It was 50 years ago–in 1955–that Christian theologian, Presbyterian pastor and apologist Francis Schaeffer and his wife opened a chalet in Huemoz, Switzerland, that became known as L’Abri, which in French means “shelter.”
Schaeffer and his wife, Edith, opened their home to all comers–Christian or not–and guided several generations of young people to recognize the sufficiency of the Bible as God’s truth, and to an understanding of how Christianity must interact with its culture.
Born in the Germantown section of Philadelphia in 1912, Schaeffer received Christ as his Savior in 1930 as an eighteen-year-old. He went on to study theology and pastor churches, but his greatest legacy is the L’Abri Fellowship and the 24 books he wrote. Best-known among his books, which have been translated into 20 languages, are Escape From Reason, The God Who is There, and How Should We Then Live? Thousands of young people lived and studied with the Schaeffers over the years, and eventually L’Abri spawned other retreat and study centers in England, Holland, Korea, Sweden, Canada, and two in the U.S.
One is in Massachusetts, and the other in Rochester, Minnesota, where the Schaeffers lived when in the U.S. Francis Schaeffer was diagnosed with cancer in 1981 and died May 15, 1984, at his home in Rochester, where he is buried. His widow celebrated her 90th birthday this past fall with a visit to the Rochester Center from England, where she now lives.
The L’Abri 50th Jubilee was celebrated with a worldwide gathering in St. Louis, MO, March 11-13 of this year. Workshops, classical music concerts, worship times and plenary sessions with speakers such as Charles Colson, Os Guinness, and Harold O.J. Brown were featured.
Several Grace Brethren missionaries and educators who spent time with the Schaeffers at L’Abri were asked to share their personal reflections and memories.
Julien: “Two Different Worlds”
Tom Julien, missionary to France, who later served as Executive Director of Grace Brethren International Missions, first met Schaeffer in 1959 when Julien and his wife, Doris, were studying French at the University of Geneva in Switzerland.
“I went to hear him,” Julien recalls, “and after the session I asked if we could talk further.” Schaeffer invited Julien on a walk. “I was able to keep up with the fast pace of his walk, but not with his words.” Julien recalls with a chuckle, “I quickly realized that we were living in two different worlds.”
Later Julien heard Schaeffer speak at a missions conference near Paris. By then he and Doris had spent several years in France attempting to break into the French mind, but with little success.
Julien recalls, “Schaeffer walked into the room, sat on the table, looked at us, and asked ‘How many of you have read Jean-Paul Sartre?’ A few hands went up. ‘The rest of you are not worthy to be missionaries in France,’ Schaeffer retorted.
“We started to laugh,” Julien recalls, “But were cut off with the words ‘That was not a joke.’ I began to listen to this man, realizing that what he was saying filled a void in my thinking.”
At Schaeffer’s invitation, Julien made several more trips to L’Abri, both alone, and with two young Grace Brethren missionaries, Larry DeArmey and Dan Hammers.
“The times at L’Abri were providential,” Julien says. “On the one hand he taught me how to grapple with the relativistic worldview of the French people,” Julien says, “On the other hand, his emphasis on genuine biblical spirituality, prayer, and authentic relationships were huge factors in giving credibility to the message.
“Schaeffer was a great thinker–one of the rare evangelicals who fully understood western cultural changes. But his ministry was based on something far deeper–love as the true mark of the Christian.”
DeArmey: “Caught in the Middle”
Larry DeArmey, who grew up in a Grace Brethren pastor’s home, recalls that he was “probably like many American young adults who had grown up in a Christian environment but suddenly discovered themselves in one of the great spiritual upheavals of the Twentieth Century.”
Many Christian young people were struggling, DeArmey recalls, and were beginning to question whether their faith and Christian heritage provided adequate answers to the hard questions.
“I was caught in the middle of this struggle,” he reflects. “But God graciously provided the opportunity to go to Europe and work alongside Tom Julien at the Chateau. That time–15 months–allowed me to ask the hard questions and to discover that Christianity did have more than adequate answers.” DeArmey made several visits to L’Abri, first for an extended stay with Julien and Hammers, and later a shorter visit with two European friends.
“Upon our arrival,” DeArmey recalls, “Dr. Schaeffer sat down with us in order to understand our purpose for being there and how he could best serve us.” Schaeffer then suggested a course of personal study they would follow throughout the week.
“I must confess,” DeArmey says, “those were long and hard hours because I was struggling with concepts I had never heard of, nor ever had to deal with.”
What impact did L’Abri have on DeArmey and his subsequent service as a veteran missionary in France and Spain? Two effects, he says.
The first was his discovery that Christianity as a system of thought could face the toughest questions without shame and could provide answers that were intellectually satisfying. “This was to be the leitmotif of the Chateau ministry and our ministry in France for decades to come,” says DeArmey. Second, he saw at L’Abri the importance of placing all the intellectual discussion within the context of a loving, accepting community. He was impressed with the hospitality and care the Schaeffers showed to all who came. “They were authentic,” he says, “I’m sure as many were won over by this loving lifestyle as by their clear thinking.”
Hammers : “Deeply Impressed”
Dan Hammers recalls, “As a young seminary student, I was deeply impressed by Dr. Schaeffer’s profound grasp, not only of Scripture, but also of human history and culture. But even more than that, I was impressed by his deep humanity and genuine love for people–especially those who were searching for answers.
“For the past 28 years I have been privileged to teach at Worthington (OH) Christian High School. Dr. Schaeffer’s writings and teacher’s heart have profoundly affected my ministry here,” Hammers says.
He further notes that for nearly 20 years he has taught a Lifeviews course to graduating seniors, seeking to arm them for the university environment they would soon face. “Dr. Schaeffer’s film series, ‘How Should We Then Live?’ has always been a vital part of that course,” says Hammers. “The goal has been to give young people the same gift of confidence that Dr. Schaeffer gave me 40 years ago–confidence that my Christian faith is not only reasonable, but it is the only reasonable answer to the deepest questions of the human heart.”
In conclusion, Hammers says, “It has not only stood the test of time, but it stands up to the sharpest intellectual scrutiny. Thank you, Dr. Schaeffer, for such a precious gift.”