When Churches “Gray Out”

Some people have an unusually sharp sense of when something in an atmosphere is wrong. I mean seriously wrong. I’m not talking about some psychic ability, I am talking about an emotional radar that picks up on currents and undercurrents more quickly than many others do. When I was a child, my mom used to say that there was no fooling me when it came to these things. It was an ability to sense things going on that were not immediately obvious to others.

Years later, I’ve done a lot of reading about Empaths, those with an emotional radar on high alert. Empaths tend to absorb the emotional atmosphere of a group of people, a place very quickly. It can be helpful in life, but it can also be exhausting when things are troubled.

There is much more to this personality type, but this is one aspect of it.  I think it applies also to sensitivity to the spiritual atmosphere in places, as well.  It’s called discernment.  I will give one example.  Thirty-odd years ago, as a teen, I was attending a church with my family. It was a small church that was a split of a split. The church was reportedly going through some turmoil, but it went over my head as far as what the problem was exactly.

I hated the place. I hated being there, and I couldn’t say why. One of the unhappy church people was in charge of “children’s church” that ran during service time for the kids. I was roped into playing the old upright piano for the handful of kids she was leading. Eager to please, I was shocked to see the music she set before me just as the singing was to begin. Not being a very solid sight reader, I stumbled and hit several wrong notes. I was unprepared for the music she was using and had not had a chance to practice.

The sour look on the leader’s sharp face pretty much let me know that I had been an epic disappointment. It makes me laugh now, but at the time, I felt terrible. Lacking a great deal in confidence, I was apparently  a total failure as Children’s Church pianist.

I slunk off home that day, vowing to never ever again make such  a fool of myself and upset a church lady, especially that church lady who clearly disliked me. A few days later, one of my parents informed me that she had been most displeased with my performance and they had been informed that I was not needed in the future. My parents were disgusted with the church lady as well. I was relieved that my brief career as Children’s Church pianist was over.

Things worsened at the church, and every time I sat through the service, I had the uncanny sense that I had left a world of color.  This sounds strange, and it was strange. Over the years since then, I have called it “graying out.”  In these situations, it’s as though my eyes see things in gray and white, not in living color anymore.

I started resisting going, and various complaints kept me home altogether. My parents didn’t seem to mind. I developed a strange revulsion for the place. Then came word of something bizarre going on at the church. The pastor confided that strange things were occurring in the building. The piano in the sanctuary late one night began to play by itself., he said. In the dark. He believed it was some occult phenomenon due to the ugliness going on among the handful of church people, one of which was an angry pianist.  He claimed that strange chanting had been heard under his office windows. The pastor had been a missionary in South America prior to pastoring in the US. He was a devout Christian trying to hold the church together. He said things were dark spiritually at this church.  He resigned soon after, and he and and his family left the state. The church folded soon after that. Mercifully.

This “graying out” in the atmosphere I have experienced many times since.  I believe that God uses this sense as a warning about unhealthy places. It’s not something I disregard anymore.

As Christians, we are taught to believe the best in a situation, have patience, and to not hastily judge a person or circumstance. All of this is true, but when there is clearly the sense that something is wrong, it is worth stepping back and carefully evaluating a relationship or situation to decide what it is that we are sensing. The times I have ignored this have been serious mistakes.

When a room  or when a church “grays out” and the color and vibrancy is gone, something vital is missing. Life in the truest sense is being suppressed and repressed by something. Maybe it’s pride, maybe it’s un-forgiveness and grudge holding. maybe it’s a powerful spirit of control that robs the atmosphere of color and oxygen.  Where the Lord truly is, there is a spirit of liberty, not control. Where love is, pride can’t rule and reign. Where forgiveness is, there is vibrant life and every color imaginable. There’s joy. No “graying out.”

A lot of churches in America are “graying out.” The forms remain, but the God that is being claimed has long ago left the premises. Those exceptional churches where humility and Christ-likeness reign are few and far between. Never take that for granted if you have one.  The love of Christ is life-giving. People grow in healthy ways. There is a freedom and respect for boundaries, and an atmosphere of hope. What a difference the Lord’s presence makes. All gray is gone, and the spirit of heaviness disappears like dew in the morning sun.

6 thoughts on “When Churches “Gray Out”

  1. healinginhim says:

    Ingrid, I’ve always appreciated your insight and writing ability. God has gifted you and this post is another example of you stating the truth in such a profound way that I found myself nodding in agreement with each sentence.
    This “graying out” so well explains what I experience when attempting to re-enter the organized church scene. It’s not that I don’t want to be in a church body but I have become so sensitive to “something not being right” that I just can’t remain in that situation – (former years of spiritual abuse are not easily healed)
    As you stated, Ingrid, “…the color and vibrancy is gone, something vital is missing. Life in the truest sense is being suppressed and repressed by something.”
    Thank you, Ingrid for confirming that I’m not crazy; that others have experienced this, too.

  2. Denise says:

    We can try so hard to be faithful to a ministry even if it’s to our own detriment. Your piano story touches my heart. Ignoring that sense of something wrong is disastrous. I was in my mid-20s, and our church organist was an older lady who agreed to play temporarily until an organist was found. This was an unpaid ministry, as the church was very small. The church could not afford a trained organist, so the pastor asked for volunteers who were interested in learning the keyboard. Two of us raised our hands, and the church paid for our music lessons. The other lady eventually dropped out because of her full-time job. I bought a piano and learned to play some simple hymns and the doxology. The organist changed her mind and decided to stay on full-time. The pastor and congregation were very supportive of my efforts, but the organist knew I was in over my head. She had no intention of sharing the job, and she stopped speaking to me altogether. I practiced so hard, but I wanted to quit. The pastor told me I was doing fine, and that I should continue. Church became STRESS. During this cold war, I played once or twice a month for almost a year, and it was misery. Often I would be sick in the restroom before the service. I was afraid to disappoint the people who paid for my lessons. She knew I would fail and eventually I did. I thought I failed God. I felt like a fool. Things definitely ‘grayed out’ then. When I later moved away, I found out that this organist left the church when they split over doctrinal issues. The whole thing was a fiasco, but I learned a lesson, and I’m still learning. Sorry this is so long, but I bristle when I hear a pastor say, “You don’t get anything out of church? What have you given?” I’ve given as much as I could, to the best of my ability, in many different ways. However, pleasing people does not buy my salvation. And I still have a piano, praise God. Another great article, Ingrid. God bless you.

  3. carol robertson says:

    Wow, powerful post. What a clear picture of what can happen when the Holy Spirit is grieved and leaves a church. He will not stay where He is not invited and valued, just like His people such as you. Jesus is the head of the church and when He is not allowed to be then the evil one takes over. What a warning message! It can happen anywhere and it’s why the Bible teaches us to live carefully and pray for wisdom. It is so needed!

  4. Carolyn says:


    You have said many true things that frankly need to be said, both in this post, and in previous posts (such as the ones on abusive churches; false v true shepherds; abuser-enabling pastors; etc). Those with discernment have been noticing these things for a long time now.

  5. Song of Joy says:

    A sense of place can really be affected by the wickedness done there… an overwhelming feeling of forsaken emptiness and doom. It’s an oppressive and frightening feeling. When I get that feeling it always reminds me of the name ““Ichabod” (“The Glory has departed from Israel”, 1 Samuel 4:21).

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