Francis Schaeffer: A Student's Appreciation of a Distinct Voice
My friend Rick Pearcey asked if I would consider posting this article, which is an appreciation of the ministry of Francis Schaeffer, known primarily through the work of L’Abri Fellowship, begun this month 50 years ago. As you may know, both Rick and Nancy Pearcey were profoundly impacted by the Schaeffer’s ministry. What you may not know is that Rick is formerly managing editor of the Capitol Hill weekly Human Events and that he served as primary editor of David Limbaugh’s book Persecution. My parents, who have long been friends with the Pearceys, were likewise influenced by the Schaeffers, and spent almost a year studying at two of the L’Abri locations (Switzerland and England) when they were young and newly-married. So it is from a profound respect for the influence of Francis Schaeffer on those who have influenced me that it is my honor to post this article here, an article written to celebrate the 50th anniversary of L’Abri. From here on out you reading words written by Rick Pearcey.
It happened one summer day in the early ’70s on the campus of Georgia Tech in Atlanta. That’s when I first heard about an individual unlike any Christian I had ever met, and about an approach to people and ideas that was unlike any I had ever known. Strange as it may seem, Francis Schaeffer and his distinctive approach would begin to have an impact on this college student’s life before I knew anything about him or his work.
How can this be? For an answer, we begin where Francis and Edith Schaeffer began, when L’Abri Fellowship entered the world in 1955, hidden from view in the Alpine village of Huemoz, Switzerland, when the couple set out several principles to guide their new work. As we shall see, each of the principles emphasizes prayer as a way to achieve the overarching purpose of “[showing] forth by demonstration, in our life and work, the existence of God.”
After ten years in pastorates in America, and then a few years in Europe as missionaries, the Schaeffers on June 4, 1955, “reached a decision.” They were ready to act on the conviction that a real God who is personal would be able to act and communicate in space and time, in the present moment of history, and that living and working on the basis of prayer was key to demonstrating the existence of such a God in a “hard, hard world” that could sniff out phonies a mile away.
For Schaeffer, “belief” that such a God exists was not a matter of subjective “faith,” but rather a reasoned conclusion based on evidence. As a teenager, and then again later as an adult, Schaeffer had worked through agnosticism and concluded that the Judeo-Christian worldview is objectively true — that is, that the system of thought and life set forth in the Old and New Testaments answers the basic philosophic questions of life in a way that is rationally consistent, historically verifiable, and existentially livable. In addition to taking God seriously, Schaeffer also took students and other searching people seriously as individuals whose questions should not be relegated to “smokescreen” status — as a front for spiritual rebellion, for example — but rather respected as the searchings of people who need answers to basic questions. This is why he tried to give “an honest answer to honest questions” to those who wondered whether God exists, truth is real, or life has any meaning.
But, however important, and Biblical, is this emphasis on having solid intellectual grounds for affirming the existence of God, Schaeffer felt something else was needed — namely, “the demonstration [italics added] that the Personal-Infinite God is really there in our generation,” as he wrote in the foreword of Edith’s book, L’Abri, which was published in 1969. Schaeffer understood that “talk” really is cheap, and that words written in books also can be “cheap” if they are just “god-talk” that gives readers a momentary buzz that disappears soon after the book is put down and the readers confront reality.
He realized that people need to see an exhibition that God actually exists, and that’s why he felt led to live a life, and begin a ministry, based on principles that emphasized verifiably answerable prayer, so that atheists, agnostics, and doubting Christians (sometimes hobbled by other Christians), could observe “living evidence,” to borrow a phrase from author Udo Middelmann, of God at work in the modern world. Schaeffer’s vision was that when “people come to L’Abri they are faced with these two aspects simultaneously” — honest answers to honest questions and the practical demonstration of the existence of God — “as the two sides of a single coin.”
Madison Avenue vs. God
The first of L’Abri’s founding principles was to “make our financial and material needs known to God alone, in prayer, rather than sending out pleas for money.” From his own experience, Schaeffer knew that some in leadership positions at Christian organizations speak with inspiring confidence that they earnestly believe it is God who is at work in providing financing. But in reality, if you go behind the scenes, one may learn that, despite the god-talk, it isn’t so much God at work, but rather what Schaeffer regarded as the “arm of the flesh” — that is, a “Madison Avenue” sales mentality that relies on a vast system of marketers, fundraisers, PR people, researchers, ghostwriters, and all the rest, to come up with clever, and sometimes less than honest, ways to “sell” Jesus or the ministry, its necessity, effectiveness, influence, and so on, to the public.
For Schaeffer, Christianity is worthless if it isn’t true. But if it is true, its principles have to be practiced in a way that is observable to any who care to take a look, whether they be French existentialist, German agnostic, Cambridge student or London dockworker. PR is cheap if not rooted in authenticity. It is one thing to confidently pronounce, “We believe in prayer,” for example, and yet really rely on a fundraising apparatus that spits out hundreds of thousands of impersonal form letters, sometimes of questionable veracity, written by marketers and signed by a machine that inscribes the name of a well-known persona. It is quite another thing, as Schaeffer knew from personal experience, to actually live and operate a ministry on the basis of the principle that “we believe that He can put into the minds of the people of His choice the share they should have in the work.” Witnessing specific answers to specific prayers at L’Abri helped many skeptics “to see” that a personal God actually exists and that Christianity may have more going for it than they had thought.
Schaeffer was once talking with a group at L’Abri, and he said that people sometimes ask him about the practicality of L’Abri’s bringing financial requests to the Lord as opposed to making such requests known publicly. “What do you do if the money doesn’t come in?” would be the question. Schaeffer gave perhaps the only possible honest answer — if he authentically believed what he said about a God who is really there and who can act into history today in response to human communication: “Well, I guess we’ll be smaller.”
In the real world of some big-time Christian ministries, fundraising too often makes the world go round, and a financial shortfall might well result not in an honest reexamination of one’s methods and a renewed questioning regarding where God may be leading, but rather in firing staff and re-oiling the money machine. Schaeffer regarded such an approach not just as un-Biblical, but also as profoundly ugly and destructive, regardless of how much outward “success” or “influence for Christ” an organization or person might appear to achieve in this life in supposed centers of power.
People of God’s Choice
L’Abri’s second founding principle was that they would “pray that God will bring the people of His choice to us, and keep all others away.” Such a prayer may seem an odd way to build a ministry or conduct “outreach,” but Schaeffer understood that, if God is real and can speak and act in the modern world, it follows that such a God ought to be able to lead people who need help to a hidden-away place such as L’Abri.
“There are no advertising leaflets,” Edith explained in L’Abri, “and this book is the first to be written about the work.” The Schaeffers’ mindset is decisive here. They weren’t focused on trying to build a powerbase, create a constituency, lead a huge organization, rehabilitate a reputation, craft an image, recover past glory, carefully manufacture celebrity, or impose a legacy. Rather, they simply made themselves available to God to be helpful to people and decided to let the results take care of themselves. Edith’s book describes some of the unusual ways in which people heard about the Schaeffers, or just happened upon a chalet door at L’Abri to find a new world of concern for truth and for the individual.
A personal story may help illustrate this. To build on what I said earlier, in the summer of 1971, I was a college student living with a group of people in Atlanta in a fraternity house on the campus of Georgia Tech. We were participating in a discipleship program with a Christian organization called the Navigators. During one weekend, I was sitting with others in the large living room of the house, where we had gathered to hear a talk about a person I’d never heard of. If you met this person on the street, said the speaker, and you asked him, “How are you doing?,” he might well reply, “What do you mean?” Members of the audience chuckled, and I remember thinking that such an unexpected reply could be the start of an intriguing interchange. Little else about the talk stands out in my mind.
Except this. About halfway through, the back of my neck began to tighten up, a kind of pinching sensation. It felt like one of those occasions when your grandmother grabs you with her thumb and index finger and pinches the back of your arm while you’re doing something you ought not be doing. Except that in this case there was no pain in the “pinch” I felt in the back of my neck. The sensation wasn’t unpleasant in any way. But it did get my attention. “Strange,” I thought. In fact, I’d never felt anything quite like it before — or since. The sensation stayed with me, so much so that I decided to take note of the surroundings, in case there was something else happening that perhaps I needed to be aware of. I looked around the room and considered the setting, the speaker, the other people sitting in chairs.
Nothing stood out. Then it occurred to me. There was something new — the unusual individual the speaker was talking about. I made a mental note to keep in mind the unfamiliar name of a person about whom I knew next to nothing: Francis Schaeffer.
At the time, I had no idea that I might be on the receiving end of the Schaeffers’ prayer that God would bring the people of His choice to L’Abri. By August the next year, I was hitchhiking through Luxembourg and Germany on my way to Switzerland. There are many such stories that could be recounted, each with its own peculiarities, which help demonstrate to many searching people that God exists and acts into history today.
Your Planning Is Too Small
A third principle that helped set Schaeffer apart from his contemporaries, whether Christian or otherwise, was his attitude toward planning. Schaeffer did not reject planning per se, but he did specifically reject the practice of allowing human planning to replace the possibility of moment-by-moment leadership from the Lord. For this reason, the third founding principle of L’Abri was that “we pray that God will plan the work, and unfold His plan to us (guide us, lead us) day by day, rather than planning the future in some clever or efficient way in committee meetings.”
Schaeffer reasoned that the Infinite-Personal God could be far more effective than any human committee or charismatic leader with a plan, even if such leadership has vast financial resources, or other avenues of power, at its disposal. The history of L’Abri appears to bear this out, as the Schaeffers worked in principled obscurity with individuals one by one in simply trying to address the questions and personal concerns of those who crossed their doorstep.
L’Abri Fellowship had no master plan, a shoestring budget, and no formula for becoming a ministry of international reach and reputation. If the Lord so led, Schaeffer was quite content to work hidden away in relative obscurity on the side of a mountain. There was no plan to write books, build a chapel, create a study center, begin a cassette program, film documentaries, hold conferences, or expand into other countries-all of which eventually happened. In fact, from the point of view of secularized marketing or some “steamroller” Christian organizations (as Schaeffer calls them in his letters), Schaeffer did it all wrong. But his own life struggles had brought him to a place of understanding that the practice of being alive to God moment by moment is far more crucial to authentic living as a person, to genuine success in ministry, to real victory in the seen and unseen world, than any plan or program devised by the well-heeled, the well-known, and powerful ever could be. The thousands of diverse individuals, believer and unbeliever alike, who found their way to L’Abri and a more humane Christianity would likely agree.
No Little Workers
I recall that Schaeffer expressed during the ’70s his gratitude that, of all the people who had come to work on staff at L’Abri, not one had left Huemoz on bad terms. This is an enviable statement, even if one would not want to deny that there might be legitimate instances of concern in the later history of the work, which would hardly be a surprise, given that human beings are imperfect creatures.
The record of Christian organizations in regard to how regular people are treated, or people lower on the perceived totem pole of power are treated, could be better. This is well-known by people who have worked with religious organizations and celebrities, and it is evident from books and magazine articles on the topic of spiritual abuse. Schaeffer was concerned about the trail of damaged people left in the wake of some apparently fine people of sterling public repute whose stated aim was to win the world for Christ but whose methods of ministry stand in sharp contrast to the spirit of Christ. It was not at all uncommon to hear a struggling Christian say that he had come to L’Abri as his “last hope,” having been spiritually flattened by some variant of a steamroller “hard-charging,” popular and esteemed Christian leader or group or icon on a mission from God and don’t you dare get in the way.
Schaeffer’s demonstration of substantial healing (not perfection) in the area of helping hurting people may have something to do with L’Abri’s fourth founding principle-namely, that “we pray that God will send the workers of His choice to us, rather than pleading for workers in the usual channels.” Again, the point is not that the Schaeffers rejected normal employment practices per se, but rather that they felt led to rely on prayer in this area, at their moment of history, so that the existence of God could be demonstrated to Christian and non-Christian alike in a very practical and observable way. And, naturally, if Schaeffer understood that L’Abri workers were sent by the Lord, it followed that they had to be respected for who they are in their own right, and not be used up as fodder for a leader’s ego or an organization’s expansion.
Schaeffer aimed to be faithful to God and simply did not concern himself with creating a huge organization to be the “definitive voice” on Christian worldview, for example, or with striving for greater influence, in the greater service of the Lord (which Schaeffer saw as a pernicious temptation and rationalization for sin). Again, quite practically, and refreshingly, if God didn’t send the workers, well, then L’Abri would just have to be smaller — which is not quite the crisis it could be for someone whose ego feeds on growing numbers and increasing influence. Schaeffer wasn’t out to be “the best” at anything, or “branded” as anything, but just to be the best he could be. This meant he could afford to respect people, including fellow L’Abri workers, and refuse to debase seekers by reducing them to potential donors, or by reducing their struggles to anecdotal highlights for fundraising letters, or by humbly claiming some of them — especially celebrity converts — as scalps for his ministry, thereby using their celebrity to indirectly bring glory (and money) to his work.
This authenticity regarding people really set Schaeffer apart. Again, not as a perfect person by any means, but as real. And in contrast to some in leadership inside and outside the church and evangelicalism, he was a giver and not a taker. He was not looking for “alter egos” or for people whose energy and talents he could sap and then claim their work as his, whether “for the ministry” or “because the message will reach more people,” or for some other unfortunate instance in which the end justifies the means. For Schaeffer, there were “no little people,” a phrase taken from the title of one of his most important sermons and books. And I would suggest that that’s one of the reasons so many different kinds of people from around the world, after spending some time at L’Abri, where they could observe Schaeffer’s thinking and living in action, found his distinctive approach such a life-affirming alternative to much of the status quo.
Francis Schaeffer was different. But, as he himself no doubt understood, we don’t need more cookie-cutter Francis Schaeffers. Some may covet the mantle of Francis Schaeffer, but the secret is: There isn’t any such mantle. Rather, we need more individuals willing to embrace truth and then flesh out that truth with a measure of consistency across the whole of their lives, including the nuts and bolts of our methods of ministry. When a person has said yes to demonstrating the existence of God in one’s life and work, then what happens on the side of a Swiss mountain, or in a fraternity house on a college campus, though largely unnoticed, may change everything.
© J. Richard Pearcey.