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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

Taking the roof off

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.

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.

Workshops focused on the various facets of "The Central Themes of L'Abri," "Transforming All of Life," and "True Spirituality." The evenings closed with classical music concerts.

But unlike most idea-packed conferences, the program also scheduled in time for fellowship: an hour and a half devoted to lunch; 30 minutes between sessions; free afternoons and early evenings so people had time to talk. People who had grown close in the Christian community of L'Abri but who had not seen each other for decades hugged and laughed and resumed their conversations. Family members recalled the early days. Mr. Macaulay said the Schaeffers cleared out the furniture, set up chairs, and made elaborate preparations in their chalet, while Schaeffer, wearing a black suit, preached a brilliant sermon-all for three people. Mr. Macaulay remembers thinking, "Oh, if everybody could hear this!" In those days, he said, it was exciting when 10 people showed up at L'Abri.

At first Schaeffer resisted taping the lectures, fearing it would spoil his spontaneity. But one day his daughter Susan surreptitiously hid in an ivy plant a microphone attached to her portable cassette player. The tapes circulated in student groups in England, creating a demand for more tapes and a steady supply of L'Abri pilgrims. Eventually, he turned some of his lectures into books.

More and more people-students, hippies, homosexual priests, drug addicts, and other wanderers trying to "find themselves"-sought out this "shelter" in the mountains. Some stayed for a few weeks, others for several months. By the 1970s, several hundred might be there at a time, staying in chalets built on the expanding property above a switchback mountain road.

Schaeffer exchanged his American preacher's black suit for lederhosen and a walking stick. He engaged visitors in personal discussions fed also by the growing number of L'Abri workers who joined in the ministry. Visitors took part in the life of the community, eating meals together, doing physical labor, studying the Bible, prizing deep conversations, and walking in the mountains. This remains the pattern today in the L'Abri branches around the world, except that Schaeffer is heard only on tape.

In the course of 50 years, according to Larry Snyder, director of Rochester L'Abri, no one knows how many people went through L'Abri. No one kept records. What mattered then-and is evident now (see sidebar)-is that L'Abri was a life-changing experience.

Schaeffer persuaded nonbelievers to face up to the contradictions in their own worldviews by revealing their inability to account for what is most important in life (love, beauty, meaning). He would, as he described it, "take the roof off," bringing the nonbeliever almost to the point of despair, to acknowledge his lost condition. Then he applied the gospel of Christ. While conversant in the theology of Kuyper, Dooyeweerd, and Van Til, Schaeffer was captive only to the worldview set forth in the Bible-God's good creation, man's fall into sin and its consequences, the redemption through Christ-which he said accords with reality in all of its dimensions. Nonbelievers cannot bring themselves to be completely consistent with their own presuppositions, an inconsistency that is a result of common grace. "Thus, illogically," he wrote in 1948, "men have in their accepted worldviews various amounts of that which is ours. But, illogical though it may be, it is there and we can appeal to it."

Even with hostile visitors, Mr. Barrs said, Schaeffer "had an acute sense of people's brokenness and fallenness," and "thus would treat them with compassion."

Out of those encounters grew a body of written work: Escape from Reason (1968), True Spirituality (1971), and He Is There and He Is Not Silent (1972). Schaeffer developed extraordinarily fruitful concepts: how human beings need both "form and freedom"; how people today compartmentalize their lives into a meaningless objective "lower story" (the realm of science and fact) and a mystical, nonrational "upper story" of subjectivity and emotion (which becomes the realm of religion, aesthetics, and morality); how human beings are sinful and broken due to the Fall, yet how at the same time human beings have an intrinsic value and dignity, bearing the image of God.

Those concepts-fueled by practical discussions and communal living at L'Abri-quickly gathered public momentum. Before L'Abri, many conservative Protestants had no problem with legalizing abortion, considering it a Catholic issue and responding out of a knee-jerk anti-Catholicism. But the Schaeffers showed that abortion-along with the growing acceptance of euthanasia and the coming genetic engineering-constitutes a horrible assault on all that it means to be human. With the book and video series How Should We Then Live? (1976) and Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (1979), Schaeffer's ideas spread to a broader audience. With A Christian Manifesto (1981), he called evangelicals to the fight against abortion and to political activism to reverse what he saw as the trend toward both moral anarchy and political tyranny.

Such an extended ministry was a partnership with Schaeffer's wife. "If time allowed, a whole seminar could be devoted to the work of Edith Schaeffer," author and L'Abri alum Os Guinness told the jubilee crowd. Health problems, including a deteriorating esophagus, prevented Schaeffer's wife Edith, 92, from attending the St. Louis jubilee. Always an active part of L'Abri and an author herself, she is currently in a Swiss hospital. There, according to Udo Middleman, husband to Schaeffer daughter Debbie, the family is battling the very dangers Schaeffer described as family members insist on active treatment and care for Mrs. Schaeffer against a European medical establishment that is content to withhold treatment and to allow her simply to die.

Those struggles only emphasize that, in many ways, the culture of relativism, irrationalism, and self-centeredness that Schaeffer anticipated is here. "Postmodernists are so focused on I, me, myself that they have trouble focusing on any thing beyond themselves," said L'Abri Australia leader Frank Stootman. And yet, he said, the Schaeffer method of taking people with their presuppositions to their logical conclusions and showing the superiority of a biblical worldview is still effective.

Per Staffan Johansson, of L'Abri in Sweden, told WORLD that seekers today are less philosophical than they were in the 1960s. Instead of wrestling with questions about the meaning of life and other objective truth, they are more preoccupied with problems of relationships and the meaning of their jobs and professions. "We do more in Sweden with vocation," he said. "And yet, this is what L'Abri has always done," relating faith to all of life.

Mr. Guinness said that "the genius of Schaeffer's apologetics has yet to be fully unwrapped." When asked about reaching the culture, Mr. Guinness said that one of Schaeffer's great insights is that we have to reach not cultures but individuals. Each individual has his or her own questions, personal struggles, and moral brokenness. Schaeffer took them all seriously, addressing people one by one, while giving them-sometimes for the first time-a sense of belonging to a community.

Many approaches to evangelism and church growth today are impersonal, relying on manipulative formulas and the techniques of mass marketing and consumerism. L'Abri honors the dignity and the distinct spiritual needs of each individual. Many evangelicals think Christianity needs to be dumbed down and made easier to make it attractive to people today. L'Abri teaches that Christianity has substance and depth, that it has something to offer to thoughtful, educated people, and that-undiluted-biblical Christianity can change their lives.

Fifty years later, evangelicalism once again faces the problem of being negative or ineffectual, worldly, or out of touch. L'Abri remains.

Gene Edward Veith

Gene Edward Veith