Francis Schaeffer Changed the Landscape

Gordon Govier
March 9, 2005

Francis Schaeffer may have done more to shape the culture of American evangelicals at the end of the 20th century than any one person outside of C.S. Lewis or Billy Graham. A 1997 article in Christianity Today referred to Schaeffer as “evangelicalism’s most important public intellectual” who “prodded evangelicals out of their cultural ghetto.”

He had a tremendous impact on InterVarsity’s campus ministry. And InterVarsity Press played a major role in disseminating his teaching to the American public.

The legacy of Francis and Edith Schaeffer was celebrated this month in St. Louis with a gala event that marked the 50th anniversary of L’Abri Fellowship, their ministry to young intellectuals that started in the Swiss mountain village of Huemoz and spawned other centers in England, Sweden, Korea, Holland and the U.S.

Many of InterVarsity’s most experienced senior leaders have pleasant memories of invigorating student discussions sparked by Schaeffer’s tapes or campus visits. His ministry created a new paradigm for how Christians could engage the culture and challenged some stereotypes of Christian ministry.

Bill McConnell, InterVarsity’s Associate Director of Advancement, met Schaeffer in St. Louis in the late sixties. Schaeffer taught an apologetics class at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis every other year. He also addressed InterVarsity students and, on occasion, local pastors.

“I recall Francis dressed in knickers, hiking boots, a turtleneck sweater and a Swiss jacket meeting with a group of pastors all in white shirts and ties,” he said. “He talked about the theological meanings and social significance of movies, most of which none of the pastors had seen.”

InterVarsity Press Executive Director Bob Fryling met Francis Schaeffer as an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan. “It was strange and a surprise to hear a man with a raspy voice, dressed in knickers talk about profound philosophical and spiritual realities that connected with me in a meaningful way.”

Many people first met Francis Schaeffer through an InterVarsity Press book, such as Escape From Reason, The God Who Is There, or Death in the City. Each of these books came out of Schaeffer’s taped lectures and required heavy editing, recalls retired InterVarsity Press Editor Jim Sire.

“His books came at a very propitious time for us,” said Sire. There was a great expansion of Christian bookstores at that time and InterVarsity grew right along with them, providing best sellers by Schaeffer, Paul Little and John Stott. InterVarsity Press books were no longer mostly sold at book tables following chapter meetings. Sire likens Schaeffer to a 20th century Jeremiah, a weeping prophet whose message was that Christians need to be more involved in the public sphere.

It was that recognition that God was at work in the broader culture that attracted many Christians to Schaeffer’s philosophy. To Matthew Philip, InterVarsity’s Urbana Operations Director, Schaeffer offered a more wholistic Christian worldview that transcended the old debate of evangelism versus the social gospel. “Now I’m more comfortable being called to be a change agent; being salt and light and in relationship with non-Christians,” he said.

Matthew Philip attended the L’Abri anniversary celebration, along with several of his InterVarsity colleagues.

InterVarsity Press ended up publishing 14 of Francis Schaeffer’s books, selling more than 2 million copies. Many of Schaeffer’s books are still in print, including five by IVP: Art and the Bible, Escape from Reason, Genesis in Space in Time, The God Who is There and The Mark of a Christian. “Together they are selling about 10,000 copies a year,” said Bob Fryling, “which is quite remarkable for books that have been in print for so long.”

“His apologetic was not always warmly received,” recalls Bill McConnell. “But what he did do well was run a string through the disparate disciplines that were so isolated in university curricula, giving students a way to integrate life and connect their studies and their Christian understanding of the world.”

Ned Hale, a veteran of InterVarsity’s International Student Ministry, first met Francis and Edith Schaeffer when they lectured on art and culture at Wheaton College in the mid-sixties. He visited them at L’Abri in 1969 while passing through Europe.

“I read most of his books and found him very helpful, answering some questions that I had on early Genesis biblical studies, the development of early Hinduism, ecological concerns, and general apologetics,” Hale said. “Schaeffer did a lot to clarify issues for the evangelical community, as well as reach out to that generation of disillusioned young thinkers.”

TIME magazine referred to Schaeffer as an “apostle to the intellectuals.” Despite his death from cancer in 1984, his teaching lives on through his books and tapes and his influence endures in changed lives that are today influencing others.