Why Don't Catholic Churches Look Like Coffee Shops?

Last week as I was driving through town, I passed a building with people gathered outside, looking super hipster and drinking coffee. "Oh, a new coffee shop must be opening," I thought, slowing down as I drove past. After all, we all know how much I love coffee.

But it wasn't until I read the sign on the front of the building that I realized it was actually a nondenominational church that was opening, not a coffee shop. From the outside of the building it would have been easy to mistake the crowded spot as a relaxing place to sit and sip a latte. If I hadn't seen the sign, I don't think I would have ever guessed that the building was a church.

Only a couple of blocks down, I drove past a Catholic church. Gothic style pointed arches were complimented by a stained glass wheel window. It looked . . . like a church. 

Why don't Catholic churches look like coffee shops? Why are Catholic churches often easily recognizable places of worship? In a recent video, Father Mike Schmitz discussed why we don't drink coffee at Mass and how the Mass calls us to not simply watch, but to worship. But what about the architecture of the church itself? Does the design of the building where we worship matter? 

In his new book, The Aesthetics of Architecture, Sir Roger Scruton writes about the modern city by observing today's architecture. He argues that modern architecture reflects how our culture is rejecting God. "The new city is a city in which glazed facades mirror each other’s emptiness across streets that die in their shadow," he writes. "The facelessness of such a city is also a kind of godlessness.”

Catholic churches don't look like coffee shops because the Church calls us into something savagely beautiful - architecture that calls our hearts and souls upward and inspires awe at the ultimate beauty of God.

But when the modern city enshrines the temporariness of facelessness as a permanently utilitarian way of life, then something has gone dreadfully wrong. Until we return to the temple or church that smiles upon us, we will be at a loss. Until we have similar faces everywhere to greet us in the public spaces where we live, we will never be fully at home. For without those faces smiling on us, we will be unable to smile back.
— Sir Roger Scruton

One of the reasons why Catholic churches cannot be mistaken for coffee shops is because Catholicism celebrates the Incarnation. Christ came down to earth and took on a human nature in the womb of Mary. He came into our messy, broken world and showed us the ultimate example of true love. It is for this reason that Catholics build beautiful cathedrals, basilicas and parish churches - an architecturally beautiful church bears witness to the truth of the Incarnation. 

Catholic churches are built as a place to worship the God who isn't afraid of our mess. It's not just a community gathering place or a meeting hall. Instead, beautifully designed churches shout from the rooftop that this is a place where God dwells, and Christ comes down into our messiness at every sacrifice of the altar.  

Beautiful churches are also the artistic creation of architects who dedicate their talent to the glory of God. Just like musicians use their talents for the glory of God by leading worship at Mass, architects are able to create something beautiful for God by designing and creating buildings. 

The Church needs architects, because she needs spaces to bring the Christian people together and celebrate the mysteries of salvation. After the terrible destruction of the last World War and the growth of great cities, a new generation of architects showed themselves adept at responding to the exigencies of Christian worship, confirming that the religious theme can still inspire architectural design in our own day. Not infrequently these architects have constructed churches which are both places of prayer and true works of art.
— Saint Pope John Paul II

Those who poured their life into the construction of churches like Saint Peter's Basilica, Hagia Sophia, or Sagrada Familia gave the gift of their best work. They meticulously designed architectural aspects of the church, knowing there was a chance that no one would appreciate their attention to detail. Yet they gave their gift of creativity and the gift of their best work to God. 

A church that calls our hearts and souls upward is also an evangelization tool. People come into the church, curious about its architecture in a world full of faceless buildings. Inside, they find that the Catechism is taught through stained glass windows, murals and mosaics. The history of the building sparks conversation about the history of the Church herself.

But what about poor people? Why build beautiful churches when we can spend that money on tending to the poor among us? 

The Catholic Church provides sanctuary from the world. It provides beauty with art. It provides education, catechizing through architecture and art. It offers a refuge and place to call home. True, churches do not have to be ornate to provide these gifts. But when the church is ugly and cheap, it can fail at these tasks. 

We cannot focus solely on the physical health of those around us without taking into account the need for spiritual health as well. 

And while physical poverty is something that the Church should focus on, we cannot forget spiritual poverty as well. We cannot neglect the poor in spirit who are in our midst, too. When we reduce acts of mercy just down to the physical needs of people, we do not acknowledge their spiritual needs too. For some, the Church is the only place they can come home to. 

Human beings, regardless of how much money they have in their bank account or the brand of clothing on their back, are beckoned in by beautiful churches. Inside they find sanctuary and an invitation to lift their souls. 

Churches here on earth are made with the trembling hands of human beings stumbling towards sainthood. Yet despite our human failings, beautiful churches have the ability to draw our hearts heavenward and take our breaths away in awe of the paramount beauty of God. Can our hearts even imagine the mesmerizing, resplendent beauty that awaits us in the ultimate dwelling of God in Heaven itself?