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Testimony from L’Abri: Francis Schaeffer Left an Enduring Legacy

Forty years after Francis Schaeffer’s passing, his contributions to the church and the world are still visible. His legacy lives on most obviously through his writing and recorded teaching. Less well-known, however, L’Abri Fellowship continues to show how God has used the Schaeffers and blessed their work.

Francis and his wife, Edith, started L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland in 1955. No one else in L’Abri has had the public visibility they had. Yet the ministry has continued to thrive since Francis’s death on May 15, 1984, and now has a presence in nine countries. As I reflect on that legacy, two themes arise: the spiritual integrity of Francis’s faith and the distinct shape of what God led him and Edith to do through L’Abri.

My introduction to Francis Schaeffer came after my graduation from college when a roommate and I, neither of us Christians, stumbled into L’Abri in 1964. Schaeffer asked the two of us to join him for a day-off walk in the Swiss Alps where he’d hiked for years. We left his chalet at 10:00 a.m. with sandwiches. It was very foggy and snowing lightly. At some point, with the terrible visibility, we took a wrong turn and realized eventually that we were lost. We finally got to a town at the bottom of the Rhône valley at midnight.

Memorably, Schaeffer talked with us—one at a time and both together—the whole time. We joked about being lost as we pondered the map together, but much of the time it was serious conversation. He was a good listener and had plenty to say to both of us, who were wrestling with relativism and agnosticism. I remember thinking, Hey, we’re complete strangers, but this guy really cares about us—what we believe and where we’re going. And when he talks to you, you really know you have his full attention. I think I’d begun to see something of his spiritual integrity.

Spiritual Integrity

“Spiritual integrity” doesn’t mean spiritual perfection. It implies a desire to live out the fullness of the faith. Schaeffer had a profound sense that the Bible, rightly understood, tells us what’s really true about reality—God, ourselves, the world, and how we’re to live in it. He had great intellectual confidence in Christian teachings. He embodied them with extraordinary commitment but also felt and lived them deeply at an emotional level.

Solid Foundations

But Schaeffer hadn’t always experienced this depth of faith. He attributed the change to a spiritual crisis in the early 1950s, which he documented in the preface to True Spirituality. He saw failures in his own life and in the lives of those he’d worked with in America, including a serious lack of forgiveness, love, and prayer. These failures were so grave that he questioned whether the promises he had trusted in about God’s work within Christians were true. He couldn’t go on in his ministry without reassessing the Christian faith’s truth claims in their entirety.

He emerged from this period with a greater confidence in Christian truth and a greater experience of its reality. He saw new meanings in Christ’s finished work in our present experience. He wrote of this crisis and its resolution, “This was the real basis of L’Abri. Teaching the historic Christian answers and giving honest answers to honest questions are crucial; but it was out of these struggles that the reality came without which an incisive work like L’Abri would not have been possible.”

Confident Dependence

As the Schaeffers started L’Abri, they didn’t know where it would lead them, but they were determined to live and demonstrate the spiritual reality of Christianity. They often said about their previous Christian experience that if the promises of God about prayer and the Holy Spirit had been somehow removed from the Bible, it wouldn’t have made much practical difference to them. That changed when they started L’Abri.

They realized God was calling them to end the financial support from their mission and to do no fundraising or advertising at all. They depended on prayer for God to meet all their needs, praying also for God to lead people to L’Abri for help and others to come to help. And God answered in amazing ways.

The experience of hiking in the Alps wasn’t the only memory I have of my first visit to L’Abri. More importantly, it was a shock for me to witness the Schaeffers’ trust in God. They’d forfeited the normal human ways to get the real-world stuff of material necessities—yet there was always good food on the table. The demonstration of their integrity was part of what challenged me to take their faith seriously and later to trust in Christ myself. Since L’Abri maintains these commitments, it has continued to challenge my faith throughout the decades I’ve worked in L’Abri.

Spiritual integrity also includes our relationship with the organizations we start or work for. Schaeffer used to tell us that he regularly prayed for God to bless and guide L’Abri but asked that God would never allow L’Abri to be so well organized and financed that it’d keep on running after the Holy Spirit had finished with it. The survival and growth of the organization was precious but never allowed to be an end in itself.

Distinct Shape of L’Abri

The Schaeffers didn’t plan how L’Abri would work before they started. They simply opened the door of their home to anyone, Christian and non-Christian, young and old, who wanted to live with them and interact with them about God’s truth. Over time, God led them to a structure still followed with flexibility in the branches.

Schaeffer regularly prayed for God to bless and guide L’Abri but asked that God would never allow L’Abri to be so well organized and financed that it’d keep on running after the Holy Spirit had finished with it.

We still call those who come to L’Abri “students.” They have to be at least 18 years old, but there’s no upper age limit. It works best when we have a range of ages. Some never finished high school; others have graduate degrees. They stay from a few days up to several months.

Students come with diverse hopes, fears, grievances, interests, commitments, questions, and desires. Each student has a tutor—a L’Abri staff member or “worker”—who helps them create a personal plan for their study that takes up half of each day. The topic range is broad because the Christian faith touches every area of life. To expand access to our study material, we’ve made much of it available online.

L’Abri students work the other half of each day, joining to do the jobs necessary to keep the community going—preparing meals, doing maintenance, cleaning, gardening, laundry, cutting grass, splitting and hauling firewood. We need to have the work done, and doing it strengthens the sense of community.

We eat together, usually in the workers’ homes. We emphasize open discussion, where just about anything is fair game, as in the early days of L’Abri. When a good discussion gets going, our meals can be long. At any given meal, one is likely to find mostly Christians, some non-Christians, and those not sure of what they believe. All are welcome and we encourage honesty about doubts, struggles, and disagreements.

Continued Strength

God continues to use the setting of L’Abri to reach new generations in many countries. There’s spiritual power in a residential Christian study community that honors God and his Word. Time is spent with others who are also searching for what’s true and needing the time, the space, and the guidance to do it. Such a community of hospitality is a helpful environment to enable people to discover their deepest questions and, by God’s mercy, find their way to faith.

God continues to use the setting of L’Abri to reach new generations of students. There’s spiritual power in a residential Christian study community that honors God and his Word.

“L’Abri” is the French word for shelter. “Shelter” sometimes brings to mind a small, safe place to protect someone from a larger, threatening world outside.

Of the hundreds of men and women who’ve passed through L’Abri branches in the last year, I’ll mention just two. They came to Southborough suffering with identities constricted by the narrow rules and values of secular academic and corporate worlds respectively. Ironically, their experience of L’Abri took them in exactly the opposite direction from what might be expected from the idea of “shelter.”

Both said their stay had grounded their faith. There was now room for their humanness with identities expanded, seeing themselves as images of God in a God-created world. We find many of our students more able to face a challenging world in humility and confidence, avoiding the false shelters of both belligerence and timidity.

In a society where unbelief and loneliness seem to be gaining ground, L’Abri has been used by God to build faith in Christ and hope for community among people. Although it has been decades since his death, Francis Schaeffer’s legacy continues to live on to the glory of God.


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