholic Church, Houston, TX --  Simple Video Projection

St. Albert of Trapani Catholic Church, Houston, TX -- Simple Video Projection in a Bright Day-lit Worship Space.

So how do we deal with this conundrum?  First, it is very important for the church leadership and the music/video ministry to have had enough discussion so that they know what they are trying to do and how that might change in the future.  We recently visited a facility that had been designed for a capella worship but was now used for amplified music  (amplified and a capella music have similar incompatibilities to video and natural light—perhaps a later blog post), so it is important to try to understand what may come in the future.  Second, make sure you involve your architect in these conversations, as some very subtle changes can either make it really difficult for AV or allow the AV to integrate seamlessly into the space.


Finally, we look at where and how much light will be used.  Man-made light is pretty easy to control, and the issue is making sure that any lights that could shine on the projection area are controlled.  Natural light is harder.  One solution is to have natural light and then use stronger projectors to overcome the ambient lighting conditions.  Another option is to use light controls such as operable screens, which can filter or even black out the natural light.  These can get expensive and do require some maintenance over time. Windows are much easier to control than skylights; even so, if you want true black-out on the windows, the shades will have to have channels on the sides so light can’t leak around the edges.

First United Methodist Church, Temple TX -- Praise and Worship Center

First United Methodist, Temple TX -- Praise and Worship Center Incorporates Video Projection and Cameras in Darker Space with Windows only in Rear.

Another possible solution is to have a light-filled entry foyer and a darker worship space.  We did this at First United Methodist in Temple, Texas.  Here, we do have some glass between the foyer and the worship space, but it does not affect the front screens.  One issue we run into is that we like to have glass in worship space doors so you can see through them as you open them and thus avoid hurting someone with the door. You can put shades on doors, but they do tend to get beaten up.  I have recently seen some doors with shades inside the glass, which certainly would be an option.

First United Methodist Church, Day Lit Foyer

First United Methodist, Temple TX -- Day-lit Foyer Provides Bright Gathering Area before Entering the Darker Worship Space.

Screen placement and window placement are critical, especially if you plan on using cameras.  I know of a local church that had gorgeous windows behind their platform that, while beautiful, made filming events on the platform next to impossible because everything was backlit.  Also, keep in mind that you want your screens and the action of the service relatively close to each other.  It is really can be awkward when the angle of view for the screen is significantly different from that of the platform.   This in turn brings up another complication; the ideal place for a screen based on viewing angle is back center of the platform, just high enough so the people on stage don’t block or shadow it.  However, many of our clients like to have a large cross as the centerpiece, which means we either project onto the cross (I have never been in favor of a screen that comes down in front of the cross) or have two screens.

Finding the combination of natural light and video projection that is right for your worship spaces is extremely important.  Working with an architect who knows the issues really helps.  You also need to make sure you consider where the worship service is going to be in the future.  With good discussions and forethought in the early stages of the planning, a great solution can usually be found to satisfy all parties.  If you wait till the end when you are buying AV equipment to furnish the recently completely building, you are going to have problems.

Church Design & Construction/ Technology/ Fellowship Hall