The Worship Mall

I was first drawn to Dr. Spinks’ book because I’ve been wrestling with the reality that so many of my friends and family have either left the Catholic Church or stopped attending any religious service. I have been trying to understand their decision. Now that I am working on a college campus, the questions of faith, religion, and spirituality are part of my daily conversations and even more urgent. I primarily minister to Generation Y and I am struggling to minister in this culture of consumerism. On some level, I feel the need to understand their desire to “shop around” and experiment with different styles of worship. Will young and old alike continue to “purchase” from the various “stores” only what is attractive and comfortable and agreeable?

The Worship Mall begins by setting the scene of the postmodern world. Spinks discusses that consumerism is one of the main characteristics of this era and briefly analyzes the “Mall” culture’s effect on society, in particular, characteristics of Generation Y. It seems one conclusion is that Generation Y should be more open to religion, but do not always have the background to go deeper or ask the hard questions (p. xxii). The end of the introduction lays out two claims:

1). Religion is in competition with all the leisure and entertainment industries and consumerism is both leisure and entertainment.

2). The very fact that there are different trends in contemporary worship suggests that worship styles too represent a mall, offered by different churches to suit your personal taste or spirituality, all enticing in different ways, and in competition with one another (p. xxiii).

From this brief, but engaging introduction, Spinks then leads us on a journey of exploration through various postmodern worship trends. In each chapter, Spinks provides some concrete examples of various models. He presents a brief history of the movement and then outlines their worship service. This survey is eye opening and intriguing. I think this survey provides a thorough introduction to these various trends. Spinks’ analysis is only a beginning and invites the reader (or a future doctoral student!) to take the next step. What long-term effects will current trends have on religion and religious experience?

As you can see, he covers quite far-flung topics:

  1. Blended, fusion or synthesis worship (The U2 Eucharist, Duke Ellington Mass, Hip-Hop Eucharist)
  2. Consciously postmodern: alt., emerging and liquid worship (Nine O’Clock service)
  3. Entertaining worship or worship as entertainment? Megachurch, seeker services and multi-sensory worship (Robert Schuller, Joel Osteen, Willow Creek, Saddleback)
  4. Praise and Worship songs and worship in the charismatic churches (music and personality worship, Hillsong and Darlene Zschech)
  5. On the margins of corporate global postmodern culture (African Independent Churches, Korean Minjung Eucharists and Kuk-Ak Worship, Appalachian Mountain Religion and Taking Up Serpents)
  6. Contemporary “Celtic worship” (Iona Community; Celtic Eucharists)
  7. A variety of  post-Vatican II liturgies (from the reclaiming of the 1962 rite to various pick-and-mix liturgies)

Spinks’ project is descriptive rather than evaluative, but as I read each chapter, questions abounded which deserve further treatment and conversation:  In a society that is focused on individual success and gratification, how is our worship affected? Are the adaptations to existing models helpful? Do the new models reinforce consumerist and entertainment attitudes? How is ritual affected? The Worship Mall doesn’t necessarily provide clear answers to these questions, but Spinks does provide some insightful and provoking observations on how these worship trends engage and influence the “shopper.”

A line from the last paragraph of the book has stuck with me, “ Liturgy should entice and enchant us not only to desire, but also fall in love with God the Trinity, and thereby love our neighbours” (p. 216). Although his project is primarily descriptive, this idea can serve as a tool for evaluation for those planning liturgy and seeking a place of worship.



  1. Does Spinks deal with the social dimension of worship? If so, how?

    According to the Vibrant Parish Life Survey, what people want is not only #1 “Masses that are prayerful, reverent and spiritually moving” but also #2 “the parish as a supportive, caring community.”

    Church attendance is correlated with a variety of good things, e.g. better health, life satisfaction, and doing good things. However, American Grace has established that these good things seem to come only to those who have family, friends, or engage in small groups in the congregation.

    To those out in the spiritual marketplace seeking wisdom, knowledge, prophecy, discernment of spirits, speaking in tongues, etc. the sociology seems to say that if you do not discover love it is all about nothing.

    To those out in the spiritual marketplace purporting to provide wisdom, knowledge, prophecy, discernment of spirits, speaking in tongues, etc. the sociology seems to say that if you do not provide love you are merely a tinkling brass…

  2. I know this is only in reference to the first sentence, but to be fair, I see no more reason to see consumerism at work in those who leave than in those who stay. Those who continue worshipping regularly could be doing so because they are “getting” what they want or need, or because they have committed themselves to the identity and mission of this community. Similarly, those who leave could be doing so because they aren’t “getting” what they want or need, or because they’re aren’t being presented with something that appears worth committing themselves to.

    In both cases, the motives could be consumerism, or something above it. This is why I think some attempts to “give ’em what they want” seem to me rather short-sighted. Maybe sometimes what they want isn’t entertainment or comfort, but a sense that being there is of real value, and isn’t just a pointless waste of time. Those of us who have devoted our lives to the Church’s worship, presumably with good reason, are the least likely to consider that potential problem.

    1. I think you make a good point about the fact that those who leave or those who stay may be equally engaged in the activity as a consumer.

      What I am not so sure about is the idea that this belongs to a realm of inferior motivation in today’s world. The umbrella under which consumerism lives is individual choice. This has its strong points and its dark temptations. Yet the market determines what we have to choose from, and there are categories such as brand loyalty that continue to operate at odds with a completely free or rational choice, even from within the person operating from within this paradigm.

      So perhaps, if one wants to operate in true freedom within a consumer society, one must first become self-conscious about one’s wants and motivations, and then also come to terms with finitude. These are not easy tasks. I think it is part of the Church’s calling to help people negotiate these tasks in life, but too often we simply stop with producing a “product” and watching how people “react” to it (take it or leave it).

    2. Since the evidence clearly indicates that church attendance is associated with better health and happiness, the “rational choice’ is to attend church!

      Other things being equal, the difference in happiness between a nonchurchgoer and a weekly churchgoer is slightly larger than the difference between someone who earns $10,000 a year and his demographic twin who earns $100,000 a year. American Grace p.491.

      Obviously many people choose not to take the equivalent of a $90,000 benefit if they only had $10,000!

      For many years “rational choice” theorists argued that people were attracted to Conservative Protestant churches because they were more demanding. The basic notion being that we value things more when they are more costly. Unfortunately research showed that 80% of the difference between Conservative Protestant Churches and Mainline Protestant Churches was due to the lower fertility rates in Mainline Churches. The consumer choice was about whether or not to have children.

      Rational choice theorists argued that the higher attendance rates of Conservative Protestant churches was because they were more demanding in their doctrines and morals. However research showed that only Conservative Churches without liturgical years had higher average attendance; those Conservative Churches with liturgical years had lower average attendance as do other churches with liturgical years. The Conservative Churches without a liturgical year emphasized weekly attendance and high quality worship year around; no programming for lower attendance in Ordinary Time and during Summer. These Conservative Churches are also usually family friendly, and neighborly. Someone calls you up and asks how you are if they have not seen you for awhile.

      Consumerism is a tricky topic. Undoubtedly we live in a society of much greater choice. Why and how people make those choices is very complex. Sometimes the reasons are fairly obvious, sometimes not so obvious.

  3. I have not read the book, but I would caution against confusing style with substance. Some may actively “jazz up” a religious service to attract people. But, some people who are seeking an encounter with God and the Gospel may find it in a song by a Christian rock group at a mega-church. By the same token, a Pontifical High Mass may be seen as a sensory extravaganza. Ultimately, if you give an empty show, no matter how elaborate, you will attract people looking for a show. Offer an opportunity to find God, and you will attract seekers.

  4. My recurring question regarding liturgical likes, dislikes, tastes, and aesthetics is this: How does it convey or portray the movement of the divine in the economy of salvation? Some think of the need for liturgy to be aesthetically “elevated” so that it can bring us closer to the transcendence of God. But Christian reality is that there is no need for us to try to go “up” to God, because he has come “down” to us — no more need for high priests in a holy of holies, because the Risen Lord is always in our midst. A liturgical aesthetics is disclosive of that reality, not an attempt to reach a God in some elevated, an ultimately artificial, space. We go to God by remaining firmly rooted in our own humanity — in all its glory and in all its gory — and having the Lord show us his presence there. That is the path to transcendence; or, as the monks would say, the “way [to go] up is the way down.”

    1. Some think of the need for liturgy to be aesthetically “elevated” so that it can bring us closer to the transcendence of God. But Christian reality is that there is no need for us to try to go “up” to God, because he has come “down” to us

      But at the same time, there is the dynamism of us being raised up to God, despite still being “down here”. God has “made us alive together with Christ, and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” (Eph 2:5-6) So the ancient liturgies exhorted the faithful with sursum corda (“upward hearts”) and they replied habemus ad dominum (“we have [them] to/with the Lord”). Paul’s call to “set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” is similarly a reminder that we are being raised up as God is reaching down.

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