TELL us about Francis, who was he?
He was an American pastor, who was sent by his Presbyterian church to Switzerland to work with young people. When his own daughters went to university, they brought people back for the weekend. Schaeffer was always generous at the table and naturally, people asked if they could stay for a week, two weeks or three weeks. Then they decided to transform their home into an open house. Their purpose was to, in their community, demonstrate the existence of God and always to give honest answers to people’s questions. And so it grew. That was in 1955, when they started.
I went with one of my friends who had gone there for one week around Christmas and managed to get engaged with an American girl in one week. He said “You’ve gotta go there!”
I owe everything to Schaeffer in terms of vision and passion, I often say “If you want to take the secret behind L’abri it’s this: he took God seriously”. Every time he held a sermon, almost always there came a point when his voice would break. He was overcome with awe, from what he was saying about the Lord. He also took people seriously, you’d watch him one to one and saw – he wasn’t conscious of it – his eyes would well with tears after just five minutes into talking to people. He was incredibly compassionate. He took truth seriously.
And L’Abri was the name given to that community?
Yes, it’s the French word for shelter. But you don’t understand L’Abri unless you can visualise the scene. People were hitchhiking, travelling, going to Ashrams. You know, L’Abri happened to be a few miles from a major crossroads and you could almost always see hitchhikers, backpackers… one was reading a Hindu author, one was reading a Greek mythologist, this was the scene.
And why was that?
The 60s was the most revolutionary decade in the 20th century. Now, I think the reason was that the West had survived World War Two almost with the pretence that everything was the same as before, but it wasn’t. Churches’ respectability was hollow, and so you had this volcanic explosion, particularly among young people, challenging everything. So it was a genuine counter-culture.
Billy Graham had family two miles from where we were, I remember his coming in 1968. He was a friend of Richard Nixon. He told us that Nixon had told him – this is 1968, it sounds odd now – he feared he might be the last elected American President. By then you had seen two assassinations of Kennedy and Martin Luther King, you had seen burnings all over America. It’s impossible for those who haven’t experienced it to understand what it was like.
Well, that brought a passion to L’Abri. So when I was there, there were twelve houses, each with families. I was single and lived with the Schaeffers. And Schaeffer always had queries for meals. You’d had soup and then he would say: “I have a question” and then you had a discussion for two or three hours. You know, “Why is there something instead of nothing?” and we’d be plunged into heavy stuff from Leibniz. “Vietnam’s evil”, and we’d be plunged into the injustice of the Vietnam war.
You know, we used to go out to cafés in Switzerland over lunch, and say “Anybody got a question?” and eventually you had 50 or 60 people involved in a fascinating discussion, and so on. We had thousands of people came to Christ at L’Abri.
Schaeffer had a lovely custom: he had a very ancient music system, and he would open his shallow windows and put up speakers in the window and play the hallelujah chorus. You can imagine around the valley and across the mountain peaks, all around you could hear this. All over the village was the hallelujah chorus, and you knew that – it was a wonderful life – when the doorbell was ringing, another person would come to Christ. People did think so passionately and if you could convince them with ideas for a week, two weeks, three months, they came to faith.
I’m not glorifying the 60s, in many ways we can blame it. It’s a very mixed story. Anyone who came to faith in the 60s, you had to think back to square one. You could not just believe because your parents or whatever believed. You had to think it through yourself, know what you believe, who you believed, why you believed it, etc. It was tough. I thank the Lord for that, it got me thinking.
And if you could say one thing to young Christians to encourage them, what would it be?
You know, anyone who knows the Lord and knows how God has called them and is riveted to that calling, they’ll know who to trust. But I could say many other things. The Biblical and Jewish sense of holiness, hosting the absolute presence of God, we need that. Most of the rest of the church is so secular. We’re a long way from the Scriptures, a long way from our forbearers of the faith. And we’re impoverished because of it. You know the old puritan prayer: the Lord has many more things to break out of his word. We need that.