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L’Abri, Europe and Christian Hope

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OK, perhaps we should now consider this to be an irregular series, with a title needed something like: “Bill’s European Travelogue and Worldview School”. It is hard not to write such articles when in Europe. And being in the Swiss Alps at the moment makes it very hard not to discuss God and the created order.

Walking in the hills outside of Burtigny where we are staying (near the northwest end of Lake Geneva — between Lausanne and Geneva) reminded me of the ministry of Francis Schaeffer, L’Abri (French for the shelter) based near the south east end of Lake Geneva.

In 2015 the 60th anniversary of L’Abri will be marked. Francis and Edith Schaeffer founded it long ago now to reach out to Europeans with the gospel. He was a Presbyterian minister from Pennsylvania, and he married Edith in 1935. They moved to Switzerland in 1948 working for the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, and set up L’Abri in 1955.

The chalets in the Swiss Alps were a great location for the Schaeffers to minister to Westerners. Many for example were heading along the “hippy trail” to find spiritual enlightenment in the East. L’Abri was a nice stopping off point where the Western seekers could spend some time.

They could do some work in a small Christian community, have fellowship over meals, and listen to lectures by Schaeffer and others about a whole range of topics: religion, philosophy, music, the arts and culture being just some. It was of course a vital apologetics ministry which reached so many people.

At the heart of it was an evangelistic ministry, designed not just to answer questions and to reach searching minds, but to change hearts as well. And countless minds and hearts were radically and forever changed. To give an indication of how highly I value the work of the Schaeffers and L’Abri, I actually went there with my wife as part of our honeymoon back in 1982!

It is still going strong today. Here is how they describe their ongoing work today:

Over the years the core purpose of L’Abri has remained the same, though if you have visited in the past or are familiar with the L’Abri story, it may be different now from what you have read or heard. It is still possible, however, to share in the life of an “extended family” as was the case when L’Abri first began.

You will find something different at each branch of L’Abri. This is influenced by the location, culture, individual workers, worker’s families and the unique combination of personalities that make each branch what it is. Individual students also add to the variable dynamic of experiencing L’Abri.

Each branch is staffed by one or more L’Abri families and single people, called “workers”, who look after those who come and stay — “students”. In addition to the residential work, L’Abri workers are involved in conferences, public speaking and some are committed to book writing projects. Students may be living in the houses of the workers and/or having many of their meals with them. Although each branch is essentially a study centre, life is informal and personal. A typical day is divided into half a day of study and half a day of helping with practical work — cooking, cleaning, gardening etc. Meal times often involve lengthy discussion centered on a topic of concern to a particular student or worker. Some evenings are given over to lectures, films and bible studies.

Those who come and stay may do so for a few days or a whole term. Terms typically last two or three months. Under the guidance of one of the workers students are guided through study material most helpful to their situation. There are no set courses of study. Most branches have a book and extensive tape library.

There are no prerequisites for attending L’Abri. Many students are Christians and some are not. While those who come are most commonly single people there are some accommodations for couples and at some branches room for families. Each branch has its own term dates, daily rate and other booking details. It is essential to contact each branch individually as we do not have a central reservation system.

I have met a number of people over the years who were saved at L’Abri or at least greatly impacted by it. A friend of mine when I was at Trinity College in the mid-70s was one example. He was saved while at L’Abri.

He would often tell us the story of when he was seeking, and just grasping the gospel message, and then working it through his life: he would be walking through the beautiful countryside there, and Schaeffer would walk by and say “Courage Chris, courage!”

I was reminded of that again this afternoon as I strolled the countryside here in Burtigny. I shared this story with my walking companions, and now I share it with you. Oh, and by the way, this young seeker and former college friend is now a professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. He may remember me, and some of us Trinity students may remember him: Chris Vlachos, Ph.D.

He is just one person who was forever touched by the amazing ministry of the Schaeffers in that small village in Switzerland. Only in the next life will we truly know how many hundreds of thousands — or millions — of others have been influenced by this powerful work of God.

All because two humble Pennsylvanian Christians felt the call to minister in the European continent, and to take seriously the deep intellectual, philosophical and cultural questions of the day. Along with C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer was undoubtedly the most influential Christian apologist of last century.

Francis died in 1984, and Edith passed away last year. But their ministry and their influence lives on. Thank God for the Schaeffers and for L’Abri.

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