Cover Story

Taking the roof off

For L'Abri, the brainchild of 20th-century giant Francis Schaeffer, turning 50 is an opportunity to celebrate and revive what is golden in its unique approach to evangelism

Issue: "Francis Schaeffer's legacy," March 26, 2005

Half a century ago, an American pastor named Francis Schaeffer opened his home in Switzerland to anyone who was struggling with the basic questions of life. It was the beginning of L'Abri, a word meaning "shelter." Over the years, student backpackers, troubled atheists, and thoughtful Christians found their way to this chalet in the Alps. Here they met biblical truth, explained not only with a sophistication that was then rare in evangelicalism-but lived out.

Many who trekked the Alpine hillsides to L'Abri became Christians and learned how to engage their cultures and to apply their faith to all of life. Two generations on, the influence of Francis and Edith Schaeffer and the ministry of L'Abri is evident among evangelical Christians everywhere in their approach not only to evangelism and the church but also to the sciences, arts, business, and politics.

Schaeffer died of cancer in 1984. But L'Abri continues with branches all over the world: in Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, England, Korea, Canada, and two in the United States (in Southborough, Mass., and Rochester, Minn.). These centers for training in Christian philosophy are the legacy of a man who-according to long-time associate and founder of the Francis Schaeffer Institute Jerram Barrs-never considered himself a theologian or philosopher, but simply a pastor and an evangelist.

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Schaeffer became a Christian when he was 17, after reading the Bible from beginning to end and finding that it gave answers to questions he struggled with. He studied at Faith Seminary and pastored churches in Delaware, Pennsylvania, and St. Louis.

In St. Louis, Schaeffer and his wife Edith started a ministry, Children for Christ. At the same time, conflicts and schisms in the Presbyterian Church forced him to defend a high view of Scripture against liberal theology. He started the International Council of Christian Churches to counter the World Council of Churches. This took him to Europe, where he settled in Switzerland in 1948.

But L'Abri had its genesis in a spiritual crisis that engulfed Schaeffer in 1950-1951. Depressed by church politics and power struggles, Schaeffer wrestled with the question: "How could people stand for truth and purity and God's holiness without ugliness and harshness?" He became dissatisfied, too, with his own failures to live out the faith as the Bible describes it, according to Mr. Barrs.

Schaeffer felt these problems so deeply that he began to question whether Christianity, if it has so little effect, could be true. Once again, as he did when he was 17, he plunged into Bible reading in search of answers. He found them, becoming convinced that not only salvation but sanctification and the whole of the Christian's life are by faith. "The sun came out again," he said, and he found "a new song in my heart."

Now, in addition to holding Bible studies in the Schaeffer home and working with children, the Schaeffers began discussion groups for their teenage daughters and friends to hear their questions and to tell about the Bible's answers.

On June 5, 1955, the Schaeffers drew up a plan to turn their home into a place where people could come to work out their problems and to practice "true spirituality." Without finances and with no assurance that they would be allowed to stay in Switzerland, the Schaeffers purchased property in Huemoz, a rural village high in the mountains with a spectacular view of the Alps.

Ranald Macaulay, a student at Cambridge who became involved with the Schaeffers in the early days (and later married their daughter Susan), said the founding of L'Abri was consistent with its organizing principle: to live in constant dependence on the grace of God. At a March 11-13 Jubilee for L'Abri Fellowship at the America's Center in St. Louis, Mr. Macaulay said the Schaeffers resolved to do no advertising for workers, no marketing to attract newcomers, no fundraising, and no planning-principles in stark contrast to most other ministries.

The Schaeffers saw L'Abri as a unique experiment-they did not necessarily recommend this radical dependence on God's providence as a pattern for other ministries-but the needs always were met. Concerned with reaching individuals, the Schaeffers were content with small numbers. Over time, however, the effect of their work multiplied. Over 1,000 L'Abri alumni attended the jubilee celebration, an event that was equal parts conference and family reunion.

Os Guinness, Harold O.J. Brown, and Chuck Colson-all major evangelical thinkers who were shaped by L'Abri-gave addresses. Screenwriter Brian Godawa, who wrote To End All Wars, gave a workshop on transforming Hollywood. Theologian and cultural critic Vishal Mangalwadi, from India, talked about his upcoming television documentary series on the impact of the Bible, The Book of the Millennium. Book tables overflowed with titles by L'Abri alumni.

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