Magazines 2021 Jan - Feb Spiritual growth in a pandemic

Spiritual growth in a pandemic

05 January 2021 By Alastair Sterne

Alastair Sterne reflects on why trying to make the most of it might not be the best solution

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I still don’t understand the toilet paper hoarding. But after the ply settled, another craze took hold of people – one that makes more sense to me. In a new pandemic setting, people adopted eating plans and exercise goals, painted rooms Buxton Blue, cracked open dusty cookbooks and channelled Jamie Oliver or went crazy over Dalgona coffee, and finally tried to learn Spanish or Mandarin (but sadly not before gaining mastery over the Oxford comma).

This flurry of new activities reminded me of a vacation flurry from years ago. My wife and I were staying with some friends at their lake home in the flatlands southeast of the Rockies. On the first morning in this serene setting, I woke up to a loud thump. Then a thu-thu-thump, and a thu-thu-thuthu-thump, thump, thump, thump. Alarmed, I went upstairs.

Sweat was dripping down the faces of our friends. Their shirts were soaked through. An aggressive fitness coach on their television shouted at them. I poured myself a coffee and watched in bewilderment. After they finished they enthusiastically told me more about their fitness regime appropriately called Insanity.

The goals of self-improvement that emerged in the early days of the pandemic are a dichotomy like hardcore exercise and a restful vacation. It may work for some. But I suspect the majority of people join me in bewilderment. Now, what lies behind the health goals, home improvement and language learning is a mantra spurring it all on – "Make the most of it."

The mantra of self-improvement at church?

Leave it to North Americans to turn a pandemic into an opportunity for personal mastery. The message to make the most of it appeared again and again in social media and elsewhere. But as I saw how it loomed over my own church – creating a sense of guilt or shame for falling short of pandemic-elicited selfimprovement – I encouraged members to reject it. I recorded a short video message to them that basically said, "You don’t have to maximize a pandemic."

Because for many people the pandemic made life more complex rather than simple. Time got sucked up with new responsibilities like working from home and Zoom fatigue, navigating unemployment or figuring out the ever-changing format of school (whether for yourself or your kids). At the time I reminded my church it’s okay to aim for survival. If that means deep cleaning your apartment, or reorganizing your pantry or even learning a language – so be it. But it’s also understandable if someone is just trying to figure out how to put one foot in front of the other or if all you can do is crash onto your couch exhausted.

The problem with the cultural mantra – make the most of it – is that it is rooted in a different story, one of self-improvement… heavily steeped in the individualism and exceptionalism common to most developed nations.

But can we settle for mere survival? To be fair in Ephesians 5:16 Paul exhorts the church to "make the best use of the time" (ESV) or "make the most of every opportunity" (NIV). The same instruction appears in Colossians 4:5 too. Indeed, Paul tells Titus to make sure the church in Crete lives productive lives (Titus 3:14). It sure sounds like Paul is calling us to make the most of it But we must keep the context in mind. In Ephesians Paul is concerned about our growth in holiness, whereas in Colossians he is concerned about our public witness, and in Titus he is concerned about good works – particularly serving others in their need.

When we can meet the needs of others, Titus instructs us to go for it. When an opportunity presents itself for evangelism, Colossians invites us to make the most of it. And Ephesians calls us to use our time wisely as we grow in Christlikeness.

But none of Paul’s instructions in these letters are concerned with self-improvement as we understand it today.

The problem with the cultural mantra – make the most of it – is that it is rooted in a different story, one of self-improvement. Self-improvement isn’t inherently wrong. But it is heavily steeped in the individualism and exceptionalism common to most developed nations. The focus is often myopic. It fails to look beyond the mirror – and it quietly or overtly hopes people might gather around and gaze upon your reflection too.

In contrast Paul envisions spiritual formation – living within the transformative work of God for the sake of others, even during a pandemic.

We may not want to make the most of it by pursuing self-improvement, but this doesn’t mean the priority of spiritual formation is put on hold.

Spiritual formation and the pandemic

As we navigate our new reality, is there a mantra we can embrace? Or at least a posture we can take that may help us adapt to the change?

As the pandemic has stretched on, I’ve been trying to find a metaphor pastors can use that adequately expresses the posture Christians should take. Is this a time of treading water? Are we merely trying to keep our heads up? Are we waiting for rescue to come before our legs and arms give out? Or is this a season of hibernation? Do we embrace that there is not much we can do? Is it perhaps a time to retreat, to eat and rest, and eventually come out of our caves once the season passes?

These metaphors don’t sit well with me.

After playing around unsuccessfully with many metaphors, I’ve been forced to relearn a message from my book Rhythms for Life (InterVarsity, 2020) – there is no one-size-fits-all metaphor for spiritual formation, not when everything was normal and especially not during a pandemic. Instead we must discern the rhythm God has for us in a given season.

I believe everyone can benefit from developing a rhythm for life – a set of spiritual practices to help you become who God made you to be. Traditionally, these include regular engagement in your church, a commitment to reading Scripture, prayer and generosity with your finances and time. However, there is an even wider wealth of spiritual disciplines and practices that can help us keep in step with God – and what works for one season might not work in the next. It is important to find expressions of a particular practice that work for you right now.

Changing rhythms

My own rhythm for life has changed multiple times. It changed drastically when my children were born. As a new parent it became much harder to carve out the same amount of time in the morning and evening for Scripture, prayer and journalling, let alone the same amount of undistracted quality time. I barely had any contemplative capacity. When I tried to sit quietly with Jesus, I fell asleep.

Initially I tried to double down and make my routine work. But it didn’t work. And I fell into the mistake of feeling far from God solely because of my slipping discipline. But God’s presence isn’t contingent on my performance.

Instead of lingering in guilt, I sought to discover new expressions of practices for that sleepless season. As my children have moved out of the "destroy any resemblance of adequate sleep for mommy and daddy" stage, my practices have changed again.

A few years ago I experienced a prolonged season of depression. Once again my practices changed. Part of my recovery involved discovering new practices of self-care, such as running and medicine, along with renewed disciplines of gratitude and encouragement.

Although my depression made it hard to feel “close” to God, saying thank you for something as basic as a warm home helped me remember that all of life is grace. I also pressed into a vision bigger than the here and now, which kindled my hope in a difficult time.

When the pandemic hit my practices changed again. Sunday worship took a virtual shape. I never signed up to be a televangelist, but suddenly I was thrust into filming sermons and preaching through a camera.

But this was not nearly as difficult as learning how to worship in a new online expression. I have struggled and made some progress in learning what I need to connect with God and remain connected with people. For example, to combat Zoom fatigue my community group decided to limit our meetings to one hour every other week, instead of every week. We also turn our video off during parts of our gatherings and focus on contemplative practices like lectio divina or Ignatian Imaginative Prayer.

Jesus walked at roughly three miles per hour, just like the average human. This was quite literally God’s speed on earth. Spiritual formation doesn’t function like self-improvement.

Our practices adapt and change along with the seasons we are in. If we embrace rhythm as a metaphor, it allows us to accept that what works for one person during these trying times may not work for another. It’s okay if all your previous practices just aren’t working at this moment. They might work again in the future. No matter what, keep your sights fixed on Jesus and adopt the practices that achieve this aim.


No matter what, whether our capacity is high or low, I believe we are all invited to walk at the same tempo – Godspeed. Jesus walked at roughly three miles per hour, just like the average human. This was quite literally God’s speed on earth. Spiritual formation doesn’t function like self-improvement.

With self-improvement you can set goals and measure them – the eating plan, the book club, the new project. But with spiritual formation? You can read the whole Bible in a year, but can you measure how it shaped you? You can devote time to pray, but can you evaluate where it changed your heart? You can serve the marginalized, but can you quantify its impact?

You could try. But it misses the point. The goal of all our spiritual formation is to be with Jesus – even in a pandemic.

We have crossed the threshold, once again, into another year. As usual, self-improvement rises to the forefront with New Year’s resolutions. The cultural mantra – make the most of it – has another shortlived resurgence.

But if you are going to make the most of anything, let it be the truth that God is with you in Christ and He is walking alongside you at a gracious pace. If you make the most of being with Jesus, He will help you find your next right step – even if it is just crashing onto your couch.


Order Alastair Sterne’s Rhythms for Life: Spiritual Practices for Who God Made You to Be at and use the code STERNE40 to get 40% off until the end of Feb. 2021

Listen to our podcast with Alastair Sterne, coming soon at

FT Conversations

We think our cover stories would be great to discuss with your small group or Bible study. We encourage you to point members to Let us know how it goes (!

  1. Take a moment, by yourself or with a friend, and consider how you are doing right now with the pandemic and all its challenges. Share honestly with someone who loves you. There’s no wrong answer.
  2. What spiritual practices have you been able to engage in during these challenging days? Have you learned new rhythms?
  3. Sterne writes, "It’s okay if all your previous practices just aren’t working at this moment." How does that strike you? How can you experience God’s grace even in the letting go of habits that might not work for you right now?
  4. What new spiritual rhythm might be life giving for you in the months to come? How could community come alongside and walk with you?

Alastair Sterne is lead pastor of St. Peter’s Fireside in Vancouver and author of Rhythms for Life: Spiritual Practices for Who God Made You to Be (InterVarsity, 2020).

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